This week, Ben Hallman, a reporter for The American Lawyer, is posting dispatches from Iraq. He is embedded with the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team, reporting on the restoration of Iraq’s civil justice system. Read his posts here and contact Ben at email@example.com.
KUWAIT, REDUX � Posted April 16, 2008, Noon ET
Not even Borat can make me laugh at 6 a.m. I spent the night on a metal bench in the hanger that serves as a terminal on the military side of Baghdad International Airport. The authorities there leave the television turned on, at full blast, 24/7. I woke up to the scene of Borat racing naked through a hotel. The armed forces programming director has some nerve. I’m writing now from Kuwait, nearly 24 hours after the latest leg of my journey began.
The waiting around for something to happen (or not happen) in Iraq can be incredibly frustrating, but I’ve also found it a great opportunity to strike up chance conversations with those stuck in the same boat. Last night, for example, while waiting for the bus to take me to the airport, I talked with a Navy Seal who was retiring after 22 years in the service. He had spent the past nine months training Iraqi army forces. I’ve heard no shortage of complaining about everything since I’ve been here, but I’ve also noticed that most people, after venting, end on a positive note. The most popular analogy floating around today is that American freedom wasn’t won easily, either�see wars Revolutionary and Civil�and that we shouldn’t expect miracles overnight. Or even after five years. The Navy officer was different. “This was a war about oil,” he bluntly stated. “And now it’s all about money.” He pointed to the KBR private security people who run the shuttle to the airport, and so much else in Iraq.
I had read about the outsourcing of functions once handled by the Army (from cooking to convoy security), but I never appreciated to what extent the military is reliant on independent contractors until I got here. KBR, in particular, seems like a fifth branch of the armed services. KBR workers are everywhere, and they make far more (in some cases) than their military counterparts. A convoy driver, I’m told, is paid between $6,000 and $8,000 a month. The officer told me the Seals had to dramatically boost their reenlistment bonus to staunch defections to the private side. At the other end of the spectrum, a Peruvian guard, also employed by KBR, told me he makes about $1,200 a month. The guard told me he is leaving soon, after two years in Baghdad. “Baghdad, too much muerte,” he told me, pantomiming a rocket flying into the Green Zone. Iraqi army soldiers are also paid far less than senior KBR and U.S. military personnel. My conclusion: There is an inverse relationship here between a guard/soldier’s exposure to danger and his salary. On my last afternoon in Baghdad, another reporter and I tried to get into the monument to the fallen soldier. Two lonely Iraqi army soldiers at the gate apologized and said it was closed. Then they asked for water. I told the Navy Seal about this and he said Iraqi soldiers are issued one bottle a day, never mind that it was easily 95 degrees. (Our escort, a National Guard soldier from the media unit, bought the two Iraqis some water.)
Tonight is my last one in military custody. Tomorrow I’m picking up my passport and heading to Kuwait City for a night in a hotel before flying back to New York on Thursday. Some final thoughts before I resign my post as editor in chief and senior correspondent of The American Lawyer‘s Baghdad bureau:
�I had hoped to do more blogging about rule of law issues while I was here. This is my first experience blogging while reporting a story at the same time�my first time blogging, in fact�and I didn’t appreciate that the two aims of reporting and blogging can be at odds. I chose to withhold most of what I learned about rule of law here for the simple reason that I didn’t want to undermine my own story. I tried to make up for the lack of reporting substance with regular personal hygiene updates. Speaking of which:
�I’m not saying I need to wash my clothes, but my socks just created their own rudimentary digestive system.
�If you were supposed to manage my fantasy baseball team while I was away and for some bizarre reason failed to start Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte on what would be his best day of the season, and this contributed to my crushing defeat, you are dead to me.
�Buying one of those U-shaped neck pillows at JFK before I left was one of the best decisions I made on the entire trip. Another good buy: a Skype plug-in headset at the PX in Baghdad, which allowed me to make cheap calls over the Internet. And, of course, one needs a good book. I finished Den of Thieves by James Stewart on the plane today. I know I’m nearly 20 years late to this book, but I was surprised at how relevant the subject matter is to today’s market. The story, essentially, is that of the invention of the mortgage-backed security market in the United States by a group of larger-than-life bond traders at Salomon Brothers. If you want to know more about collateralized loan obligations (and who doesn’t?), add this to your reading list.
