Saturday, December 31, 2005

Palm trees, blast walls, and jersey barriers

Palm trees abound in Baghdad, but concrete T-walls and jersey barriers may be more ubiquitous. Every building with any security will establish its perimeter with blast walls. Most of the walls are at least 10 feet high and a couple feet thick. Our compound has an outer perimeter of blast walls and a second layer that surrounds each building. As another precaution to prevent suicide bombers, cars entering the compound weave through a series of jersey barriers, too.

I was curious where all this concrete comes from. Today, I learned the answer. The military base near Baghdad houses a factory which manufactures the structures.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Forwarded Emails

Since I've been in Iraq, I have received an astounding number of emails alerting me to both potential viruses and supposedly vital, previously unknown information. All were false.

The first email I received told me to be on the lookout for an email about September 11. This email, the false warning told me, would contain a virus. I tried to explain why the email was a hoax when I spoke with the IT manager, who forwarded the email. Well what if the sender attached a virus afterwards? he asked. How do you know that all emails sent with that subject line will not contain a virus? I did not have a solid explanation. I repeated what I knew was true: the warning was a hoax.

Not all these emails were sent by Iraqis. The British security manager of a project I worked on a few months ago sent me an email that seems to be the combination of two urban legends. It alleged that Oliver North suggested Osama was an imminent threat years before 9/11 and that the Israelis had previously captured Mohammed Atta. I don't know what one can conclude from the security manager's willingness to trust these emails and forward them without further verification.

The latest email I received must be the most ludicrous. I am warned that if I don't forward the email to 20 people, my Yahoo! account will be shut down. I knew that the email was false and I did not need to check on its veracity, but I did anyway. What's surprising is the number of recipients who forwarded this email before it reached me. It was successfully forwarded though dozens of mailboxes.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Millions in the Long Run

Professor Cole offers 10 myths the American public believes about the war in Iraq. Most of his analysis is sound, but I would take issue with number nine. He contends that the massive amounts of money spent in the restive governorates has done little to win the support of the people.

It's true that there is strident opposition to the American presence in the three main Sunni province. But its worth considering how much worse the situation might look like if not for American aid. There was speculation that after the last assault on Falluja that there would be a massive humanitarian crisis. Though the number of deaths is unknown, its safe to say that aid, despite its shortcomings, did mitigate the effects.

Of course, it could be pointed out that American involvement caused the crisis in the first place and that the net effect on support for the US was negative. But in the case of Falluja aid, the support was in the form of food, medical supplies, shelters and provisions for other immediate needs. The bulk of aid into the Sunni provinces is in the form of traditional development assistance, such as job creation programs, trainings, and infrastructure repair.

While its easy to assess the initial cost of this aid, the real value takes years to appear. A training program that equips Iraqis with the skills to participate in a local council will not yield dividends for a long time. But the possible contribution to the long-term stability of a democratic society is invaluable. If the insurgency is fueled by the economic calculus that Cole suggests, these programs increase the costs that the insurgency must pay to achieve its aims.

Its also a mistake to confuse the support for American presence in Iraq and support for American aims in Iraq. Even if the majority of the population of Anbar does encourage IED attacks on American troops, this should not be taken to mean that they oppose a stable, democratic Iraq. As Cole notes, their aims are nationalistic, which is different from anti-democratic, Islamist, or authoritarian. The aid will not quell nationalist aspirations, which will only be satiated by American military withdrawal. But the millions spent in the Sunni governorates now will encourage the development of a stable, democratic Iraq and bolster its supporters long after the American troops have left and aid levels have declined.

And now for something completely different: When one of my Iraqi coworkers took a break from working toward Iraq's long-term stability, I was forwarded this fun game. I scored a 670.

Watching the Watchdogs

Before the CPA dissolved, it left Iraq with an NGO law regulating the operation of the third sector. This is the key law on the books and it is likely that the new government, once in office, will pass a new law modeled after the CPA's.

