To paraphrase Dubya: Mission accomplished. For the sixth time in three years, I've walked away from Baghdad in one piece.
The first thing I did when I got to Amman was take a long hot shower and long nap on a real bed in a real hotel, then went swimming in a real pool and laid out on a real balcony overlooking a real city booming with construction and tourists. Hard to believe there's a war going on just 90 minutes flight away from here.
My habibi (Arabic for "my love") is joining me in Amman tomorrow and we're going to take a few days of R&R, exploring two of Jordan's main tourist attractions: The Dead Sea and Petra. This will be Mrs. Crab's first trip to the Middle East. Woo hoo!
To paraphrase Dubya: Mission accomplished. For the sixth time in three years, I've walked away from Baghdad in one piece.
We can now rest better knowing that we no longer live in the world's most expensive city. London has fallen to No. 5, surpassed by...MOSCOW?!?! Go figure. Here's the top to world's most expensive cities, according to the annual Mercer Human Resource Consulting poll:
4. Hong Kong
11. New York City
12. St. Petersburg
15. Paris (tie)
What things cost: A cup of coffee plus service costs the equivalent of $3.07 in Moscow and $2.94 in Seoul, compared with $2.26 in New York and $1.90 in London, the survey showed. A music CD costs an average $13.29 in Moscow, while in New York it costs $10.77.
LEFT: In the poorhouse at No. 5 most expensive city, British babe Queen Elizabeth II
Incidentally, the cheapest place in the world to live is the Paraguay capital of Asuncion. No word on where Baghdad fell on the list, but it ain't cheap. I pay $2,700 a month rent for our dump of an apartment in Baghdad, which is about $700 more than we pay in LONDON and without the fear of getting my head chopped off anytime I leave the house. Go figure.
In observance of the 12th annual National HIV/AIDS Testing Day on Tuesday, I thought I'd share an unusual story regarding AIDS in Iraq.
A few weeks after I arrived in Baghdad, I was having dinner with some media colleagues when the conversation turned to complaining about the endless and growing amount of Iraqi government red tape. "Yeah, like needing an AIDS test to leave the country," one woman piped up. HUH? WUZZAT? Yo backup there hon... I need a WHAT?
I thought it might be a mistake. There was some discrepency among reporters about whether everyone needed an HIV test, or whether it only pertained to Westerners staying in Iraq longer than a month or more. This was all news to me and no mention of needles, blood or AIDS has ever come up in my past six visits to Iraq since 2003. But I didn't want to find out at the last second and get stranded at Baghdad Airport for not having the proper paperwork. So on Thursday, I packed up my team and headed across town to find out the scoop. Low and behold, it was true.
All Western visitors to Iraq now require an HIV/AIDS test.
The testing center was actually a women's health clinic in central Baghdad. It was a strange place, and not just because there were armed guards holding AK-47s outside. The clinic was a plain white cement block building encircling a courtyard, where children were doing laundry in buckets filled with muddy water and a man, maybe their father, was repairing a car. We climbed up three flights of stairs to a dark hallway, where three women were sitting together chatting. An Iraqi man in the corner had his sleeve rolled up on his right arm, holding gauze where he had just been pricked.
The lady at the head desk introduced herself in English as the head doctor. We'll call her Dr. HIV. Yes, she says, HIV tests are now required for everyone, Iraqis and Westerners. And your passport will be stamped here as proof that you had the blood test. And if you don't get a blood test, you can't get an exit visa. And if you can't get an exit visa, you CAN'T LEAVE IRAQ!
Not only that, she says, but you must have a test within 10 days of arriving in Baghdad. And if you are late, you will be fined $430.
Uh oh. It had been nearly three weeks since my arrival. But she said not to worry; because it was a new procedure and I didn't know any better, and because nobody in the government or airport had bothered to advertise this new procedure, I would only be fined $17. But because HIV has a 90 day incubation period, she says, all visitors to Iraq must have an HIV test every three months. If you are HIV positive, you'll be thrown out of the country.
Now I'm getting worried. Several years ago, I had a false -- FALSE-- positive test after donating blood with the American Red Cross. That test was completely wrong and subsequent tests have all been negative. It turns out that false tests are actually quite common. This is because initial HIV tests run on blood samples are basic preliminary tests. If somebody turns up positive, the blood is rechecked three more times using more sophisticated tests. All three subsequent tests turned up negative. But that did not stop the Red Cross from banning me FOR LIFE from ever donating blood again. Bastards.
Anyway, back to Baghdad. Somehow I seriously doubt this little shabby clinic had the tools to run sophisticated tests should the results come out positive. I didn't want to explain this experience with the doctor so I just kept my mouth shut and rolled up my sleeve after she assured me the needles were all clean and new.
