May 04, 2006

Victory, Diwaniyah, and Kalsu

Sandstorm
April Showers...Baghdad style. Another sandstorm blew through Iraq last week, but only for a few hours. This photo was taken in mid-day.

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As expected, I'm back in Baghdad. I spent a week or so in western Iraq, known as the Western Corridor. I had an interesting time, but I can't get to that yet. I must finish posting about my trip to Diwaniyah and Kalsu from last month.

So here we go...

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Getting to Diwaniyah, I had to catch a ride out of Baghdad with a local PSD (Private Security Detail). They drove me to Camp Victory (next to Baghdad Airport), and we stayed there for a night.

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I felt so strange, because this was exactly where I slept almost two years ago, when I first arrived in Baghdad. I had some time to walk around and see how the camp has changed. Aside from the different buildings, the vehicles were different too.

Camp Victory, RG-31 Armored Vehicle
There are so many proto-vehicles being used and developed out here, most of them coming from South Africa or Namibia (thanks Stephen, for the correction!), where land mines and rough terrain helped in the development of these burly beasts. These "RG-31" Armored Personnel Carriers are used for security escorts, liaison missions, and other applications where you need something sturdy. They look like a REVA, but apparently are not the same. It is possible they are the same model as the Namibian WMF Wolf MPV.

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The next morning, we left Victory and headed out on MSR Tampa. I've traveled on this road many times, including a trip to Babylon, treks through Kuwait, and a cruise to the gulf port of Umm Qasr. This will be yet another journey down the long strip. As for this picture, it easily comes close as one of my worst photographs ever taken, but it's more to show you the layout of these roads. They are large highways that stretch across miles and miles of fertile land, and they used to have center dividers but have recently been removed, as they made good hiding places for IEDs.

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Heading down Tampa, you are sure to see several other convoys, each with their own destination and mission. Some are US Military; others are Iraqi Security Forces. Some are on patrol; others are driving back to their home base. Some are delivering supplies; others are hauling people.

Scania, Iraq
On the way down, we made a ten minute stop at Scania, halfway between Baghdad and Basrah. Scania isn't really a camp (although it has a small area for support personnel). It's a stretch of road on MSR Tampa, surrounded by security barriers. The idea is to make it a safe haven, so convoys and supply trucks can take a break or get some sleep after a long haul. You enter and exit through security checkpoints, and once inside, just pull over and rest. In the photo, you can see the walls on the left and right side of the highway. That's it...literally.

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Three hours after leaving Baghdad, we made it to Camp Echo, in Diwaniyah. This is a quiet part of the country, mostly because of the large Shia population. This is also the home of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Madhi Militia. These knuckleheads tried to attack Camp Delta in August of 2004, when I lived there.

That summer, 400 or so insurgents stormed the gates but were mostly gunned down. They also took control of the local Iraqi government building in Al Kut. This was about the same time the holy city of Najaf was under siege, and yet our city was barely mentioned in the news.

Yeah, so the point of mentioning this: Insurgents in Baghdad recently attacked a US Military convoy in the slum neighborhood of Sadr City. This actually happens all the time. But these insurgents were either attacking from a mosque, or they eventually retreated into a mosque, which makes things difficult because mosques lose their protected status if they are used to conduct attacks.

So the US convoy fought back, and in the process, killed several innocent bystanders. I don't like hearing that, but I would also like to point out that the insurgents were responsible for the deaths of other innocent bystanders. Regardless of this, the tragedy severely upset the residents of Sadr city, causing a backlash among the Shia community. There were mass-demonstrations in southern Iraq just a day later. This of course includes Diwaniyah.

So the night I arrived, we received two mortar attacks, large demonstrations in the streets, and random gun fights throughout the night. Remember, I said Diwaniyah is a very quiet place, so this was a big deal for the normal camp residents. I guess we're just used to mortars up in the Green Zone.