�Finally, I want to thank friends, family, and colleagues who wrote to offer their support. Your e-mails were great. Thanks for reading.
GREEN ZONE � Posted April 14, 2008, Noon ET
It was a two�car bomb morning. The first, around 7:30 a.m., shook the press center. We’re close to the Red Zone (in fact, some call this area “the Orange Zone”), and the explosion sounded like it was just outside the walls. I heard the second explosion while conducting an interview at the Rusafa prison and court complex in central Baghdad. According to an early news report, the bomb was placed under a parked car near downtown and killed four people. James Geoghegan, the public affairs officer at the complex, told me how to distinguish a car bomb from a mortar. A mortar, he says, sounds like a crash, like someone dropped a trailer from the sky. A car bomb explosion has a deeper timbre, a throbbing boom that you feel in your chest. These are the kinds of impromptu conversations one has here.
I went to Rusafa in the back of an armored vehicle. I had to tell the gunner my blood type before we set out�it wasn’t your typical taxi ride. (Rusafa, by the way, is the part of Baghdad on the eastern side of the Euphrates. Karkh is the western half. It’s confusing because both are also the names of specific neighborhoods. The Green Zone is on the Karkh side of the river, and also in the Karkh neighborhood.) The criminal court in Rusafa processes Iraqi-held prisoners, while the criminal court I visited yesterday processes coalition-held prisoners. Rusafa is also the site of a new lawyers defense clinic, paid for by the U.S. government, which should be up and running in a few weeks. While there, I talked to JAG officers and the civilian administrators about some of their projects. They assist Iraqi authorities in investigating major crimes. (For example, someone in Basra has killed about 100 women for dressing immodestly.) The investigative teams partner with the Iraqis, but stay out of the courtrooms.
One rule of law topic that I’ve been meaning to bring up is the Iraqi amnesty law, which was passed in February. This is a big deal here. Any Iraqi-held prisoner, and there are officially about 30,000, qualifies for amnesty unless he is accused of one of a handful of what Americans would call capital crimes, such as murder and rape. Also, if a detainee has been held for six months without seeing an investigative judge, or 12 months without seeing a trial judge, he qualifies. (Many Iraqi detainees have been held for years without seeing a judge.) The amnesty law seems cut-and-dried, but implementation is another matter. On my return trip from Rusafa, I sat in the back of an armored vehicle with a U.S. Department of Justice official who is charged with helping the Iraqis implement the law. A few hundred prisoners have been released under the law, he said, but there are challenges. To apply, a prisoner, or a family member, or a lawyer needs to fill out the proper paperwork. An early problem: Police were selling the forms, or simply refusing to distribute them. There are also sectarian concerns�a Shiite prisoner might receive preferential treatment over a Sunni, or vice versa. An Iraqi review committee is currently looking at thousands of applications and case files to determine who qualifies. Meanwhile, the trial courts have ground to practically a stop.
GREEN ZONE�Posted April 13, 2008, 4:32 p.m. ET
The Clock Tower
If you got to this blog from the American Lawyer home page, you clicked on a photo of Iraq’s Central Criminal Court. And, yes, that is a giant clock protruding from the top. (The photo on this page is of your corespondent in front of the tower.)
The structure was built to commemorate the Arab Summit of 1980 and was later used to hold all the booty Saddam Hussein received as gifts from other leaders. During the U.S. invasion, the clock and the building were badly damaged, and the building was looted. It was renovated several years ago and now handles coalition-held detainees and political corruption cases. Though technically in the Red Zone, one entrance to the courthouse is a short walk from a metal door in the T-wall that lines an expressway heading out of Baghdad. I visited it this morning with the rule of law team.
