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Remembering Iraq, One Year Later

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Baghdad July 4, 2009

"You've got to come see this." The plywood door swung open to a makeshift balcony revealing an orange night sky - that eerie hue the sky turns in a blizzard - air full of expectation and energy. Not a sight I ever expected to see in the middle of summer, let alone the 4th of July, when night skies are supposed to be lit up by the incandescent glow of fireworks and infused with the sweet smell of barbeques and beer.

"I've never seen it this bad."

"Neither have I" I said. "The sand - it looks like snow. " The buildings of Eastern Baghdad usually visible from our small balcony at Brigade Head Quarters on JSS Loyalty, a joint Iraqi-American Security outpost on the edge of the City, were on that night completely whited out. After a long pause an alarming thought sunk in, "Good cover for shooting things at us...not a good night to be out here."

"Nah, too windy. In wind this high it'll end up in their backyard."

"I guess," taking some comfort in this suggestion of elemental protection.

"Trust me. Paratroopers know wind," says my companion, a Major in the 101st Airborne, one of five Brigades the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Baghdad Province were embedded with and my competent and able partner in civil capacity building efforts in Eastern Baghdad.

Nevertheless, in my final weeks "in country" I couldn't help but start to feel a little more careful in times that called for caution. I stare out into the dust for another few seconds, lingering long enough for one last feel of the sand on my skin, burning my eyes, my lungs - thinking that I will probably never see a sandstorm just like this again. Thinking that there are probably a lot of things I've seen this year that I'll probably never see again.

I spent a year with the State Department in Iraq from 2008-2009 and during that time I had center stage seats at historic moments:

  • The Provincial elections in January, 2009 that took place with little violence and near universal public acceptance of legitimate results.
  • The peaceful transfer of power during the seating of the new Provincial Government in the following April that saw the coming to power of an encouraging number of independent and intellectually minded Iraqis, interested in serving the people rather than serving themselves. The progress that we witnessed under this "technocratic" class was leaps and bounds above the self-serving leadership that I saw in my first six months in Iraq.
  • Secretary of State Clinton's first visit that brought international attention back to rebuilding efforts and sent the world a message that the new administration is serious about continuing to support Iraq.
  • June 30, 200 - the day US combat forces symbolically withdrew from Iraq's cities.

But aside from these big ticket memories, there are the innumerable smaller projects that constitute the body of the work performed by Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Baghdad that are immeasurably important and I had the privilege to witness first hand.

In January, 2009 the first Iraqi Civil Defense Force National Firemen's Day was held in honor of the widows of the firemen who have lost their lives defending the public, which in a city of frequent improvised explosive devices and other ordinary occurrences like bombings and fire, is more common place than anyone would like.

The Deputy Minister of the Interior was the honored guest, and rumors that Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki would be attending as well, were only dashed when we were ushered into the VIP waiting room decked out in typical Iraqi fashion with magnificently gaudy gold sofa and lamps, and the TV showed the Prime Minister live on television embracing a reception of sheiks across town.

The marching band could be heard down the corridor as we were lead to our seats in a large hall. Local dignitaries of various hues lined the seats. Technicolor cakes were passed amongst the audience to add to the festivities. Speeches began and awards were handed out - a typical bureaucratic ceremony devoid of soulful tributes or real honors to the fallen, when all of the sudden the drone of the speeches were violently interrupted by a cry.

It being only a matter of weeks since President Bush had made his final visit to Iraq I couldn't help but think a shoe or other pedestrian projectile would soon pass over my head, hurled by a disgruntled attendee. Instead it turned out to be a pair of elderly gentlemen dressed in bright Kelly green jump suits - the warm up garb of the Iraqi Olympic team - shouting patriotic messages of hope about Iraq's future.

The program ground to a halt as these two "Iraqi hype men" ran down the aisle, screaming call and response slogans in Arabic, that I was told by my colleagues amounted to phrases like "Iraq is the greatest nation in the world", "Gone are the days of dark and pain, here are the days of peace and pride". After the crowd seemed to get their jingoistic jiggy on long enough, the hype men returned to their seats, but the atmosphere in the hall had completely changed. A collective pride seemed to swell in the assembled. A deep want for dignity and a return to the rightful place in the world that Iraqis perceived they occupied with the help of Saddam's unswaying confidence had been met, if only for the afternoon.

Our Sergeant Major watched the event unfold like a proud father, and repeatedly embraced his Iraqi colleagues, whom over the last six months he had spent nearly every waking moment, training, teaching and encouraging. The graduates of his train the trainer programs allow Iraqi firefighters to share what they have learned with the rest of their colleagues, future recruits, and 'In-sha'llah' generations of Iraqi firefighters to come.

Soon after the speeches it was time for the program feature that you expect to find at any service honoring fallen heroes - the Tae Kwon Do exhibition. Close to 20 children in their shiny white martial art robes ran down the aisles to the stage with their instructor. They took up their positions and began to demonstrate intricate kicks and punches for the crowd. The finale featured a board breaking session where actors dressed as "terrorists" with black masks held up signs with sectarian and anti-Iraq messages on them, that the students used their heads, hands and feet to break and express their intolerance for living in intolerance.

A few army reserve sergeants, who in their civilian jobs are members of NYC's Bravest, approached us and expressed their admiration for the opportunity to train Iraq's future fire fighters. My mind dwelled on the realization that the entire afternoon had sprung from the efforts of my PRT colleagues. The Sergeant Major and his cadre of subject matter experts, who had used training to instill confidence in the operation of complex equipment and rescue techniques in his Iraqi students, and that this self-belief had become infused not only in the specific skills they were learning but in something greater, the hope of a brighter future that they could fashion through their own actions.

