Piecing together a new reality for Iraq
After having ‘nestled’ safely in our Baghdad compound for over a month it was a somewhat daunting prospect, especially psychologically, venturing out of the capital city on a prearranged trip down to Basra. The physical freedom, change in routine and environs that the trip offered was quite intoxicating but the notion of launching out into unchartered terrain required a bit of ‘psyching’ up. Our respective Regional Team Leaders – Baghdad and South Regions were extremely supportive of my intentions, interest and detailed justification provided weeks earlier and it was merely a case of making it happen and waiting the weeks out.
My night in the Green Zone, prior to departure, was relatively uneventful considering that it has been the target of daily rocket attacks for the past 6 weeks. Our 15 minute flip in a re-modeled USAF Huey helicopter, legendary Vietnam workhorse and primary combat aircraft of the US airborne cavalry for decades, from HQ to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) was electrifying. Doors ajar, wind tugging at clothing and stomachs knotting as we traversed sprawling Baghdad at a few hundred feet before being expertly deposited on the airport apron. Odd flares discharged in-flight by the pilot at random intervals, seemingly as a precautionary measure against errant insurgency fired ground-to-air missiles, were a stark reminder that I was definitely not in downtown Bris- bane.
Our flight down to Basra on a Dash 8 - 40-seater turbo prop, State Department chartered aircraft was equally enthralling. Flying between the outstretched arms of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, draining southwards from their common source deep in the Turkish heartland, the broad flood plain is carved up by an intricate network of past and present irrigation canals diverting life giving water to a patchwork of semi and arid farmland. Historically known as Mesopotamia (land between the two rivers) this part of the Fertile Crescent is in steady decline with the agricultural prowess of the people and potential of the area ravaged by successive wars, urbanization and decades of environmental degradation caused by the upstream damming (particularly in Syria and Turkey) and excessive water extraction from both rivers.
Dash 8 over Kirkuk - circuitous return route to Baghdad taking in northern Iraq
Yet another surreal experience intruded by an amusing interpretation giving to the in-flight instructions plastered on the tray table in front of me…. Fasten seatbelt while seated – use bottom cushion for floatation. Such a contrast from my countless visits to and flights over Papua New Guinea in almost identical French-Canadian planes, where such an instruction would have been seriously contemplated … in this situation we were suspended above a long-departed sea ….. of sun baked sand and silt. En route to Basra we had a short stopover at Tallil Air Base, site of Saddam’s elite fighter squadrons ….. desert-locked yet with extended concrete runways and numerous camouflaged, trapezoid-shaped hardened aircraft shelters nicknamed Yugos. Iraq’s relationship with former eastern bloc countries is ever present and Yugos are derived from the Yugoslavian military contractors that built the air base in the early 1980s. With infrastructure largely still intact, the base is now used exclusively by the US military. The location probably also housed early warning attack facilities (radar and Scud Missile systems) due to its close proximity to Iran and Kuwait.
The final 20 minute flight into Basra offered up aerial views of the once extensive, Basra and surrounding marches or wetlands that were systematically drained by Saddam from 1982 onwards. Reputed, due to its remoteness and vastness, to offer safe haven to Shiite Marsh Arabs, Iraqi-Iranian war deserters, and other fringe militia and insurgency groups the wetlands are a unique ecological system in crisis. They previously covered an expanse of hundreds of square kilometers but have been significantly reduced through a massive public works program which saw the life blood of the system bled away by pumping and re-routing into the Tigris and other river tributaries. In addition to an ecological disaster of major proportions, the traditional Marsh Arabs and their co-existence in this matchless setting has been severely impacted upon. Much of this has been put down to yet another of Saddam aka Sad Sack’s many wayward whims, vindictively aimed at the Shiite Marsh Arabs and in the name of further oil exploration in the area which never really occurred. (One of my favorite childhood cartoon characters – could not resist the play on words and the bizarre appropriateness. The Sad Sack is an American fictional comic strip and comic book character created by Sgt. George Baker during World War II. Set in the United States Army, Sad Sack depicted an otherwise unnamed, lowly private experiencing some of the absurdities and humiliations of military life. The title was a euphemistic shortening of the military slang "sad sack of shit," common during WWII. Baker said he took his title from a “longer phrase, of a derogatory nature”.)
Water extraction from marshlands
Basra itself has many a story to relate ….. including decades of war and occupation. Geologically, southern Iraq and north Kuwait straddle the third largest oil reserves in the world. This provided Saddam with enough reason to enter into cross border raids and disputes with both Iran and Kuwait – all of which led to his eventual demise. Seemingly, 80% of Basra’s oil bearing fields are unexplored and oil and gas experts are quoted as having said that the world’s last barrel of oil will come from the Basra fields. Most (a staggering 71%) of Iraq’s oil reserves are located in southern part of the country and there is much talk that the region is in favour of a breakaway autonomous, independent nation state entity. This is obviously an idea that is not at all well received by the power mongers in Baghdad and elsewhere and further complicates an amicable political settlement within a united Iraq. Kurdistan, in the north, has already been on this recognized track for many years and has been largely successful to date.