This was my first encounter with Iraqi detainees. I was told that Iraqi prisoners are docile, like to be together, and don’t like furniture in their cells. (From first appearances, this seems to be correct�though I didn’t ask the dozen or so quiet men in red jumpsuits sitting on the floors of two holding cells.) The prisoners who come through this complex are typically held at one of the three large American-run detention facilities in Iraq. They come in a few at a time for hearings before an investigative judge and, if necessary, a trial before a three-judge tribunal. I briefly observed a trial but was told by a guard outside that the Iraqis we were with wouldn’t be allowed to translate the proceedings for me, so we moved on to a much more interesting section of the courthouse, more interesting to someone looking for opinions on legal affairs in Iraq, at least.
The lawyers’ room is easily the most happening place in the courthouse. It is exactly as it sounds: a room filled with lawyers. Smoking, chatting, laughing. In one corner, a woman in a black chador serves lunch and sodas. Upon entering, two little girls latched onto Sergeant Angel Storm, my military escort. (Storm is a spritely 22-year-old. Good with kids and idiot civilian journalists. Later, out in the open in the Green Zone, the incoming fire clarion sounded and she quickly guided me to the nearest shelter.) I’ll save the details of the conversations I had with the lawyers for the story I’m writing�blogging, after all, is only my night job�but overall it was an enlightening trip.
Tomorrow I’m headed to another courthouse in Rusafa, a neighborhood across the river. I should have time when I return for one last blog entry from the Green Zone.
On the Iraqis in My Bed
Iraqi reporters ate my Cheez-Its. It was a big, full box, fresh from the PX. Also, they sat on my bunk, which means they sat on my sleeping bag, on my dirty socks, and on the computer I’m using right now. They left two empty soda cans next to my running shoes, and an empty carton of milk. They were here for a press conference on the war from Rear Admiral Patrick Driscol. (Summary: We’re making progress.) It was like I went away for the weekend and the kids had a party but didn’t clean up.
GREEN ZONE�Posted April 11, 2008, 3:30 p.m. ET
I’m feeling better about my reporting prospects. I’ve extended my trip for two days and have arranged trips to two courthouses. For security reasons, I won’t say which ones until I return, but I’ll have the opportunity to do more of what I came to Iraq to do: interview Iraqi judges and lawyers. I’ve spent the last three days interviewing American officials, including, most recently, Phil Lynch, the rule of law coordinator at the U.S. embassy. Lynch is an assistant U.S. attorney in Seattle, and in a unique position�he’s a U.S. Department of Justice guy running a State Department program. His purview, mostly, is the Iraqi High Tribunal and the major criminal courts in Baghdad. He is also the direct report to the U.S. ambassador to Iraq on rule of law issues, and coordinates with the military. Previously, he advised the Iraqi High Tribunal during the Saddam Hussein trial.
Lynch told me that one of the challenges he faces is defending the provincial reconstruction teams to the congressional bean counters. I’m still working on getting budget figures, but the cost of supporting independent teams in far-flung corners of the country is extremely expensive. Security alone costs thousands of dollars per mission. And, benchmarking progress is almost impossible, he says. For example, the team in Basra hasn’t left the Army base in six months. Does it make sense to continue to pay to support the team? Maybe, Lynch says, a place like Basra is where the U.S. needs a rule of law team most of all. Whatever the answer, Lynch says, “I don’t think you can impact, on a provincial level, rule of law activities from here.”
An interesting political note: Lynch told me that he has briefed all three remaining U.S. presidential candidates in the past, but none during the current campaign cycle. He says that he hopes to brief a Barack Obama policy adviser�I’ll try to get his name�who is serving in Anbar Province as a Navy Reserve officer.
GREEN ZONE�Posted April 11, 2008, 1:00 p.m. ET
Travel Guide to the Green Zone
So, you’re thinking of spending the weekend in the Green Zone. Here’s a handy guide to help you in your travels.
When to come: There’s never a good time to come to the Green Zone. There’s a war going on and someone will try to kill you.
How to get there: There’s no good way to get there. If you are a civilian, Royal Jordanian and Iraq Airways offer flights, starting at about $650 from Jordan. From the Baghdad airport, you will probably want to hire a personal security detail, which starts at about $6,000 a day. I’m not sure how much just a round-trip ride to the Green Zone costs. You can also hire a local cab.