Another girl walked in and put a tourniquet around my bicep and quickly found the usual vein that flobatamists love. "You have good veins," she said in English as she ripped open a package containing one new sterilized needle. "Geez, thanks," I thought but just smiled and nodded. She wiped some alcohol on my arm, found the vein, drew a half-vial of blood and gave me a cotton ball to hold on the wound. In the meantime, Dr. HIV scribbles out some information on a white card and then stamps my passport with the Health Ministry's blood-red stamp. How appropriate.
We were in and out of the office within 15 minutes. I did not, however, receive my results. It takes 10 days for the test to be completed. At which time I'll be long gone from Iraq anyway! See, it doesnt matter if you are positive or negative, because all you need is the passport stamp that proves you had the test! So even if you're positive, you're in the clear as long as you leave the country before the results come back. Does that make any sense at all?!?
Later, I inquired around as to why Iraq has instituted these new AIDS procedures. Apparently it was standard practice under Saddam Hussein's regime, and it still is practiced by many countries around the world especially in the Middle East. Under Saddam, Iraqis rarely traveled outside the country due to UN-imposed sanctions and low wages so the country remained fairly isolated and hence a low exposure to HIV/AIDS. According to the CIA World Factbook, there are less than 500 cases of HIV in Iraq, a country with a population of 26 million. The tests were halted after Saddam ended up in his spider hole.
But post-war Iraq has brought (besides IEDs) a lot of money into the country and created a whole Middle Class that now enjoys freedom like international travel. And like Western travelers, Iraqis are now going abroad, screwing around, and bringing back all sorts of germs, viruses and cooties including HIV.
But Iraqis do not need to be tested for HIV every three months. We do. The tests are much more strict for Westerners, who are seen as "loose" and permiscious.
You would think that the new Iraqi government would have bigger things to be worrying about right now like, say, trying to end the fucking insurgency, Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence and corruption. Or trying to build up the Iraqi police and Army and encourage everyone to put down their arms. After all, the sooner the country stabilizes ITSELF, the sooner that infidel US and foreign troops can go home.
Nope, sorry. We're too busy running HIV/AIDS tests on foreigners. Oh and by the way, if you are HIV-positive, stay the fuck out of Iraq.
Welcome to Baghdad.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing Saddam Hussein up close and personal. I didn't get to snog him or anything like that, but I was about 6 inches away from him at one point -- albeit separated by a glass wall.
It was covering the prosecution closing arguments. Saddam is accused of ordering the arrest, torture and killings of 148 Shiite Muslims in June 1982 in the town of Dujail. The prosecution says it was a revenge attack after somebody took a pot-shot at his limo. The lead prosecution attorney recommended that Saddam should HANG for his role in this "crime against humanity."
When Saddam heard that, he grinned and said sarcastically, "Well done!"
Saddam was wearing a black suit, crisp white shirt and perfectly polished black shoes. He obviously has a lot of time on his hand. Unless some poor E1 soldier got stuck polishing Saddam's shoes.
Anyway, getting to the trial was no easy task. For OPSEC (Operational Security) reasons, I cannot divulge where the courthouse was located, or the security measures involved. But let's just say it's probably easier getting into the White House than getting into Saddam's trial.
Sad news of the day: the two missing U.S. soldiers were found dead today. It was a tragic ending to a massive search operation that involved more than 8,000 US and Iraqi soldiers. One soldier was even killed and a dozen others were injured during the mission to find the guys. I can't say I blame them. "No one gets left behind" is a well-known military motto. God bless their souls.
World Cup game of the day: England has not beat Sweden in 34 years. And for a while, it looked like they were finally going to break the curse...until the last 5 minutes when Sweden scored a goal to tie. At least it was a tie and not a loss.
My Iraqi translator and I were text messaging each other throughout the game. He's a Liverpool fan; his wife is a Manchester United fan. Must make for interesting dinner conversation but they are both supporting England in the World Cup. Yes it's true: I've become quite the football/soccer fan lately. Can't wait to be back home in London for the finals...assuming England is still in the game!
Against the odds, Team USA tied the Italian powerhouse in tonight's World Cup match. Italy had been overwhelmingly favored to win by something like 3-0. I watched the game in the hotel lobby with a British chap from BBC and a few Iraqis who were rooting for Italy (boo!).
But one thing that hasn't changed is Baghdad. You can always bet on bombs. Seven car bombs went off within 5 hours today. And we just barely missed one. I was with my team going to a travel agent so I could buy an airline ticket to get the hell out of dodge. Within a few minutes of leaving our compound, a car bomb exploded near the Baghdad National Theater. We were a good mile away when it went off but that caused chaos in the streets. Within minutes, the Iraqi police and Army had closed down all the roads and caused a bottleneck of traffic. We couldn't go forward or backward. And sitting still makes you a, well, sitting duck.