The government has a legitimate interest in maintaining records on NGOs operating in Iraq. If for no other reason than their tax status, some oversight is reasonable. However, there is the possibility that these laws will eventually be used to restrict NGOs that do not have the favor of the government. In Iraq, the risk is particularly acute. Once the new government is formed, the parties in the coalition will be assigned operation of the ministries. The political party which wins the agency ultimately responsible for oversight could apply the laws to disadvantage NGOs that do not support their agenda. Right now the Ministry of Planning is charged with administering NGOs, but there are calls for the creation of a new, more independent government agency.

The risk that the law will be applied with political motivations should not be the only concern. Under the CPA, there were bureaucratic obstacles. Difficulties with registration required that the law be amended. Why does the law require that registrations be submitted in Arabic, Kurdish, and English, but the law is only available in Arabic and English? Each one of these regulations could be grounds for the government to shut down an NGO.

Right now, NGOs throughout the country are proposing ways that the new law can balance their interests and the government's.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Security Precautions

Non-Iraqi Arabs are being denied entry at Baghdad International Airport. Presumably, this is a security precaution to prevent would-be insurgents from disrupting the election. One of my co-workers is Egyptian, and when he arrived at the airport a couple days after the election he was sent back on the next plane to Cairo. Egypt Air flights from Cairo to Baghdad are now an odd mix of Iraqis, Nepalis, Westerners, and Egyptians who are fortunate enough to be able to travel on another passport. I am curious if this applies to women, who are less likely to fit the profile of an insurgent. The policy is expected to change after the new year or when the election results are official, whichever comes first.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The Beautiful Flowers in the Garden

It's difficult to keep the history of Christians in Iraq straight. As I understand it, there are two main sects, the Assyrians and the Chaldeans. I've also met a couple of Christian Iraqis who said that they were Armenian, and another who said she was Eastern Orthodox.

There's also a community of Dominicans. I don't know where they fit in theologically, but they are active. I met with one of the friars, who is planning to create the first Open University In Iraq to provide a free, secular, adult education. The friar was enthusiastic that his new institution would stem extremism in Iraq.

Most Iraqi Christians, who comprise a significant portion of our local staff, will quickly mention their religion to me. I am told that in the "Christian" language, which is probably Assyrian, my first name translates to mean "have" if you place an emphasis on the first vowel.

Some Christians have positive things to say about Saddam, besides his ability to maintain stability in Iraq. Once, Saddam allegedly was asked how he felt about Christian emigration from Iraq. He said that it would be as if all the beautiful flowers in a garden were suddenly picked from him. Most Christians seem to believe this account is accurate, but I haven't been able to find reference of it anywhere.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Secret Iraqi Santa

We had a rousing Christmas celebration. All of the staff - Muslim and Christian - participated in the festivities. A lavish, buffet-style meal was followed by dancing.

My Iraqi co-workers planned the event. About a week ago, they went around the office asking for ten thousand dinars (about six dollars) to pay for event. I gladly contributed, eager to see what would result. The next day, the planners visited me again. I forget exactly how they communicated it to me, but it was clear that they wanted me to participate in a gift exchange, too.

My co-workers managed to arrange the participation of the PSDs in the gift exchange, which meant that there was a wide range of gifts beneath the tree. The PSDs and other foreigners like myself were limited in what we could bring. We're not able to go shopping on the streets of Baghdad like Iraqis, so purchases were limited to items from the comissaries (or the PX, in the argot of Iraq) at military bases. Iraqis seem to like to give porcelain or glass figurines in heart shapes, or other tchotchkes.

I don't know who chose my name from the basket, but its clear that it was a PSD - I received a utility flashlight that could only be purchased at the PX. For my gift, I asked one of my Iraqi co-workers if she could purchase something for me to give. Thanks to her efforts, I gifted a blue and silver candle holder.

I suggested to some of my Iraqi co-workers that next year we might be able to have a festivus, too, accompanied by a festivus pole. One co-worker understood the allusion. The festivus pole would probably more closely conform with the Muslim tendency towards austerity in religious representation than a Christmas tree.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Turkish Engineer

A few weeks ago I invited an Iraqi friend and former co-worker to join Friendster. He was about to participate in HI5, a popular social networking site in the Arab world, but said that he was more interested in meeting Western women. I encouraged him to join Friendster instead, and showed him how to set up his profile.