If you are an embedded journalist, you will fly to Kuwait, a small country in the Middle East most notable for the fact that it doesn’t allow anyone to buy beer. (If, like me, you grew up in Alabama, a state with a surprising number of dry counties, your first instinct will be to drive north to Tennessee. Don’t try this in Kuwait.) An Army team will meet you at the airport in Kuwait and drive you to the best-guarded parking lot in the world. You will spend 24 hours or more in the parking lot. You can’t buy beer here, either, though you can buy a watch or a Burger King Whopper. You will fly “space available” from Kuwait to Baghdad International Airport. You can, and will, get bumped for someone with higher priority. (According to a journalist I met, reporters outrank Indian cooks and translators, but that’s it.) At the airport, you can try to catch a helicopter to the Green Zone. There’s a good chance you won’t, though, which means waiting until midnight or later for the “rhino” bus convoy. You will think the driver is trying to kill you, because he will drive very, very fast. But he is actually trying to keep someone else from killing you.
What to see: There’s not much. Anything interesting, like the pub on the grounds of the British embassy, is hidden behind walls and barbed wire. If you try to get in without permission, someone will try to kill you. Ditto the Republican Palace, the home of the U.S. embassy. But you’ve got a weekend, so here are a few options.
The Monument to the Unknown Soldier�The monument, which resembles the space ship from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but with a spire, was inspired by the glorification of the martyr from the Iran-Iraq war. I was told that the guards may or may not let you inside.
The Swords of al-Qadisiyyah�built to commemorate the Arab triumph over the Persians in 636 A.D. Until recently, a giant cone of Iranian army helmets spilled out onto the street, and then across the street, forming the world’s most macabre speed bump. But then the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government decided that the swords might be offensive, and ordered them destroyed. Locals carried off most of the helmets, and one section of the statue closest to the Green Zone was dismantled before the U.S. government intervened, suggesting the statue has some historical value.
CIPC�the press center. Built under the parking garage next to the convention center. After the invasion, the Brits set up shop there and were derided for choosing such a gloomy place to live. Once the mortar and rocket attacks began, the British looked a bit smarter. You can’t buy or bring beer here, though there is an endless supply of Gatorade.
The al-Rashid�the only hotel in the Green Zone. It claims to be a five-star hotel. I claim to be the sole heir to the throne of Belgium. A good place to meet actual Iraqis, however, since it is next to an entrance to the Green Zone. No beer.
The PX�Don’t try to bring a bag or backpack in here, or someone will try to kill you. A sampling of the wares from a recent visit: charcoal grills, Cheez-Its, and cigarettes. No shampoo. You can’t buy beer here.
How to get around: You will need a badge to get almost anywhere. Different badges get you in to different places. You will probably not have the badge necessary to get where you want to go.
Dining: If you have a press badge, there’s free grub in the Army dining facility. This is a slightly better option than starving. Someone told me there are restaurants. I think that was a lie.
Entertainment: very limited. For best results, be sure to pack season two of HBO’s The Wire. I borrowed my copy from Quinn Emanuel associate Pat Curran. (Hey, Pat, I borrowed your DVDs.) If you are an American Lawyer reporter, don’t expect your company-issued laptop to play DVDs. There is, however, a big-screen TV in the press center. Unfortunately, someone else might be watching it. Someone, say, like an Iraqi journalist who doesn’t speak English, but is watching a movie called Dedication with the sound turned off. If this happens, you might try blogging instead. Happy Friday.
GREEN ZONE�Posted April 10, 2008, 4:41 p.m. ET
The Iraqi Lawyer
A law degree in Iraq is the equivalent of an undergraduate degree from an American university. All practicing lawyers join the Iraq Bar Association, which is less a professional organization like the American Bar Association and more like a state licensing organization�minus the licensing part. Essentially, anyone who graduates from law school and pays his or her dues can hang a shingle and practice law. There’s no bar exam, and according to an Iraqi lawyer I spoke with today, virtually no practical training. The lawyer told me that Iraqi law students, for example, don’t read cases. There are also no law firms or law partnerships as in the United States. And there are no corporate lawyers, or specialist lawyers, really, of any kind. One lawyer might take on more property cases than another, say, but that is most likely because that lawyer is friendly with someone who works in a deeds office, or with a judge who adjudicates these kinds of disputes.
