Miss Baghdad

Greetings from Baghdad. Sorry for the lack of posts. I have been SWAMPED with work, which is actually a good thing because it makes the time go faster.  I've been suffering from a bad case of writer's block, and cabin fever.

It's no picnic working in Iraq these days. You can't walk outside your base. You can't walk down the street to grab lunch or an ice cream. You can't drive around town without an armed escort. My entire world in Baghdad is a 50x50 square meter, heavily-fortified compound. Except for the occasional day trips to the Green Zone for press briefings,  I spend most days cooped up a three-room apartment, with just CNN and my iPod to keep me company. 

The good news is I'm a short-timer. For OPSEC (operational security) reasons, I can't divulge the exact date of departure. But I will soon be flying back to the land of the big PX.

In the meantime, check out the latest Baghdad photos on Flickr. This spectacular photo of a Black Hawk helicopter passing by a golden setting sun was shot from my apartment balcony.  It reminds me of the poster for "Miss Saigon." It was shot with a Canon 30D digital camera with 300mm lens and a bit of post-processing for color correction.  Just wish I had snapped it about a half-second earlier, and used a tripod!

Here's one more parting shotImg_5946 :

WHAT Green Zone?!?!??

Greenzone In recent years, bashing the media has become something of a competitive sport. Journalists now rank somewhere between used car salesman and trial lawyers on the scale of loathed professions. But these days there is one particular kind of journalist that is so despised, so vilified, that it has practically destroyed a once heroic and glorified career: the war correspondent.

By war correspondents, I mean a generic term to describe any reporter working in conflict zones, but particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. In some circles -- notably conservative bloggers and commentators -- war correspondents are seen as the root of all evils. From terrorism to death of U.S. soldiers, the media coverage of war zones is somehow directly tied to America's problems.  Just take a look at this T-shirt being sold by a conservative company called RangerUp.com.

Conservative bloggers and milblogs (military bloggers) love nothing more than spreading media-bashing rumors, innuendo and flat-out lies, referring to the media as "MSM", a abbreviation for "mainstream media, but used in a derogatory manner.  I'm all for freedom of speech, but some of it is downright crap.

And nothing pisses me off more than the urban legend that all journalists in Iraq are hiding in the Green Zone.  (The Green Zone refers to the 4-square-mile, heavily-fortified compound that is home to about 5,000 American soldiers, diplomats and civilian contractors. The Red Zone refers to any place outside the Green Zone: in other words, all of Iraq.)  If you read some of these blogs, you'd think all war correspondents were sitting at the Green Zone cafe, sipping their lattes and writing our copy off CNN and wire reports.

Nyp Let me make this clear once and for all:  WE DO NOT LIVE IN THE GREEN ZONE!  Let me repeat that, WE DO NOT LIVE IN THE FRACKING GREEN ZONE!!   With the exception of TWO news agencies who shall remain anonymous, all foreign correspondents in Iraq  live, work, eat and breathe in the so-called RED ZONE.   

Yes, we live in a secure compound, but it's patrolled by Iraqi security guards. We do NOT have U.S. soldiers, tanks, Bradleys or Apache helicopters protecting us.  Neither does any other media organization.  And we do not sit here by the swimming pool drinking beer all day as conservative bloggers believe. YES, WE LEAVE OUR HOTEL ROOM!  Yes, we go in the street and talk to regular Iraqis and, when we're allowed, US troops.  Which is more than you can say about most U.S. soldiers and U.S. Embassy employees, the majority who will never see the outside of their compound and see the REAL Iraq.

Conservative bloggers say war correspondents are a buzz kill, that we are only covering "bad news" and ignoring the good news. They say we are the ones leading Iraq down another Vietnam, another war we "lost" supposedly because of the media coverage of that conflict.   And if things don't turn around, blogger say, the media will be responsible for the los of the Iraq war.  WAKE UP, PEOPLE! Iraq is a mess. I've done my fair share of feel good stories. But there are so many stories you can cover on new school openings, water treatment plant projects and "Hurray, Iraqis have cell phones and Playstations now!"