I checked on his profile a few days ago, and noticed that very little of the information was accurate. It said that he was a Turkish engineer, not an Iraqi doctor. None of the women on the site would want to date an Iraqi, he said. If he were a Kuwaiti or hailed from a similarly wealthy country then he would be honest.

I told him that there were plenty of reasons he should say he's Iraqi, and be proud. Few women on the site have any opportunities to meet real Iraqis or Arab men. And he has plenty of selling points in his own right. How many men on the site have performed hundreds of successful appendectomies under possibly the most brutal dictator of the 21st Century? Could women find candid, funny assessments of life in Baghdad from a first-hand experience anywhere else? He said that he would change his profile and put a picture, which he said he was reluctant to do.

I hope that all my female friends reading this will click through to his profile, drop him a note, and add him as a friend. He can whoop your ass in ping pong, too.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Are we encouraging Mexican immigration, too?

I regularly hear suggestions from Iraqis that Americans have ulterior motives in their country. The evidence that is most often raised is the state of Iraq's borders and the presence of the insurgency. Under Saddam, Iraq's borders were secure. It was difficult to enter from Iran and there were no infiltrators from Syria. Because America is the most powerful country in the world, the argument goes, it is surely capable of securing Iraq's borders. As America has not been able to secure Iraq's borders, it must have an interest in allowing the insurgents to flow into Iraq. The conclusion is that America is promoting instability in Iraq.

A few nights ago, I had a conversation with some Canadians who believed something similar. The reason that US forces were not able to secure the borders was because the US government lacked will, not ability. America does not appreciate how important Iraq is, they said. If the US did understand the importance of Iraq, more troops would be deployed, the borders would be secured, and the insurgency would be killed.

I have heard accounts about how easy it is to cross from Iraq to Syria. Iraqis who have made the journey tell me that with a little planning you could stash most anything in truck and carry it into Iraq, including bomb parts.

I haven't travelled to Iraq overland, but a quick glance at any map shows how vast Iraq's borders are. When I hear these arguments, I listen. I sometimes point out that Iraq was a police state under Saddam. Infiltrators would be limited in what they could attack even if they were able to enter the country.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

And how do you find Baghdad?

Not too long after we first shake hands, Iraqis regularly ask me "and how do you find Baghdad?" The question is understandable, as most of our staff have spent their whole lives in Baghdad. I'm sure I would ask the same question of anyone born 6000 miles away residing in the middle of my hometown.

I'm about as well equipped to respond as, say, an ant in an ant farm that is queried "How do you like the windowsill?" Its similar to asking Abdullah Ocalan "How do you find life on the beach?" My frame of reference is so limited.

I can't think of an answer that sounds right. If I say "well, I'm comfortable here in this artificial environment, it's really not too bad," I present myself as elitist and overpriveledged, accentuating the differences between us. If I say "Baghdad's awful, the weather is horrible, there are all these bombings, and I'm penned in," I sound ungrateful and overcritical. Most of the time, I say "It's sad, but I have no idea what Baghdad is like" which now that I think about it is fairly defeatist. My new response is "I'm only beginning to get to know it, why don't you tell me how you find Baghdad?"

If I ever have the opportunity to explore Baghdad, I will first accept the many dinner invitations I have received but been forced to decline.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Life in the Age of Generators

I remember one of the first times that the electricity went out. I was in a meeting in the office of an official from Salahaddin University in Arbil. He was interested in funding for a range of University initiatives, while my colleagues were curious about the University's honey-making and bee-rearing facilities. When the power stopped, I almost commented on how much the situation had changed. The air conditioning had ceased its humming and the television stopped playing a Kurdish children's program. Everyone else in the meeting continued as if nothing happened.

Now, six or seven months later, if the electricity goes out I seldom notice. When I'm on the computer, it doesn't make a difference, and I never watch TV too intently to be bothered when it stops. Conversations in a suddenly dark bar continue unimpeded. The electricity typically cuts out every other hour, and the generators restore full capacity in less than a minute. Some of my coworkers find the constant buzz of the generators annoying, but I find the neighbor's chickens more bothersome. If I fall asleep with the television blaring, the inevitable outage serves as my sleep button.