Needless to say, Iraqi lawyers are underprepared to handle basic contract disputes, much less serve as local counsel for an international company that wants to do business here. Last year I interviewed Rick Johnston, a Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz lawyer in Washington, D.C. Johnston had lived in Iraq for about a year near the beginning of the U.S. occupation. He told me that when it comes to civil disputes, there are no guarantees. Companies that want to do business here need local contacts with strong connections. A paper document, if not backed by the right parties, is meaningless, Johnston said. Contracts are only as good as the parties who agree to back them.
The Iraqi lawyer I spoke to today said much the same. Civil courts are open and handling cases. But cases drag on for years. And even when decided, there is no guarantee that the decision will be enforced. The police, he said, have higher priorities.
Criminal courts function somewhat better, to the extent that there are trials and judgments that are usually carried out�but they are hardly just. The Iraqi authorities regularly torture suspects until they confess, and their justification is that the system for gathering evidence and presenting cases is in such shambles that they wouldn’t win any cases otherwise. Defense lawyers, meanwhile, are also undertrained. In Iraq there is no tradition of a lawyer serving as an advocate for their client. They don’t know how to cross-examine witnesses, how to challenge evidence at a trial, and neither they nor the judge is accustomed to them playing an active role. Furthermore, they often meet their clients minutes before a trial is to begin.
There are at least 200 U.S. government lawyers in Iraq, according to a rough estimate I heard today. Many are trying to help. And there is certainly hope, at least based on my impressions of the Iraqi lawyers I’ve met. They are aware of the gaps in their education and training, and at least some seem eager for whatever help they can get from the West. Hopefully, by the end of my stay here, I’ll have a better idea of whether the assistance is working.
GREEN ZONE�Posted April 10, 2008, 12:39 p.m. ET
American Lawyers: Uncle Sam Wants You
Surging isn’t just for soldiers anymore. In an effort to increase the number of civilian lawyers working on legal programs in Iraq, theU.S. Department of State is hiring 40 civilian attorneys as part of a lawyer “surge.” The attorneys will work for one of the eightProvincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq, as liaisons to local judges, lawyers, and other community leaders. Job tip: Wilson Myers,head of the Baghdad rule of law team, says interpersonal skills are more important than work experience. So if you are tired of your deskjob (and, ideally, your friends and family), visit usajobs.com and search under “rule of law.”
GREEN ZONE�Posted April 10, 2008, 12:06 p.m. ET
On Personal Hygiene, Red Sox Nation, and the Art of War
I left my shampoo in Kuwait. I know what you’re thinking. Who hasn’t left their shampoo in Kuwait at one point or another? Anyway, I tried to buy a bottle at the PX yesterday, but they were sold out of everything but a product for “women of color.” Me: a man of very little color. So this morning I washed my hair with hand soap. My hair subsequently dried into weird shapes. It’s got a cubist vibe about it. Also, my clothes look like they were rolled into a ball and stuffed into a hot backpack for a week, which, of course they were. And today, for the first time in my professional career, I conducted an office interview dressed in running shoes. I’m really letting myself go.
I’m staying at the Combined Press Information Center. My host is a Massachusetts National Guard unit. There’s a giant Red Sox 2007 World Series banner next to one of the entrances. So far, they’ve gone easy on me for being from New York, but I’m keeping my Yankees hat in my backpack. I don’t want to push my luck.