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After I finished my work, I drove north, to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Kalsu. FOBs are not real camps. They are secured of course, but aren't built for long-term residence. This means most everything is either a tent or a trailer. I guess that's why I only took this one picture.

The FOB is named after Lieutenant Bob Kalsu, the only professional football player to have died in the Vietnam war. He was killed by a mortar attack on 21 July, 1970.

That's it for now, but I promise, I will get to my Fallujah/Ramadi trip soon. And after that, I have pictures from a trip to the Iraqi Rail Station in Baghdad.

But I can't just close like that, so I'll leave you with yet another bullet-through-our-roof episode...

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A stray bullet punched another hole in our work trailer last week. This one actually made it through the ceiling tiles, but didn't do much damage to anything else.

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Here's the hole where it came in. Always reminds me of that Beatles song.

Until next post...

Posted by Dan at 10:59 PM | Comments (8)

May 16, 2006

THE WESTERN CORRIDOR

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Returning to Baghdad in style: an empty Blackhawk all to myself.

These pictures are from my trip to Anbar province a few weeks ago. I flew from Baghdad to Fallujah, spent a few days there, then drove about 70 km west, to Camp Blue Diamond, in the outlying town of Ramadi.

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While I was in Fallujah, I found another stash of REVA 4x4s. There are a dozen or so of these vehicles scattered around the country, and they are sent to the "hot" areas because of their durability (the hull of these vehicles is V-shaped to deflect blasts from IEDs).

I didn't get to ride in a REVA when I drove from Fallujah to Ramadi, but I felt safe enough. I usually ride in a B-6 Armored Toyota Landcruiser. B-6 armor is a nice thing to have (it stops most armor piercing bullets and even some blasts). It isn't 100% safe, but good enough for me.

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A few days at Camp Blue Diamond, and I caught a ride with a US Military convoy over to Camp Ramadi. I didn't have any work at this camp, but it's the only place to easily catch a helicopter ride back to Baghdad.

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Turns out there was a flight going to the Green Zone that night, but no room for me. So my options were to either stay in Ramadi for a day, or catch a CH-53 over to an Air Base called Al Taqaddum (TQ), located between Ramadi and Baghdad. TQ sits next to the massive Lake Habbaniyah, and while this wasn't where I needed to go, it did offer more flight options.

This hanger is where I sat all day while I waited for a ride...any ride...I just wanted a ride! It sucks sitting in these things all day.

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I finally found a midnight flight up to Balad Air Base, just north of Baghdad. Balad is home to LSA Anaconda, the largest US Military Logistics hub in Iraq. I have visited this place several times since being out here, but usually just passing through.

A few hours sleeping outside with the mosquitos, and I got an early morning helicopter ride to the Green Zone.

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On the way down, we had to make a stop at a camp known only as "Sharif." I'd never heard of it, and apparently neither did the pilots. We actually got lost, and ended up far south of Baghdad! I did get to take some great pictures, although the fog hadn't yet cleared fully. In this picture, a small town sits in between a massive palm orchard.

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One good thing about getting lost is we approached Baghdad from a direction I hadn't taken before. I got to see a much different picture of the city, from the mud huts to the make-shift animal stables. The view reminds me a little of Mexico.

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About to cross the Tigris River. In the picture you can see the Sheraton and the Palestine Hotels, known as the safe haven for journalists working in Baghdad. These hotels are also known for the triple carbomb attack last October (scroll down to see a video capture minutes after the cement truck exploded).

That's all for now. As I've already said, I'm back in Baghdad. Next post will probably be pictures from my visit to the Iraqi Rail Station. In usual fashion, I leave you with another goofy picture - Something you'd only find in Iraq...

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This is one of our security guards, a Gurkha (from Nepal). I didn't take this picture, so please don't copy.

We really do have attack dogs that patrol the compound, but this one cat always seems to hang out with the security guards. Too funny.

Posted by Dan at 09:30 PM | Comments (4)