Weapons of Mass Discussion?

In last night's speech, Bush said in passive terms that he was wrong about the presence of WMD's in Iraq. However, several ex-Marines who provided security on a project I worked on disagree with him on this point. Iraq is so expansive that there are still many places Saddam could have buried his weapons, they point out. My own observations corroborate this. Gazing out from the airplane window, the Western desert seems much more vast than California, to which Iraq is often compared geographically. The reservists also have seen the landscape of Iraq shift. A burned vehicle left on the road between Baghdad and Tikrit can be half covered in sand in less than two weeks. Finally, I am told that there are still weapons caches being captured. A few months ago, I heard that thousands of armaments were found in a house just meters from the walls of the Green Zone.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The 26 million beneficiaries

How do you evaluate the effectiveness and success of a development project? I asked someone who was responsible for oversight of projects similar to our own. It didn'’t take long for him to respond. "Cost-per-beneficiary,"” he answered. I forget what he said was a good rate as we were casually chatting in the compound's bar. I think that he said that in Iraq there was a range between $28 and $55 per beneficiary. This means that a project which has 1,000 beneficiaries will cost between $28,000 and $55,000.

The costs don't seem atypical for Iraq, though it surprises me that the cost per beneficiary figures would be prized. There are definitions for how to define a beneficiary, but organizations often inflate these numbers. Rarely have the number of beneficiaries actually been counted individually. No one is in a position to carefully verify the numbers provided. Most of the figures are, at best, estimates. A project with multiple activities can count the number of beneficiaries from each activity, which means that some individuals will appear in the total count multiple times. I heard that some organizations have counted more beneficiaries than the total population of Iraq!

Evaluating the cost-per-beneficiary also does not take into account the level of benefit. For example, one activity will reopen a school with improved facilities and halve the class size of the students. Another activity will cement an already operable, but unpaved road. The costs might be comparable. In most cases, everyone who regularly uses the road will be considered a beneficiary, which could be in the thousands. Repairing a school will provide much a much greater benefit for the students than the road will provide for the residents. The school may fit better with the long-term development objectives for the country. However, a straight '“cost-per-beneficiary' figure does not take this into account and would likely favor the road.

The 24-hour flu

I usually try anything served to me, at least once. In Iraq, I’ve tasted a serving of rice and sheep testicles and enjoyed the traditional Baghdadi dish masgouf, fried carp caught from the pristine Tigris. On occasion, I had indigestion, but was never ill.

Until yesterday. I began to feel nauseous in the late afternoon and told a co-worker that I probably would not be eating dinner with her. My first visit to the bathroom followed soon after our conversation, and I spent the rest of the evening and most of the night expelling whatever it was through every available orifice.

The rest of the team was supportive. The grants manager took my temperature with the palm of her hand. The DCOP insisted that a doctor be called. I knew that the training specialist had a doctorate, but it was only when she offered to diagnose me that I learned it was in medical science. Even the house guard asked if there was anything he could do. I thought it was a 24 hour flu and that there was no need for most of their precautions. As my fever dies and my appetite is restored, it appears I was right.

I’m at a loss for what could have caused this, because I didn’t eat anything unusual. I didn’t eat breakfast and for lunch went for a buffet at one of the compound’s restaurants. For dessert, I ate some ice cream I purchased from the corner store. Often my Iraqi co-workers will bring food they have prepared, and offer it around. Its always tasty, though I think I will decline for the rest of the week. Now, I’m sticking with canned soup purchased from Camp Victory.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Internet in Iraq

In Iraq, connecting to the internet is occasionally difficult. We work from a wireless connection accessible throughout the office. Since there are no DSL lines in Iraq, the signal is transferred by satellite. As I understand it, a receiver sitting on our roof transmits the information to an internet hub. Many advertisements are in German. I think that our transmission, after leaving Iraq, is transferred into space and arrives somewhere in Germany. Though this is circuitous, the connection is, most of the time, very fast.