Home here, by the way, is a large room with a few computers, two couches, three bunk beds, and a refrigerator stocked with all the Gatorade, soda, and water the soldiers and reporters can drink. It is part of a large structure compartmentalized into a series of rooms and further divided by row after row of little trailers. Some contain offices; others, bathroom facilities. There’s a radio station and a film editing room here, and a place to hold press conferences. It was built under a parking garage, so there are several welcome feet of concrete above our heads. Yesterday a rocket landed close enough to make the building shake and pieces of shrapnel landed in the parking lot outside. I woke up from a nap when it hit, but promptly fell back to sleep. I’m acclimating, it seems. Once a round hits, there’s nothing much to do about it anyway. The good news (knock on wood) is that incoming fire from Sadr City has diminished precipitously in the last few days. My newest roommate is a New York war artist named Steve Mumford. His most recent embed was last year, with the 28th Combat Support Hospital. He works with ink on a big sketch pad, documenting what he sees. Check out his work.
GREEN ZONE � Posted April 9, 2008, 3:17 p.m. ET
Baghdad is quiet today. There’s a curfew until midnight, which means no cars are allowed in the capital and all the Iraqi government employees have the day off. Fortunately, for me, American government officials in Iraq work seven days a week.
I spent the morning and afternoon at the headquarters of the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), which is located in an office building near the U.S. embassy. By way of orientation, the press center is on the northern edge of the Green Zone, near the only hotel therein, the al-Rashid. (I went to the al-Rashid today, too, but I’ll save that for another post.) Security in that part of the zone is even tighter than it is on my side, and getting there means running a gauntlet of checkpoints. I’ve been hand-searched half a dozen times today. (An interesting side note: Like many functions here, security is run by private contractors. And every private guard I’ve seen in Baghdad is Peruvian.)
Some background on the Baghdad PRT rule of law team: It advises 15 local, family, and juvenile courts in Baghdad. About half of these are criminal courts, and the other half civil. The team leader is Wilson Myers, a defense attorney from Bay Minette, Ala.
For a government lawyer in Iraq, Myers is an anomaly. The overwhelming majority of the lawyers here are prosecutors of some kind, and most of the other rule of law coordinators are assistant U.S. attorneys. (There are eight permanent PRTs in Iraq, and about a dozen other “e-PRTs,” smaller groups that are embedded with the military.)
Organizationally, the team operates under the auspices of the State Department, which provides “substantive guidance” on its activities, Myers told me. In practice, the team has wide latitude on which projects it chooses to pursue. Aside from his job overseeing the most important rule of law team in Iraq, I became interested in Myers for his work with local legal professionals and for a focus on civil law and courts, which had been mostly ignored until recently. On a typical day, Myers and his team might visit a few courthouses and a police station, meet with the head of the Iraq Bar Association, or visit the Baghdad School of Law. But embassy security has locked them down until at least early next week. My timing, as it turns out, is terrible. So instead of visiting real Iraq tomorrow, I’m meeting with senior rule of law officials at the U.S. embassy instead. My plan B, which was to visit the PRT in Tikrit, also fell through. Plan C is still in rough draft form.
GREEN ZONE � Posted April 8, 2008, 4:32 p.m. ET
Remember all the stories a few weeks back that marked the five-year anniversary of the Iraq war? As it turns out, that was a moment recognized mainly in the West. In Iraq, tomorrow, April 9, is the anniversary that matters. That was the day that Baghdad fell to U.S. forces. Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr planned to mark the day with a “million-man” protest march in Baghdad. But after government forces began detaining young Shiite men on the way to the capital, Sadr abruptly called it off. Just a few minutes ago, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Malaki declared tomorrow a national holiday.
This marks the latest chapter in the confrontation between the government and Sadr. It began with what appears to have been a poorly planned and executed government assault on Basra, in southern Iraq. After that failed, Malaki ordered Sadr’s Madhi Army militia to disarm and disband, and surround the Baghdad Shiite enclave of Sadr City (the source, I’m told, of the mortar and rocket fire last night). Sadr then pushed the question of whether to disband to senior clerics. If they say he should stand down, he will, he says. Clearly there is a lot of posturing going on, but this is a critical issue. If the two Shiite factions can resolve their differences, it would go a long way toward bringing Iraq back to the state of (relative) calm it enjoyed a few months ago. If not, expect the carnage of recent weeks to continue. This, at least, is the 10-cent analysis from the soldiers and journalists I’ve talked to over the past few days.
