It's 5 AM in Qatar, where we landed an hour or so ago. Yes, the Iraq portion of this trip is over. Not without a few final twists and turns, naturally. We got into the Green Zone Monday night and camped out in a media lounge. Standing outside in the parking lot the following morning, a very sharp explosion could be heard, but that's not enough to stop people from going about their business here.
Tommy Clarkson, host par excellence and official at the Gulf Reconstruction Division of the Army Corps of Engineers had arranged interviews with a number of senior GRD folks. There is a major disconnect between the way the reconstruction story is reported in the MSM and the reality on the ground. Much of the MSM focus is on the fact that Baghdad residents enjoy fewer hours of electricity now than before the war. That ignores the fact that, overall, electricity output has increased significantly and that Iraqis in other areas of the country enjoy much more daily power than before the war. During his reign, Saddam monopolized power for the capital, literally threatening engineers with death should there be an interruption. Power is now equitably shared across the country. There are also hundreds of major water, oil and other infrastructure projects that have been completed or are under construction.
The Iraqi civilians and others working on the reconstruction projects are brave and dedicated people. Many of them have been killed by insurgents, who in an exercise of the worst nihilism want to prevent progress at all costs.
Then it was time for a little old-fashioned tourism. We first visited Uday's swimming complex. A luxurious array of pools and lounges where Saddam's son and his friends gamboled as the majority of Iraqis suffered.
Our first attempt to view the Baghdad skyline from the top of the tallest building in the Green Zone was rebuffed by a nervous armed guard, but Tommy got the word through and we were able to take in the panorama. That's me, doing my best Mickey Mouse impression.
We went out to Saddam's old parade grounds, where those famous statues of the raised swords form a gantlet under which his soliders marched. For a small gratuity, a young boy will guide you up a series of ladders through narrow passages to the top of the swords. LT Schultz and I clambered up. A great view from the top, but not something for the claustrophobic. The sides of the statues are 'adorned' with thousands of helmets, reputedly of Iranian soldiers killed in the 1980s war with Iraq.
Today, in place of Saddam's troops, a US Army infantry division - with its countless armored vehicles - was massed, its tour in Iraq completed, awaiting transport back to the US.
Next was a visit to the massive memorial to the unknown soldier. An huge, impressionistic helmet tops the huge structure.
Later, it was time to rendevous with Public Affairs Officer MAJ Hernandez, who has been an outstanding host. But the road to his offices had been blocked by security officials, and soon a large plume of black smoke explained why. Apparently an inspection had raised concerns about a vehicle parked in the area, and the security forces had destroyed it.
Finally, it was off to the helipad for the short trip to BIAP - Baghdad International Airport. We didn't get on the first helo we had been shooting for, and it looked like timing would be tight to make our C-5 flight to Rota, Spain. We got on a later helo, and a helpful Marine LT met us and drove us over to the passenger terminal, where we learned that . . . there was no flight to Rota. And so it is that we find ourselves in Qatar, from where we'll fly to Ramstein, Germany later this morning, and with luck on to Dover, DE in time to make it home for Thanksgiving.
This trip is nearing its end, but the memories and images are indelible . . .
Contact Mark at email@example.com