It seems that every international organization working in Iraq uses the same method. When I look at other wireless connections from our office, I see signals from Dyncorp, IFES, and others.

This is a lucrative business. I don’t know what company we use or their rate, but I heard JPI charges over $5,000 a month for the connection. Their advertisements are found in the seat pockets of Airserv flights. Most of our Iraqi staff have internet at home. Their connections are dialup.

The internet connection was inoperable for most of yesterday, following a fierce storm the night before last. It started thundering at around 2 AM, followed by torrential rain, and stopped a little before dawn. I was awoken several times. Our DCOP who has worked in Iraq for several years said he has never seen anything like it. The connection has not been restored, and I am working off an errant signal emanating somewhere in the compound. The orange trees, which are abundant in the compound, also bore the brunt of the storm. There are now oranges strewn about, but unfortunately they're not ripe yet.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Election Day Haircuts and Posters

Today, when Iraqis went to vote for their first permanent government, not much was different in our compound. My Iraqi co-workers had the day off, the third of a five-day break. But the Kurdish guards who monitor the perimeter were on duty. The corner stores were also open. Outside the office and inside the compound, the only difference from yesterday was that the fellow who sells me orange juice had indelible ink on his forefinger. He voted for list 740, the Christian list, and he said that he would get me a poster.

Mid afternoon, I ventured outside the compound with the regional manager, a genial, rotund Jordanian. Our ostensible purpose was to get a haircut, but I wanted to see what it was like on election day. Despite the warnings of one of my coworkers, we went without security and strolled down the main street.

There was little traffic on the road, mostly busses. It appeared they were taking people to vote. Every few blocks the street would be roped off around voting centers. Some had groups of men around my age congregating around the perimeter. One voting center had a makeshift band with drums and shrill trumpet.

The campaign materials are much different in Kurdistan. In Baghdad, most of the posters feature the candidate's face and the number of the slate. Both compete for space on the poster. Up North, the posters have a cultural relevance to them. One depicts a married couple with the husband wearing the distinctive Kurdish garb. The list number is not prominent, perhaps because anyone who sees it already knows the number. Another poster has a picture of the famous tel in Arbil. I did not see Talabani or Barzani's face anywhere.

My favorite poster has what might be a Kurdish princess adorned with red, white, and green facepaint - the colors of the Kurdish flag. After the trim, we spent some time trying to safely remove posters, while making sure no one took our efforts the wrong way. It was nearly five o'clock, when the polls close, and some passerbys lended a hand.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Campaigning in the information age

With the elections set to take place tomorrow, my phone has been ringing off the hook. I have received over a dozen text messages alerting me to "listi 730." There were some other words, too, all transliterated from Kurdish. It seems that I've had more encouragement to vote for the main Kurdish list than I have for any party in the US, in any election. The telephone lines were reportedly jammed because of these solicitations, and I when I tried to make an in-country call, I reached a recording advising me in three different languages to try again later. Like myself, everyone working in Iraq appreciates that however aggressive the campaigning has been there is no significant violence to report.

In Arbil, where I am now, there are plenty of posters advertising the 730 list. I only noticed one poster for 729, the Kurdish Islamic Union. They're one of the only other Kurdish rival to the 730 list, and their offices were recently burned and looted in one of the few instances of election-related instability.

The persistent campaigning isn't unique to Kurdistan. Before we left for Arbil on the 11th, I received several messages in Arabic encouraging me to vote.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

And if they win the World Cup?

Two nights ago, I was working late and heard gunfire. This is not unusual in Baghdad. Its rare that a night passes where sporadic shots are not heard in the distance. But the firing did not stop after a few rounds. It escalated, and soon I couldn't tell where the shots were coming from. We were surrounded by gunfire, and it was loud enough that I thought grenades and mortars were exploding, too. Some of the shots sounded like they were coming from inside the compound.

Was this it? Were the naysayers right and Iraq was, finally, devolving into chaos? I moved away from the window and into the hallway.