On a more personal note, what happens in the near-term affects my reporting. If things stay relatively quiet, I may still be able to travel outside the International Zone with the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team. If not, I may try to catch a flight up to Tikrit, where things are calmer and a visit to local courts more likely. Tomorrow, by the way, I’m going to do some honest-to-God reporting. I’m spending the day at the U.S. embassy.
Before I log off for the day, a quick shout-out to my roommates, a pair of journalists from CorpWatch. These guys are my heroes. This is their fourth trip to Iraq, and for the past two days they’ve been out in the city on a trip arranged by a local “fixer.” Here I am, sweating the possibility of a mortar shell somehow penetrating the parking garage built on top of our quarters, and they’re dining at a pizza joint in Baghdad. Even better, they brought me back some. After four days of Army grub, it was heaven.
GREEN ZONE � Posted April 8, 2008, 6:02 a.m. ET
It’s 3 a.m. in Baghdad and someone is trying to kill me. I’m standing outside a guard gate in a dust storm, waiting for my ride, when I hear the thump-thump of a shell landing in the distance. I had expected to hear mortar and rocket fire, and I realize that no one is targeting me, specifically. I’m sure they would rather kill U.S. soldiers, Iraqi government officials�or the group of American diplomats standing next to me�than a tired legal affairs reporter. But motives don’t matter once the shell is launched.
We hoof across the road to a concrete-slab bomb shelter. An Army sergeant there to escort the diplomats isn’t doing much to ease the tension. “We’ve been taking live rounds here, Sir,” he tells one man who had taken off his flak jacket. The man puts his vest back on. The sergeant scurries around like a nervous hen protecting her chicks until a large SUV comes, and the diplomats drive off toward the U.S. embassy. I’m left standing alone, waiting for my ride.
The Green Zone has been a popular target since the 2002 invasion, but until recently the choice of attack had been a mortar, which fires relatively small rounds. A few weeks ago, Shiite militias began launching rockets, a more deadly weapon with a greater blast radius. The kill zone, I’m told, is 30 meters out in the open. I didn’t know it at the time, but earlier in the day two Americans were killed in an attack. This is why people spend most of their time indoors under “hard” shelter these days. At the embassy, officials are sleeping on cots, chairs, and even on the floor. As it turns out, I’m a bit luckier.
A few minutes after the embassy group leaves, a press officer arrives and drives me to the press office, my home for the next five days. It has a nice, thick roof and there’s an empty bunk bed waiting for me. As I settle into my sleeping bag, I’m able to put my earlier fear into context. The Green Zone is big, the chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, small. Plus, I’ll be spending most of my time indoors, where it is safer. Even so, I feel a quiet anxiety that I suspect will be a companion until I leave.
KUWAIT � Posted April 7, 2008, 5:20 p.m. ET
I’m beginning to think that it is the Army’s plan to shuttle me from parking lot to parking lot, so that when they actually deposit me in a war zone, I’m grateful.
I’ve been up since 5 a.m., when I had to muster for roll call for my flight to BIOP�Baghdad International Airport. After several more counting exercises (the U.S. Army loves to count), I find myself on a bus with a group of soldiers headed to a Kuwaiti airstrip. There, we load into the back of a Japanese C-130, and after a supremely uncomfortable flight (I’ll never complain about the middle seat on a commercial jet again), land in Baghdad. I’d hoped to take a helicopter over to the Green Zone from the airport, but all the seats were booked for the day. After a two-hour wait in the heat for a shuttle bus that is supposed to run every two hours, I’m in another parking lot, waiting once again for an appointed time�8 p.m.�so I can “manifest” for a midnight ride on the “rhino” bus to the Green Zone.
In the meantime, I continue to live on the Army dole. My orders (yes, I have orders), give me access to the DFAC and MWR tents (dining hall and recreation tent, respectively). I meet a freelance reporter in Kuwait who has been embedded for the past seven months. He’s followed an army unit around the world, a decent way to make a living, he says, because it only costs him his time. My orders give me the same privilege until mid-June. If I don’t make tonight’s bus, perhaps I’ll just bounce around from base to base for the next three months, subsisting on dining hall grub and old movies, or reruns of sporting events on the Armed Forces Network.