I found a certain magic in the recognition of self-reliance and a power in the empowerment of pride.

This was not the first time I would experience this in Iraq. In June I had the opportunity to lunch with a group of sheiks in the rural area East of Baghdad known as Mada'in while visiting our PRT office there. This group of 15 or so sheiks represented over 2,000 farmers in the area who had, under the tutelage of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) advisors from the PRT, organized themselves into a not-for-profit agribusiness that provides low cost agricultural inputs to its members with low interest lines of credit to incentivize modern farming practices and conservation measures.

The group, known as Green Mada'in, provides its members with discounted prices and low interest credit for purchase of seed, feed, farm equipment, tools and supplies. The association also promotes soil and water conservation practices, farming operational diversity, and custom planting, harvesting and spraying.

During Saddam's reign rural farmers used to depend on the government to provide them with seed and equipment they need to work their land. Incentives to grow crops for export or little more than subsistence did not exist. The Ministry of Agriculture was an essential supplier of the materials farmers needed to execute their trade, but spent little time on any efforts to modernize the country's agricultural industry or infrastructure.

As a result, after the collapse of the central government farmers were left to fend for themselves and the precious water needed to grow their crops was slowly disappearing from the canals as Iraq's rivers have increasingly been dammed by regional neighbors, severely limiting the water available for flood irrigation that they used on their fields in the past.

The PRT's USDA advisors have "cultivated" and mentored this group for over a year to build them up to the point of self-sufficiency they enjoy now. They have learned to employ drip irrigation systems that allow their crops to grow with far less water. They are building greenhouses across the Mada'in with the support of the local U.S. army battalions, enabling them to diversify their crops and plan for more than subsistence farming. They are now turning their attention to building up the value chain that will allow them to transport their produce from farm to market and with continued growth to export to markets in the region.

The Board of Directors of Green Madain shoved hunks of lamb and rice in my face as we enjoyed our lunch and they shared with me their stories. My clear respect for their organization and astonished acknowledgment of their accomplishments only seemed to feed their bottomless appetites further as the endless plates of food continued to appear.

Later that day in the late evening, the forbidding sun set and broke the day's heat. We took the opportunity to walk to the top of the berm overlooking our little outpost in the desert. On the other side of the slope lay the hulking remains of the Osirak Nuclear Reactor that Israel bombed during Operation Opera in 1981 before the facility could begin actively produce plutonium. Its colossal carcass provides an eerie backdrop to the end of another day that revealed how quickly the processes of destruction and rebirth are at work in Baghdad.

The culmination of the evolution of our presence in Iraq that I witnessed during my year there was most acutely felt in my final weeks on the ground. Local television stations were featuring June 30 countdown graphics in the top corner of the TV screen. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki declared June 30 a national holiday. Festivities to mark "this day of national sovereignty" were held at the largest open space in the Baghdad, Zawra Park, where singers and poets entertained revelers before music groups took center stage.

A parade was planned for the "Cross Swords" Parade ground, Saddam's towering tribute to Iraq's "victory" over Iran in the 1980s, a triumph comprised of an estimated 250,000-500,000 killed or wounded Iraqis and a categorical stalemate. Nonetheless the parade ground was an important symbol of Iraq's military might in the region and the hands holding the massive cross sword statues are fashioned in the likeness of Saddam's own paws.

No parades had been held there since the Coalition invasion in 2003. In fact on many quiet nights I ran the parade ground and its abandoned buildings and dilapidated tributes to glories past have the spine-chilling feel of a post-apocalyptic world, and in some ways perhaps that is what Iraq is - a tribute to life despite apocalypse - 30 years of surviving on strained earth.

At that time Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki was calling the U.S. withdrawal from the cities a "great victory," even though many worried that violence would increase once the Americans had left the streets. One could argue that a marked deterioration in security has plagued Baghdad ever since, an alarming trend in recent months that from where I sit one can only pray does not worsen, but on the night of June 29th none of that felt like it mattered. The sky swirled with dust and the immense heat of summer had returned and challenged all those that walk out in it, but that night on my walk home, something else seemed to swirl in the air too - an anticipated event. A feeling of uncertainty as families curled up in bed that night. Ambient sound of sirens building each evening that week; The increased distant thud of explosives as those that sought to destabilize the relative peace of that year set to work to test the Iraqi Security Forces and their ability to maintain public safety. Iraqi tanks parked in strategic positions where heretofore none had been before. The sustained study of students who perhaps were the only people not celebrating, as the government had insisted they complete their final exams tomorrow as scheduled. A nervous wind - an unanswered expectation of what the morning will mean and bring.

And in the morning Iraqis danced in Zawra Park and a shift in our relationship with the Iraqis could be felt almost immediately. Their desire to demonstrate their renewed claims of sovereignty and self-sufficiency were quick in coming. Meetings with ministries that we were able to routinely meet with in the past would have to be pre-approved. Vehicles in the International Zone would have to don Iraqi license plates. Escorting local Iraqis into our offices required approval from the Iraqi Security Force. All in all we were quickly being shown all that our Iraqi colleagues had absorbed from our presence and their desire to impose the restrictions on our movements that we had once imposed on theirs. Our role quickly began to be cast as the "supported" in Iraq rather than the "supporter".

Five days later I spent July 4, 2009 with the 101st Airborne at JSS Loyalty in a sandstorm, when thoughts of loved ones back home turning to celebrations of the youthful birth of American liberty, made me appreciate all the more that an ancient people in Iraq were facing the all too new challenge of how they will live in their own overdue and unchosen freedom.