I saw the Nepali guard wearing his bulletproof vest, which I have never seen him do. He clenched his Kalashnikov and peered out the window. I looked over his shoulder. It appeared that small red rockets or maybe some sophisticated bullets were flying through the air. This surprised me, as I didn't think this would be the choice weaponry of the new civil war.

The gunfire subsided after 30 minutes. I'm not the only one who mistook celebrations of Iraq's win over Syria for a new phase of the conflict. The rockets were "tracer rounds." Its normal that Iraqis respond this way to a small victory, a coworker told me, because they have so little to celebrate.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Immigration and the Baghdad Stock Exchange

A Baghdadi Christian asked me if I thought he should immigrate from Iraq to the US. He had reason to believe that a Green Card was imminent. His source was not a sham website that requires users to pay money for access, which on occasion Iraqis have asked me about. Instead, he had official correspondence from the American embassy.

Should he start a new life in the US? He asked me as if I really really had some important insight on the subject.

I paused, thinking about how to answer this. I responded with pragmatic questions, avoiding the issue of whether Iraq had a future or not. "Are you sure that you can make it in the US?" "Are you ready for the adjustment?" "Do you know what sort of work you want to do?" He was confident that he could live in the US, and that the adjustment would not be difficult. He speaks decent English and knows computers. He has some, but not many, distant relatives who live in the states. He might settle near Detroit, probably in Dearborn.

My own thoughts on the future of Iraq are nebulous. I see it as unlikely that it will significantly exceed the performance of any of its neighbors. The best case scenario may be that it will become a country like Jordan. It will have a stable government that has support from the people, and a decent economy that is integrated to the region. There is a significant risk of a coup resulting in a government like Syria's, or an Islamic government similar to Iran.

The question is in some ways like asking me if I should be in Iraq. I'm working here on rebuilding the country, and if I believe progress is impossible, shouldn't I pack up my bags and go home? Who wants to participate in an exercise in futility? This is why I didn't give him a direct answer. My private response is that even if Iraq has an uphill battle ahead that it may lose, that does not change the fact that our work does help the Iraqi people. This help is needed, regardless of the long-term trajectory of the country. But I didn't want the rest of the Iraqi staff to know that I had significant doubts about the future of the country as a whole.

He felt that Iraq had the trappings of a great country, such as a strong agricultural base and oil. It might be a mistake to leave that behind. As I talked to him more, he was more concerned about missing out on the Baghdad Stock Exchange. An Iraqi bank has shares which sell for less than 100 ID (1500 Iraqi Dinar = US Dollar) and a significant stake is about to be purchased by HSBC. How could he leave that opportunity behind? He already owns thousands of shares, and since only Iraqis can own stock, he would have sell his holdings. He also asked if I thought the Iraqi Dinar would strengthen against the dollar. I forget how the conversation ended. I remember mentioning the risk of insider trading.

We still keep in touch. It looks like he will immigrate.

More zeroes to a single organization?

Most of our work here is devoted to the immediate requirements of our project. However, there is discussion of the long term US objectives in Iraq and reconstruction policy. Though our project will run until June 2007, we wonder about our friends at other organizations.

For most, the future is uncertain. Rumour has it that all reconstruction activities will be centralized under a single contract. The release of a new grant lends creedence to this. In terms of US foreign aid, the funds discussed in this proposal are mind-boggling. A single organiztion will be awarded more money to spend in Iraq over four years than were spent on all of Africa in 2003. Though some perspective is necessary given the general scale of Iraq reconstruction. Almost every project, including the one that employs me, has more funding than the total support given to most African countries.

This does not make sense to me. Why centralize funding in a single partner? How can a single organization realistically manage so much money? Every contract has a certain risk that the work will be poorly executed or that the contract will be mismanaged. Why not contract with several organizations and diminish the risk of complete failure? Perhaps the costs of coordinating multiple partners is so high that it is more cost-effective to work with a single organization. Its not immediately evident to me how this could be the case. Though the due date for applications is more than one month away, I heard that the partner organization has already been identified.

Andrew Natsios, director of USAID, resigned last week. Maybe he is as baffled as I am. Though the possibility of suddenly working for the State Department is a more likely cause.