Former residence belonging to notorious Chemical Ali responsible for conducting chemical warfare on Kurdish communities in northern Iraq
A key feature of the city is its location on the banks of the navigable Shatt al-Arab waterway, formed by the convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Basra’s fact file includes:
· Home of the fabled Sinbad the Sailor;
· Proposed location of the Garden of Eden;
· Iraq’s second largest and most populous city (pop approx 4 million) after Baghdad;
· Played an important role in early Islamic history being built in 636 AD;
· Commonly known as the Venice of the Middle East due a network of, once, navigable canals throughout the city. Siltation, pollution and declining water levels, despite a recorded tidal range of 2,7m, has tragically reversed this situation;
· Nowadays Basra port is incapable of deep water access and Sad relocated the country’s major port to Umm Qasr, 55kms downstream to the south east on the Persian Gulf;
A key city land mark, one of the few viewed from our compound rooftop, is a huge granary silo storage complex located on the bank of the Shatt al-Arab River. This imposing structure bears testament to the fact that the region, in years gone by, was very capable of producing surplus staple crops including rice, maize corn, barley and pearl millet in addition to some of the best date crops in the Middle East. Little wonder that this huge target has not be flattened be either the Iranian or Coalition forces during the past 30 years and it has bomb, rocket and shell me written all over it.
Basra skyline – grain / staple crop storage silos on the bank of Shatt al-Arab waterway
Back to Baghdad
The unexpected surprise of my return journey was spending a night in Basra’s COB - Central Operations Base. The base was teeming with security contractors ….. an army of them of every conceivable shape, size, nationality, hue and language – all beavering away on some or other confidential mission. In a true sense, they’ve come in behind the US military and are contracting on the security front to support the work we do as well as that done by foreign oil and gas companies. They swarm over fleets of exorbitantly expensive, high powered, sophisticated hard-shelled (armored) vehicles bristling with antennae and automatic rifles. Boys, their toys and the games they play!
As night began to fall, the sky was punctuated by dancing Arabian lamplights – the burning off of natural gas from countless oil well derricks dotting the skyline. Another bizarre sight was US military personnel, on foot, armed with rifles and side arms power walking to whatever destinations, bejeweled with their green ‘OHS’ occupational health and safety fluorescent green sashes and belts. Somehow these scenes were reminiscent of the movie District 6.
After a quick yet extensive tour of the base, my PSD minder (personal security detail) took me for an early dinner at the giant mess. We shared a table with other PSD staff including a Kiwi, Fijian and Gary. The latter must be one of the last remaining Mohicans or rather grensvegters, perhaps the iconic Audie Murphy or a more recent Rambo (versions 1 – 5) all rolled into one. Audie Leon Murphy (June 20, 1925 – May 28, 1971) was the most decorated American soldier of World War II and a celebrated movie star for over two decades in the post-war era, appearing in 44 films. He also found some success as a country music composer. Murphy became the most decorated United States soldier of the war during twenty-seven months in action in the European Theatre. He received the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military's highest award for valor, along with 32 additional U.S. and foreign medals and citations, including five from France and one from Belgium.
Gary hails originally from Oz (a Melbournian) and subsequently entered into the Australian military after which he embarked upon his soldier of fortune career. He supposedly served with numerous special forces units in the Rhodesian, South African, and other bush wars. He has been in Iraq since 2003 and although he has an opinion on everything and there is little that Gary has not done, he is a likable rogue all the same.
Presumably major freeway between Basra and Baghdad
Inevitably, our conversation touched on future prospects for Iraq and in a short space of time I was shocked and socked out of my ‘romantic do-gooder development reverie’ by some really harsh realities. The commonly held view at our table was that Iraq is and will always be a failed nation state. With too many and complex realities to mention, I’ve had to put this orientation to the back of my mind for my own sanity, sake and conscience. I felt my spirits plummeting into the wadi aliyes - Arabic for the Valley of Despair by hard talking, expletive spitting but perhaps, brutally honest men. An opinion held, maybe, by many but not bold enough to articulate it in this PC world that is ours. I’ve had similar experiences, in interactions with other seasoned yet cynical development practitioners in the past and have had to figure out a way of working through the paradoxes, cynicism and contradictions that make up our profession. I have to believe in the best possible outcomes for the work that we do. After all, as good leaders and professionals in our own right, we are dealers in hope.
We parted ways with a weather and war beaten Gary …… not before having had an excellent and leisurely meal …. feasting off numerous food stations including sumptuous salads, mains, desserts etc. The quality of the food is amazing and this is definitely an army that is well nourished and marches on a full stomach. The US military has been quite a revelation to me…. slick, efficient, well versed and disciplined. Organizationally its extremely progressive, minorities including women are well represented and integrated. The US military is strictly ‘dry’ – no alcohol provided or permitted whereas the Brits, in contrast, were or are allowed alcohol in small quantities. An exiting the mess, I came across a table set, symbolically, aside for non-returning US military personnel. A poignant reminder that this was a war that took away so many lives prematurely on both sides of the ideological divide.
Basra – barricades, birds and barbed wire