Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Freedom is not a phrase just thrown around but sincerely uttered and meant

What follows is Christian Isely's first dispatch from the Middle East

Kuwait — April 23, 2004

I am working for Louis Berger, a US engineering firm contracted to the Department of Defense to manage infrastructure projects as a component of the larger reconstruction effort. We are specifically charged with managing transportation, communications, health, and the justice system physical infrastructures. I have a one year contract and will be living and working in the Green Zone in Baghdad. My role is to manage payroll and perform various administrative tasks. I may even participate in the hiring process for recruiting Iraqis.

I don't yet know how often I will write these. It totally depends on the situation on the ground in Baghdad. I will write as often as experience dictates. That is, as I experience things that I feel are important, I will write them down and report them (This also depends on my internet access).

Many of you expressed an interest in this newsletter since you wanted to get an inside perspective. I must admit, that is also one of the many reasons I signed up for this. I really want to know what is going on and why.

I don't yet know what things I can or cannot write about so don't be surprised if there are any topics that I don't touch upon.

I also don't yet know how much internet access or time I will have so don't be alarmed or surprised if I don't write you back immediately regarding any individual e-mails or questions.

I guess that about covers it.

Kuwait, a Staging Ground

Just a few days into my stint and it has already been an adventure!

I flew business class into Kuwait yesterday morning via British Airways and partook of the best airline food I've ever had the pleasure of eating. The meal included plenty of wine on the flight too. In theory, alcohol is non-existent in Kuwait. However, I suspect that if you are a member of the right circles, this is not a problem.

Upon arrival at the airport, I found the small office of Kellogg, Brown, and Root (KBR). KBR is a subsidiary of Halliburton and has many logistics contracts. One of their jobs is to process and transport Coalition personnel into and out of Iraq. I wasn’t the only one waiting to enter Iraq. Several other contractors showed up. Most must have been in the security industry for they had a tough mercenary look to them — cargo pants, tattoos, and muscular builds. Eventually, a KBR contractor led us out to what resembled a tour bus. After everyone was accounted for we left the airport and commenced to drive across the desert that is Kuwait.

Air pollution seems to be a problem here. A dismal haze was hanging around the horizon and some longer term residents have complained of respiratory problems or new allergies. I wondered if this had anything to do with the oil industry for also out on the horizon, were fires burning off the abundant natural gas.

Despite the enormous oil wealth of the country, there are hints of an earlier time for Bedouin, their sheep, and camels roamed beside us as we drove on the first rate highway toward the Persian Gulf.

Upon arriving at the hotel, our bus was searched for a bomb under the carriage. For this, the guards used a mirror stuck at an angle off of the end of a pole — kind of like a dentist's mirror. This allowed them to see the underside of the vehicle. I guess Kuwait isn’t even all that secure.

The hotel they have us staying at is the Kuwaiti Hilton and it is located on the beach complete with great views of massive oil tankers filling nearby or floating lazily out along the hazy horizon. There is a massively overpriced Starbuck's here which is quite a hangout in the evening when tens of Kuwaiti men (usually dressed in long white robes complete with Arab headgear) and young women in tight jeans sip from Starbuck's labeled mugs. I guess that's globalization for you. The coffee, by the way, tastes exactly the same as at home.

Kuwait’s Immigrants

I have already made a friend here. The hotel has a bus that ferries hotel employees between the city and work. I took the bus to make it into town and soon started up a conversation with one of the other passengers. His name was Eddie. He was a Catholic Indonesian and he was working here to support his wife and kid back home with his comparatively high wages earned in Kuwait. As it turns out, Kuwait has has an extremely large immigrant population made up mostly of Indians but there are also significant numbers of Pakistanis, Philippinos, Indonesians, and various Eastern Europeans.

Eddie took me to a few shops where I purchased an Arabic phrase book, Arabic music CD's, and Marlboro Reds (very cheap — about $15 a carton) — not that I'm a heavy smoker but they might be a good bargaining currency and I don't know how available or expensive they will be in Baghdad. Later, we ate at an Indonesian restaurant and he insisted on paying the majority of the check! We spoke of many things including the strange country of Kuwait that we had both found ourselves in, the dire situation in Iraq, Islam, his family, and what the future might hold for us.

After dinner, he took me to a Catholic church nearby. I was surprised that Kuwait even had churches. They are more tolerant than I thought! I soon found an Indian priest during an Indian wedding celebration (maybe they are originally from the Goa region?). I walked up to him while the bride and groom danced around in the crowd to much applause. I told him that I was leaving for Iraq the next day. He blessed my St. Christopher medal which my mother had given me for my protection. St. Christopher, by the way, is the patron saint of travelers.

Issued Equipment

Today, I was issued my PPE or Personal Protective Equipment. This included a gas mask (to protect me from those elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction), hood, duffel bag, pistol belt, canteen, kevlar flak vest, and helmet — All US army standard issue. The vest and helmet are needed for the 10 minute ride from Baghdad International Airport to the Green Zone. I was also instructed as to how to put on my mask and shown how to inject atropine (nerve gas antidote) into my leg. This of course occurred after I was shown grizzly photos of what small pox and mustard gas victims look like after exposure. This was probably the freakiest experience to date.

Most of the people running these briefings are ex-US military. In fact, most of the civilian contractors I’ve run into seem to be ex-military. Although I have nothing but respect for the service’s men and women, I am glad there are also people like myself with a very different perspective. To date, I have not met too many people who are as interested as I am in the cultural, historical, and political aspects of this entire venture. That is one area where I feel I will make a strong contribution since I am extremely interested in understanding as much about Iraq as possible. I have recently been reading a biography of Saddam Hussein so that I may familiarize myself with the last 50 years of Iraqi history.

The mood of most people I’ve met that are heading into Iraq seems to be very upbeat and most are very excited to be part of something so vital to American security and to the people of Iraq. However, there are also those who are here to make a quick buck via the substantial salaries. Some people have reinvested their earnings in the new Iraqi Dinar. I guess you could call it a bet on the success of the entire project. The idea is that should Iraq stabilize, the value of the Iraq Dinar will increase in relation to the US Dollar.

I have also met some Brits who are doing their part. Most of the British civilians apparently work in the South — especially in Basra. Of course these are the areas where the British exercise control.

Everyone I’ve talked to is disappointed about the Spanish pullout which was followed by Portugal and Honduras. I wonder what would have happened if the Madrid bombings had not taken place.

Everyone also recognizes that the UN will be playing a role when things settle down. What that role will be is still up in the air. There is also tremendous ambiguity as to what Iraqi sovereignty on July 1st will look like. Everything is always changing so it is difficult to predict the future.

I must say that the majority of the people I've met are sincere in their efforts and feel they are contributing to the freedom of the Iraqi people. Freedom is not a phrase just thrown around but sincerely uttered and meant. Although there of course is tremendous debate about the intentions of the US administration regarding Iraq, have no doubt that there are those who are here because they want to do the right thing.

I guess that's about it for now. I leave for Baghdad on a C-130 tomorrow morning and will write again as soon as I have the opportunity.

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