Rereading the RFA, I am curious about the 10 strategic cities. I have been told there are 9: Mosul, Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, Hilla, Baguba, Najaf, Samarra, Tikrit. Perhaps the remaining one is to be determined based the focus of the "Insurgency" which, curiously, is capitalized.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Arabic in the Office

My ability in Arabic has not improved since I've been in Iraq. I know more words in Iraqi dialect, but my ability to read and converse is unchanged. As was the case when I arrived, I can make myself understood on basic issues and engage in simple conversations as long as the other person speaks slowly and uses plenty of formal Arabic. I occasionally crack the Arabic textbook I brought, but not as much as I would like.

This is not unusual. I have yet to meet a single Westerner who has learned Arabic during their time here. That's not because there's any shortage of Iraqis to learn from. Instead, most people who work in Iraq are quite satisfied with their current set of skills and see no reason to add another language. I met a water specialist who had worked in Iraq for over six years, before the fall of Saddam, but only had a knowledge of Arabic that was rudimentary at best.

One of our PSDs is fluent. I've heard him speak Arabic more than any other Westerner, including the second in command on our project, who is also fluent. The PSD worked on a development project earlier, and took a job (with a much higher salary) in security once it finished. It comes in handy for him occasionally. When clients arrive at the airport, he talks his way past the arrivals gate, into the baggage claim, and helps with luggage. He was kidnapped once and was able to talk to his captives. The Arabic, he explained, encouraged his release.

There are plenty of opportunities for study. The Arab staff speak to each other in Arabic, but all know English and will use it when they speak to expats. A coworker of mine provided a creative explanation for her indifference to learning Arabic. Its more important that the Iraqis learn and practice their English than we learn Arabic. This is the age of globalization, and English the international language, she said. How thoughtful. And some say Americans working here don't care about Iraqis!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Uncommon Access Card?

To enter military bases and other restricted areas in Iraq, civilians like myself have been issued a special card by the government. The application process included several weeks of waiting and approvals from numerous government agencies, and even crossed the desk of my housemate. She wrote me a surprised note saying she had seen my paperwork and asking if I was really going to Iraq. A few days before I left I visited Ft. Belvoir, a military base near DC, and received my Common Access Card, in Iraq more commonly referred to as "the DoD."

There are two types of CAC cards floating around. Americans receive cards with a green stripe, others are issued cards with a pink stripe. I should be more specific here. "Others" does not include Iraqis. They're not issued CAC cards as far as I know. They receive passes that are only valid for individual locations, such as the Green Zone.

When I visited a government office in the Green Zone, I left my CAC card as a deposit to ensure that I would return the visitor's badge I was issued. Big mistake, my escort told me. Now it would be more difficult for me to enter his office with my other IDs. The CAC card is your passport, he explained, the only universally recognizable ID in Iraq, and you should never part with it. It also includes a special chip, which is supposedly linked to the blood sample I gave when I was issued the card. I'm dubious of this, but several people have told me that following bombings the chip has been used to identify otherwise unrecognizable remains.

Yesterday I received a government email that said foreigners will no longer be issued their pink cards. Instead, they must "pay for their Iraqi visa when they arrive in Baghdad. The cost in CASH - is $80 plus another $1. The entry visa is valid for 10 days. You will need to work with the local authority to receive an extension of the visa or a resident permit." I've found paying the one dollar entry/exit tax to be a funny excercise. For one dollar or 1000 dinars (66 cents) a very unofficial looking man slaps a stamp on your boarding pass.

Slightly more official-looking figures who check passports will be collecting the $80 dollars. This will affect many people, as there are thousands of contractors. I have heard estimates of 13,000 South African contractors alone. No one seems to know what the implications will be though, including the US government. The email closed: "At this point we do not have further information, but will share with you when we receive new information. We would be most interested in hearing your travelers' experience when they arrive at International Airport."

Thursday, December 08, 2005

We're not leaving any time soon

Yesterday, USAID agreed to a second phase of the project. Our operations are extended a year and will continue to June 2007. This was not too much of a surprise for anyone, as there have been discussions for a while that this would happen. We had an office-wide celebration to commemorate the occasion.