EVERY Iraqi I have spoken to say they would give up their cell phone, Internet and American electronics today if it would mean they could walk down the street without fear of being blown to bits.  Most Iraqis are so frightened that they hide in their homes day and night.  It's no surprise that Kofi Annan said last week that the average Iraqi had a better life under Saddam Hussein. Yes, Iraq was a dictatorship with a regime that silenced and killed critics. But the average Iraqi was not personally affected by Saddam policy. Sure they were poor, sure they had no free speech, sure they would have rather lived in the United States. But for cripes sake, THEY WERE ALIVE! They didn't have to worry about being kidnapped, tortured and killed just because of their religious sect.

This is the true Iraq. The Iraq that conservative bloggers are trying to sweep under the rug. The true Iraq that war correspondents are merely documenting to the public.  We journalists did not create the security situation in Iraq. We journalists are not stating pro or con agendas. We're just reporting what we're witnessing. With our own eyes. In the Red Zone. In the real Iraq.

Sleepful in Baghdad

Last night, I slept for 10 straight hours. It was first time I had slept more than 6 hours in at least two weeks. And did I mention I'm in Baghdad?  After living in London -- with police sirens, buses and screaming drunks passing by our windows at all hours of the time -- sleeping in Baghdad is a piece of cake. Especially now that the government has imposed an emergency, indefinite curfew for all vehicles and pedestrians in Baghdad and closed all airports to commercial flights. The reason: a massive attack yesterday that killed more than 150 civilians.  Just another day in Baghdad. Absolutely nothing has changed. It's no better, no worse.  The only difference is all the landscaping. Yes, that's right. Landscaping. The road in front of my hotel has been decorated with beautiful flowers, trees, Iraqi flags, and the roundabout nearby has a new park with a lovely fountain and dozens of new benches -- a park with no visitors because people are too scared to venture out. Check out this parody from today's issue of "Onion.com":

CNN Renews This Week At War For Next Eight Seasons

ATLANTA—CNN officials announced that they will be carrying the popular news show This Week At War through the 2014 season. "We're confident that we'll have at least eight full seasons worth of material for this property," said CNN President Jonathan Klein during the dedication of the new 11-story TWAW news headquarters in Kuwait City. "And believe me, we're going to be going in some surprising new directions. A premise like this can go on for a generation." In addition to TWAW's extended renewal, CNN is retooling existing news shows to give them a more martial focus, most notably The Situation And War Room, and Lou Dobbs Tonight In The Middle Of A Pitched Street Battle Between Sunni And Shiite Extremists.

World cup fever...in Baghdad

Claudioreyna Like everywhere else in the world -- with the exception of the United States, where most people still consider soccer to be a girls game -- World Cup fever has hit Iraq.   

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!

Eight Lives Left

Originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

(Warning: extremly graphic descriptions of war and death follows. For more photos, click on the "TwoCrabs" FlickrBlog link)


I nearly bought it today.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I've survived five tours of Iraq and four tours of Afghanistan as a journalist without a scratch. Not to mention a six-month tour in Bosnia back in my US Army days. Until now, the closest I've come to dying was a few days after the fall of Baghdad when I was caught in the cross-fire of two rival street gangs. My luck ran out this morning.

I was planning on sleeping in today. Friday is the Muslim day of prayer, which means most stores and businesses are closed and folks spend lazy hours with family and friends. However, the powers that be had other plans.

At 8:12 a.m., I was literally blown out of my bed by a powerful explosion that tore through my hotel room like a tornado without mercy. The explosion made a sound I would not want to hear twice in my life. Shards of glass rained down on the bed where I had laid just seconds before.