WAY STATION � Posted April 6, 2008, 4:36 a.m. ET
I’m writing this morning from a U.S. military base in Kuwait. I know the name of the base, but one of the ground rules for my stay here is that I don’t disclose the name. I’m also not supposed to describe what it looks like, but I believe I can safely say this much. It is tan. All of it: the ground, the sky, even the soldiers in their pixilated desert camouflage uniforms. It’s a big, tan, 24-hour truck stop for people on their way somewhere. Speaking of which, my first roll call for my flight to Baghdad is at 3 p.m. It’s sort of like flying standby, except that if I don’t make this flight, my name will move up the list until I do. Once there, I will either travel by helicopter or bus (the “rhino”) to the Green Zone, where I meet a fresh new set of press people.
In the meantime, I have six hours to fill and I’ve already seen the sights: the gym, the McDonalds, the souvenir rug store. And I’m tired. I spent last night in a group tent with bright, 24-hour florescent lighting and a constant stream of men coming and going. At 5:30 a.m. I was aroused from my fitful slumber by a group of rowdy Australians looking for someone they enigmatically called “Chicken Tikka.” If I see him/her, I’ll let them know.
On Body Armor:
The U.S. Army requires that embedding reporters bring from home body armor, a helmet, and tactical goggles. Where does one buy such equipment? I chose bulletproofme.com for all my body armoring needs. The prices are competitive; the name, direct. Andrew, a sales clerk, was helpful, quick to return calls and e-mails, and subtle in his recommendations. For instance, he told me that I could buy my tactical vest in blue, or in “coyote” — a sort of tan desert camouflage. “There are two schools of thought on this,” he told me. “Some reporters think it’s smart to stand out from the soldiers. Others think its best to blend in.” He paused. “We’ve been selling a lot of coyote lately.”
The final tally: one coyote-colored vest with level-four ceramic plates, a pair of tactical goggles, which look like the pair of sunglasses I bought on Canal Street last summer for $10, and a helmet. The goggles and vest are fine. I bought the extra large helmet, which swallows my head and makes me look like Rick Moranis in Spaceballs. Also, it’s heavy. Like someone parked a Toyota Corolla on my head.
If the Army guys make fun of my helmet or my head falls off from the added stress on my neck, I’ll let you know.
ON ASSIGNMENT � Posted April 4, 2008, 3:25 p.m. ET
Greetings from New York. Next week in Baghdad I will report on the rule of law, with a special focus on the status of the estimated 25,000 lawyers who work in Iraq, the civil courts and judiciary, and the efforts of Americans who work with these Iraqi legal professionals on a daily basis. We think these are timely and important issues to explore. One presidential candidate has said that the U.S. armed forces should stay in Iraq as long as necessary; another has promised to quickly withdraw. Accepting the premise that a functioning, fair rule of law system is critical for any country that hopes to thrive as a democracy — what effect would a rapid withdrawal, or many more years of engagement, have on those institutions? Would the reconstruction teams, which rely on the military and civilian contractors for protection, continue to function if the American army were to leave? I hope to address these issues in future posts.
A little background: I am a staff reporter for The American Lawyer, where I have covered the business of law and legal affairs for the past two and a half years. Over that time, I’ve heard lots of military euphemisms (the lawsuit was a “bombshell,” the trial was a “firefight”), but the closest I’ve been to danger was when I got stuck for a few seconds in the elevator at Skadden Arps in Times Square. Needless to say: I am not an experienced war correspondent. So when I signed off on the forms that absolve the U.S. government of any blame if I am killed or maimed, it wasn’t quite with the same calm that I imagine real war reporters possess.
I will try to write about my professional experiences and personal observations. (My father, for example, wants to know the price of gas in Kuwait, and whether the consistency of the desert soil is more like sand or dirt. Dad: I’m on it.) I hope to post at least once a day and will write more if time permits. Feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading.