Sunday, January 08, 2006

Pressing +964 frequently

Although everyone working in Iraq owns a cellphone, communicating with staff in other parts of the country is very difficult. The poor reception is not the major problem.

As I understand it, there are four cell phone networks operating in Iraq. Each has a different area of coverage. When the CPA arrived, it designated the south for a network called Atheer. It was decided that the central region, including Baghdad, would be operated by Iraqna, which is owned by the Egyptian company, Orascom. In the north, both Kurdish factions have their own networks. Barzani's family owns a company that operates the Korek network used in and around Arbil. Phones in the PUK-controlled areas, such as Sulaymaniya, run on AsiaCell.

Depending on the network, the cellphone might work outside its designated area. An Atheer cellphone can be used in Baghdad to call another Atheer number in Basra. Calls between networks require making an out of country call, so it requires fewer digits to call Arbil from Baghdad than to call the US. My Arabic has slightly improved from memorizing the "you've dialed a wrong number" message that I hear in Arabic. I regularly forget to remove the zero after entering the country code.

One way to remedy this problem is to use Skype, which is free and often has a clearer connection than Iraqi cellphones. Unfortunately, all of our staff do not use Skype.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Rain in Baghdad

Its raining in Baghdad, and several of my Iraqi friends have told me that they're pleased. I didn't see too many umbrellas carrying umbrellas, and no one is bothered by being wet. Since there's not alot of outdoor activities going on in Baghdad, few plans are affected.

According to this article, most residents of the Gulf seem to have the same appreciation for rain.

Happy Army Day!

Today (or what is now yesterday) is Army Day in Iraq. The holiday celebrates the creation of the Iraqi Army in 1921 and we have a two-day weekend to commemorate the occasion. I heard that there was a ceremony in the Green Zone, but in our compound everything was the same.

Most Iraqi guards now providing security for international organizations worked in Saddam's army. Many were fighting American troops before the government fell. Westerners working in security treat Iraqi guards with varying levels of trust, but there's never complete confidence. Iraqis are usually assigned to the less desirable posts such as guarding the perimeter of the compound. In some companies, when they're asked to go on a mission they will have to relinquish their cellphones to diminish the risk that they might disclose their whereabouts to the insurgents.

The number two on the security team for a project used to be a battalion commander in the Iraqi Army. He is a lankly fellow who wears aviator sunglasses and loves to tell dirty jokes. He fits the image of someone who says that tearing out fingernails is not truly painful torture. When he was fighting American troops in Anbar he knew his unit would lose. The unit disbanded and he ended up in Fallujah. Speaking mediocre English, he was hired as the security manager for a relief organization that had just started operations in the city. Now that ex-Baathists are being welcomed into the army, he's not going. There's no way the pay of the Iraqi Government will match his current salary.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The face of American contractors

The ride to the airport runs through a barren, swampy, barbedwire mess. There are a few billboards, but the several signs announcing GBG Logistics are the most conspicuous. These are the only advertisements for American contractors in Iraq that I've seen outside the Green Zone and other restricted areas. There's no contact information on the signs, so I wonder if they're advertisements to generate new business or intended to credit GBG with work done nearby. Its unclear.

GBG's work in Iraq, like the signage, was all bluster. GBG's owner is now charged in federal court. How long until these signs are taken down? GBG must be the worst company to represent American contractors to Iraqis.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

W-allahi, ana mamnoon!

It's never vital that I use Arabic in the office, but I'll still occasionally throw around the Arabic I know. I think it can be useful to break the ice and mildly disarming for my Iraqi co-workers. Some of my colleagues are reluctant to speak English freely for fear of making mistakes. Working with an American who tries his best with their language demonstrates that perfect command of the language is not required. After I receive something I ask for, I'll sometimes respond with "mamnoon," which is colloquial gulf Arabic for "I'm grateful." More often than not, it elicits a smile in response.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The $18.4 billion from international humanitarians

The Washington Post has another article on reconstruction. I'm struck by the end of the article, when Knickermeyer quotes several Iraqis. The Iraqis scoff at the suggestion that the US has done any meaningful reconstruction out of the Green Zone. But these comments shouldn't be surprising or discouraging.

I bet if she rephrased her question "have you seen any reconstruction activities - funded by Americans, well-meaning individuals, or the international community?" the response would be much different.

Most Iraqis who are helped by reconstruction projects in Iraq don't know that the source of funds is American taxpayers. On all the projects I've worked on, the Iraqis who handle most of the interactions with Iraqi beneficiaries rarely reveal that they're paid by the American government. Our staff seldom, if ever, disclose that credit should be given to the US

For example, when an Iraqi entrepreneur approaches a grant-making project, there is a long discussion that follows regarding the eligibility of the individual and the viability of the business plan. After sometimes months of negotiations, the business owner might receive thousands of dollars, but will probably not know that it comes from Americans.

There are a range of explanations that Iraqi staff have told me they give when beneficiaries ask about the source of the funds for their project. The most common seems to be that the source is international humanitarians. Sometimes it's the international Christian community, if the beneficiaries are Christian. Other staff will attribute the funds to the Iraqi government, and leave it at that. Occasionally - rarely - they will say that US government is paying their salary and covering the cost of the project.

Ideally, every project funded by USAID, US Army Corps of Engineers, or the State Department would have a big logo of the agency and an American flag. But that's just not feasible here. The likelihood that the project would be targeted by bad guys is too high. So we have to be satisfied that the project will do good, even if the good won't necessarily be attributed to the US government. In some cases, the beneficiaries are strategically misled about the donor. For example, I've heard that in Sadr City, where hundreds of millions of US reconstruction dollars have been spent, Muqtada actively seeks credit for American projects.

Sponsors of a mosque in northern Iraq can be more candid about their funding.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Reconstruction, a failure?

Its too bad that this blog will no longer be updated after the author's upcoming departure. Its also unfortunate that he's so down about the state of reconstruction in Iraq. I don't think everything is going swimmingly - far from it - but I'm not not about to call reconstruction efforts a total failure just yet.

I don't want to be an apologist for the situation. Jay Garner spoke at a conference just after he was replaced by Bremmer, and I nearly laughed at his comments. He was not a failure running Iraq, he explained, because none of the awful things that were supposed to occur ever came to pass. Contrary to certain predictions, there were few refugees after the war ended and there were no medical outbreaks of typhoid or malaria or any of the other diseases people said were sure to happen if the US invaded. So he was not a failure, because none of these things happened. Maybe he could take credit for disarming Saddam, too.

But I think it makes sense to take a step back and look at reconstruction projects for what they are. Projects, not magic bullets. They're not going to seal borders, stop foreign insurgents, or prevent car bombs. I don't think that the presence or absence of the insurgency should be the yardstick to measure the effectiveness of these projects. Would anyone blame French reconstruction efforts if the Ivory Coast has another coup and civil war? What if war breaks out between Eritrea and Ethiopia, does that indicate the failure of UN peacekeeping operations? No, I think in both situations its acknowledged that there are much greater forces at work that reconstruction and reconciliation projects cannot change. Such is the case for Iraq, too. These projects can only accomplish so much, and suddenly stopping the insurgency is not a legitimate expectation.

These projects should be expected to get the water flowing, the oil pumping, and the electricity running, and it is to the great discredit of reconstruction efforts that some of these basics do not significantly exceed prewar levels. Though, its worthwhile to keep in mind the level of coordination that's required for these projects. Its massive, and when travel is so restricted by security concerns, its difficult to plan anything too carefully. If US coordination domestically can't get the California power grid sorted out and keep the power running there, can it really be expected to have Baghdad functioning all the time, too?

It is also important to keep in mind that reconstruction and relief efforts are regularly criticized. I would be very interested to find one instance when public perception of the results of reconstruction were overwhelmingly positive. There is tremendous disapproval of Katrina and tsunami relief efforts. Both relief activities received a huge outpouring of aid, and both seem to have come up short in the eyes of their donors. The same is true for the Pakistan earthquake. In some ways, this criticism is understandable. The level of destruction is so vast that we expect a response that produces immense results. But most of the time that's just not possible.

I don't know the legitimate expectations for our work in Iraq, just as I don't have a clear definition for what constitutes "failure." But I do know we're helping many Iraqis daily, and working on many important projects that will yield results for years to come. Much of it is sustainable, too.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Years, Baghdad

The New Year arrived with a bang in Baghdad. I was comfortably in bed this morning, sleeping off the aftereffects of last night'’s BBQ -– or Braai, as the South Africans call it. Around 9 or so, the room shakes from the loudest explosion I have ever heard. A barrage of gunfire follows, clearly emanating from inside the compound. The sound was loud enough that I approached the window expecting to see one of the buildings in our compound destroyed.

A plume of smoke was rose from the street. The bomb was a few hundred meters away from the compound. The suicide bomber had targeted a passing police convoy, not our compound. Our security staff says that two Iraqi policemen were killed, but the media is not reporting any casualties among the dead.

I heard many of the eight bombs explode, which is more than I'’ve heard in any day before. I've noted before that general perceptions of the dangers in Iraq do not match the reality, and this is especially strong evidence for that point. Today's bombings read like a footnote, but they were frighteningly close. Not unexpected. I received many emails asking me if I was alright after the Amman bombings, though I was in Baghdad at the time. All of today'’s emails are asking me "“how was your new years?"