For a moment, I wasn't quite sure whether I was awake or dreaming, alive or dead. I had barely stood up when my survival instinct kicked in. Suicide bombs are usually followed by a second suicide bomb. I was reaching for my body armour (bullet-proof vest) when the second explosion came not more than 20 seconds after the first bomb. Although less powerful than the first, it caused more damage to our room because of the position of the car bomber. The glass from the balcony doors were blown onto the computer desk where I usually compose my thoughts. Had I been sitting there, I'd be in a world of hurt. But the worse damage occured in my colleague's bedroom. The entire belcony door, glass and door frame were ripped off the wall and landed on his bed. Luckily, he was out of town today otherwise he would surely be dead, or at least seriously injured.

Funny things happen when you're gripped with terror. The sane reaction would be to get the hell out of there any way you can. My first reaction was to calmly change out of my pajamas and into my street clothes, use the toilet, brush my teeth, don my body armour and to grab my camera, notebook and pen. The whole process took me maybe 90 seconds. I was about to walk out when two armed security guards broke down and yanked me out of the room.

I made my way to the rally point and sat on the floor with a half-dozen other people, still wondering: is this happening? No way.

I kept replaying a line from Full Metal Jacket:

Animal Mother: "Are you some sort of reporter?"
Joker Man: "No. I'm a combat correspondent"
Animal Mother: "Oh. You seen much, COMBAT?"
Joker Man: "Well, I've seen a little on TV!"

I've seen plenty of suicide bombs on television news. I've also covered the aftermath of many bombs. But never been in the windtunnel myself.  After a few minutes I stumbled downstairs. The warmth of the Middle East sun was pouring through the now open-aired lobby. Pipes, cables, ceiling tiles and other bits of building were everywhere. There was a trail of blood leading outside, which I followed toward the exit.

The first thing was a leg. At least I think it was a leg. It was a piece of human flesh but I couldn't quite make out what it had been. Then I noticed another body part. A piece of hair. A tooth. A colleague later told me he saw a penis and an elbow but I luckily missed those sights.

The car bombs had hit a block away from our hotel. The first car bomb's mission was to destroy the blast wall that surrounded the perimeter of our compound. The second car bomber was to follow through the hole punched by the first bomber, and then detonate his explosives directly in front of the hotel. Can you say Oklahoma City?  But as usual, the bombers fucked up. The first bomb was too poweful, if there is suck a thing. The bomb left a huge crater and debris field in the road that the second bomber was unable to enter the compound, so he blew himself up right there at the gate.

Random thought: Palm trees smell really good when they are on fire, like roasting chestnuts. Human flesh smells like ground beef that has been left out in the hot summer sun for three days.

A woman wailed, hitting her own head and screaming uncontrollably. A U.S. soldier helped bandage another woman and her son injured by flying debris. Another man told of waking to the ceiling closing in on him.  He was lucky. The apartment building next door was no longer there. Just a 30-foot high pile of rubble stood where two families had lived. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers worked frantically with their bare hands, sifting through the rubble searching for victims.

Death hit close to home. Among the casualties were the family of Salam, the night manager of my hotel.  Salem is a quiet, gentle man; a short, stocky bald guy who reminds me of an Iraqi version of George Costanza who has been a good friend during my repeated visits to Baghdad. On Friday, Salem lost his 19-year-old son, a sister-in-law and a 7-year-old nephew. Dammit.

In the courtyard behind the hotel, the swimming pool was filled with shrapnel and bits of car. A piece of a car bumper landed on my balcony six stories above the pool, a good 100 yards from ground zero.

And then there was the head. The scalp and top-half of a man's face and ear were lying on the patio about a foot away from the pool. An undistinguisable piece of flesh was also nearby.  Later, an Iraq man with a red bag and gloves walked around picking up the bits of body. I watched as he meticulously picked up the pieces, scruitinizing between animal, plant, vegetable. But for some reason, he did not touch the head. He looked at it. He poked at it. But left it in its place as if some priceless artifact.

For the survivors, life goes on. I still had to work, write, shoot and file. I attended a meeting on our security situation. And I called home about 10 times during the course of the day. My editor asks me if I want to pull out of Iraq tomorrow. Nah. I think I'll stick around for a few days and help rebuild this place. Somebody fucking has to.  But I'll be home soon, inshallah.

Love, me