Finally my drivers found some side roads and down we flew, making so many turns that I thought we were going in circles. I have a mediocre sense of direction as it is so now I was totally lost until I saw some familiar sights. Two hours of traffic nightmares behind us, we gave up and went "home" to our fort.
Finished two stories today. And a job application. More details TK.
"What's the World Cup??" -- Fifty-something American tourist on the Picadilly line, to his daughter, an American living and studying in London.
It's been a hectic couple of days in Iraq recently, but all for the good. Since I've arrived, a number of major events have broken in the past six days including the assination of #1 terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, President Bush's surprise visit to Baghdad today and the launch of a major operation tomorrow that will put Baghdad under martial law to tackle the insurgency. I work best under stress so I've actually been having a ball, despite a lack of sleep.
Somebody was asking me what the hell we do for fun in Baghdad since most of the time, we're locked down on our compounds. First, let me dispel a major myth: with the exception of a handful of embedded media, there are no journalists living in the so-called "Green Zone". I don't want to give too many details here for fear that Mr. Zarqawi's buddies might be reading this, but let's just say that we all live in the community, in highly-secure compounds located in the "Red Zone."
That means we don't have the amenities that soldiers and workers enjoy in the Green Zone like movie theaters, gyms, game rooms and Burger Kings (yes, they have a BK in Baghdad). So for the most part, our entertainment is each other.
Every night after deadline, most of the reporters in my compound hang out together for dinner and drinks around the pool or at somebody's room. One particular media organization has THE party house in Baghdad. If MTV were ever to film "The Real World: Baghdad," it would be set in this particular house. Gawd I wish I was staying there!
Instead, I'm all by my lonesome in a big hotel suite, overlooking the city, wondering what story will break tomorrow.
So much for the theory that terrorism would diminish after the termination of al-Zarqawi. I was sitting in my room watching England spank Paraguay when a massive explosion rocked the city. The windows in my room shook, so I was surprised to see the explosion was actually quite far from where I'm safely sitting. Must have been one hell of a bomb. Details to follow.
But watching the games in Iraq is not so simple. The TV in my hotel room is on satellite and has more than 300 channels, NOT ONE that is carrying the games. So an Iraqi pal jerry-rigged a rabbit ear antenna to my TV to receive the games over air.
The games are not "officially" carried by Iraqi networks. That hasn't stopped the networks from carrying pirate feeds from Dubai or Europe. One Iraqi channel shows the game with arabic commentary. Another network is carrying an English feed, but they have muted the sound, so all you get is the video!
Meanwhile on US bases in Iraq, some soccer fans serving in Iraq are really ticked off because the game is not being shown on American Forces Network (AFN), better known by its old name, Armed Forces Network. A handful of troops have written nasty letters in military publications berating AFN for its decision.
Incidentally, I'm rooting for three countries. In order of fanness: Team USA (capital Claudio Reyna, left), England and Mexico. Ole ole ole!
So as the whole world knows by now, No. 1 terrorist suspect Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was found and killed in an airstrike Wednesday night. Here's how we, the media, found out.
At about 10am I received a call from a military public affairs officer, saying there was going to be a major announcement by the Prime Minister and we needed to be at the Baghdad Convention Center by 10:30am. Well, that was impossible for me because it takes about an hour for me to get there on a good day because of the horrendous Baghdad traffic. So I politely declined. Besides, we had all been expecting an announcement, which we all had assumed was the news of the new appointments for the posts of IRaqi Defense Minister, Interior Minister and Domestic Security (Iraqi equivelent of Homeland Defense).
Fast forward an hour and suddenly I start hearing "chatter". There's a rumor that al-Zarqawi has been found. by about 11:15am, the TV networks had confirmed the news that Zarqawi was dead. From then, it was a nonstop work day. And believe you me, it's not easy when the entire media universe is chasing the same story! Wrote 3 pieces, went to bed finally at 3am. Today is Friday, the Muslim day of prayer and no work day. Slept until 10:30. Woo hoo.
Today, the military ordered a curfew and halt to all road traffic in Baghdad to prevent any retaliatory attacks by Zarqawi's band of crazies. You should have seen the city. Normally Baghdad is a bustling chaotic smog-filled scene of humanity. Cars, busses, mopeds, donkey carts, pedestrians. Today, Baghdad was a ghost town. The only sounds were Army Black Hawk helicopters and the calls to prayer by imams at mosques around the city. But the curfew worked. Not a single car bomb today.
Tomorrow, back to work.