Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Phil O'Connor from Iraq

Many of you in the Illinois political world know Phil O'Connor, a former chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, and advisor extraordinaire to many top level Republicans. I believe he ran one of Jim Thompson's successful campaigns for governor. He is taking a leave from his competitive electricity business, Constellation NewEnergy to serve with the U.S. State Department and the Army Corps of Engineers as an advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity. Phil arrived in Baghdad in mid-March. He was preceded there in mid-January by Terry Barnich, another former ICC chairman and top Republican strategist. They are serving on the same advisory team.

He recently sent out a "communiqué" to friends, which he has granted me permission to post. He has some interesting observations about life in Iraq. He notes that the views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Government or any agency thereof.

While my impressions and expressions of them at week #1 will no doubt change the longer I am in Baghdad, the sense I most often get is that of incongruity, or at least of attention grabbing juxtapositions. So my first "communiqué" from Iraq to my family and friends focuses on these incongruities.

Much of television fare in its early days when I was a little boy consisted of WWII newsreels (The Big Picture, Victory at Sea, etc.), I always thought that there was nothing quite so poignant as Mass being celebrated in a war zone. Well, no disappointment there. At the daily Mass in the community chapel in the Embassy compound there is a real sense of community and gentleness -– the incongruity, of course, is that half of the people in the room are carrying side-arms or large weapons. Saturday evening I watched a young sailor prepare the altar for Mass as he carefully avoided knocking anything over with the barrel of the weapon slung over his shoulder. While I have seen police officers at Mass with their pistols visible, I have to admit that I have never taken communion from a Eucharistic minister packing a 9mm. At the end of the weekend Masses, the padre asks if this is the last time someone in the congregation will be attending. Several people will stand up and tell where they are going and then there is a round of applause. Also, because we are coming up on Easter, the catechumens are presented with their sponsors and they are applauded.

My favorite juxtaposition so far was last Friday evening when I was doing some e-mails in my room (sort of like a Motel 6, actually perfectly adequate and nice) and the president was on the news vowing to veto the funding/withdrawal bill passed by the House. The only problem was that I could not hear him well due the helo traffic overhead from the main trauma hospital in the IZ the forward operating base not far away. The incongruity was that at home I would have been even more engaged in the discussion of the issue as it played out on the tube. Here, I realize, there is a certain academic quality of the debate even though, arguably, it applies to me in spades now. Go figure.

Friday, the Muslim holy day, can sometimes involve more trouble than other days because people have the day off and a few clerics incite some people to violence. Also, the mosques are full and there is more opportunity for sectarian attacks on "soft" targets. This past Friday saw a suicide bomb attack on a deputy prime minister, a Sunni who had had the courage to participate in the governing coalition. It took place at a mosque in his residential compound. He and other wounded and dead were brought to the 28th Combat Support Hospital (CASH) a main US military trauma center that treats both Coalition wounded and Iraqis whether they are the enemy or our friends. As I crossed the street returning from the Embassy to Freedom Compound where I live, a pickup truck came through the crosswalk and I saw two bodies, a man and a woman, stretched out in back (I do not know what condition these poor people were in.) Then, a white SUV came up to the crosswalk and its parking lights were blinking (like we do for a flat tire at home) and it slowed to let me cross. But, trying to be polite as one would at home, I waved it through. As it passed I saw that in the back was another person whose legs, dangling over the tailgate, appeared to have been burned. The incongruity of someone slowing to let me cross even though they were rushing a terrorism victim to the hospital was actually more unsettling than the sight of these poor people.

One naturally thinks of Baghdad as a very dangerous place. However, the incongruity is the same one most of us are familiar with, living in safe and secure neighborhoods while others not far away live in genuinely tough and perilous conditions. The same is true for me here. I live in the IZ (International- or Green-Zone). It is the ultimate gated community. The compound I live in is guarded by a British security company. Most of the leadership and the personal security detail (PSD) people who provide very good protection for any ventures out of the IZ are Brits, Americans or other such. The bulk of the men and women in the guard force who I see mustering every morning as I walk to work are the famed Gurkhas. With them, I feel as safe in the compound as I do back in South Lakeview in Chicago. For the average Baghdadian, however, life can be pretty hazardous. Within the confines of the IZ the occasional loud boom punctuates life but the odds may be no worse than driving on the Dan Ryan.

In the IZ, Thursday night is the new Friday night. Friday is the official day off and so Thursday night is when people gather to socialize. A few other people from the embassy took me by car a little way inside the IZ to a residence rented a consulting form. We hung out in the backyard of this place and it occurred to me that it was pretty much like a session night in Springfield.

I was trying to figure out how to take the bus from my compound down the road to the embassy when I was asked by a young soldier if I knew which bus went where. He and I ended up walking down toward the embassy together so I could point him in the right direction to go see and photograph the :Hands of Victory" (crossed swords) monument that Saddam built to celebrate all the slaughtering he instigated in the Iran-Iraq war. This young man was about as humble as they get, sort of apologizing to me that he was "only" in the postal unit up at Taji (the busiest airport in the world by the way – not O'Hare). He was in town to accompany someone who was visiting the hospital. He said he was the only one in his group who would likely get to the IZ and see the monument. Here he was, a tourist for a day and enjoying every moment. I told him that as far as I was concerned the postal unit had given me great service so far since I had gotten all of the packages my wife had sent to me faster than I would have imagined. By the way, not enough can be said about the military people. From top to bottom, they seem serious, professional and up to doing whatever they are asked.

All in all, this is a fascinating experience so far and quite sobering in terms of an appreciation for the security of our lives at home that we naturally become accustomed to. The incongruity on that point got a chuckle from me the other morning as I was walking over to get my ride to a meeting outside the IZ, dressed in a blue suit, starched white shirt, tie and polished black shoes lugging my flak jacket and helmet (that stuff really does weigh a ton). An Army officer looked at me and said, "just another day at the office -– with Kevlar."

One development this past week really captured people's attention here. For the first time little children were used as decoys in a car bomb attack. A car with two men and two ten-year-olds got through an Iraqi-manned checkpoint because the Iraqi Army guys figured there was a low risk. The two men then ran from the car and detonated it, killing the two children and, I think, some other people in the area. It was not so much the increased threat indicated by the tactic, but the utter barbarity of it. I have not heard whether they determined whose children they were. But the bad guys here would not be above just grabbing a couple of little kids off the street or "borrowing" some children from friends or family and using them. This really is part of Saddam's legacy and also characteristic of the "boundaryless" approach of AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq) -- that someone would even contemplate doing such a thing.

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