This is the first all-staff gathering that I have been to since I joined. Though we all work in the same building, with approximately 95 employees (excluding security), it is rare that we get everyone together. The building contains two offices - the national headquarters, which occupy the second and third floors, and the regional offices, which are on the first level.

The mood was much more upbeat than I expected. The staff erupted in applause after every speaker and it seemed that everyone (excluding me) took pictures. I don't think I've ever been to a work-related event that was this jubilant. And there were only soft drinks and cake on offer, as captured in the picture, which was taken by a coworker.

Most of the staff will now be employed until the end of the contract. Many of them previously worked for other USAID contractors whose operations were discontinued. I'm sure they're pleased to continue working with us, but what is more important is that they will have jobs. I have not heard any statistics on unemployment lately, but aside from mention of job creation schemes, I notice that this was only briefly discussed in yesterday's speech on the economic conditions in Iraq.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Elvis and Security

Whenever our security contractors drive us through Baghdad, there are risks that they will take measures similar to what is captured in this video. It appears to be filmed from the last car in a convoy. In several different scenes spliced together, cars approach and a stream of bullets are fired. When I first watched the video, I thought that the gunner did not fire warning shots, but it seems that he does. Elvis plays in the background.

I have never been in a convoy and heard shots fired, though our Personal Security Detachment - the preferred nomenclature for the former soldiers responsible for our safety - do not hesitate when there is a possibility that an approaching car might be a suicide bomber. The last car has a mounted machine gun out the rear window. First, they fire a few warning shots in the air. Next, they shoot the pavement in front of the car. If the vehicle hasn't stopped at that point, they fire on it directly. Aiming at only the engine, I've been reassured. The security contractor who provides our PSDs, Reed, boasts that they're not as trigger-happy as their counterparts at Blackwater or DynCorp.

When I first arrived in Baghdad, I wrote an email to a friend who was also working here. I did not know what it would be like driving from the airport, but I was surprised to find it to be so similar to a military operation. If I were ever in a convoy and Iraqis were killed so that I could travel, I wrote, that would be the end of my stay here. If that tradgedy happened, how could I support my claim that I am here to help the Iraqi people? I don't feel the same way about that now. Maybe its because I have more trust in the abilities of the PSDs than I did before. They're not going to kill Iraqis unnecessarily, even if they do not hold them in the highest regard.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Gems of Iraqi English

One of my core responsibilities with this position is improving the writing of local staff. Iraqis working in the field write about their work and the activities of our partner organizations, and I edit it. These tasks are not technically demanding. The key skill - the only skill, perhaps - is a basic knowledge of the English language. However, its sometimes next to impossible to make anything coherent with the writing I'm given.

The staff on this project speak English very well. I can have conversations with all of them and I don't need to change my word choice to help them understand. But their writing is very poor. I have several theories as to why this is the case.

We're dealing with democracy and governance issues. Our projects involve work on "capacity building" and "skills development." These are not easy issues to discuss succinctly. Its much simpler to write about projects that increase wheat yields or repair schools.

Another possible explanation is that this project demands more writing. Unlike other projects, a weekly report is required by USAID. We sometimes ask our local staff to write for the sake of fulfilling this requirement, not because they have something important to communicate. I think this contributes to writing that is, at times, completely meaningless.

Whatever the cause may be, sometimes I receive writing like this.
Project Title: Constitution Awareness. The Location was Diwaniya and the period was two months. Total Amount: $8998. Three of participants had to swim to get in to the workshop site in al-Saniya District because they were late 15 minutes . This project explained that most of people in Iraq have no real awareness in constitution because the x-regime (for 35 years) was dictatorship, this awareness lectures would educate and aware these people, also improve their ideas about the role of constitution and the people role in writing the constitution.

I wonder if the 9K that were spent on the project were misallocated from FEMA's Hurricane relief monies.

Far be it from me to criticize though. I wonder what a kick the Iraqis would get if I ever attempted to write something like this in Arabic.