June 01, 2006

IRAQI REPUBLIC RAILROAD

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Driving past Baghdad Station, part of the Iraqi Republic Railroad (IRR). I paid a visit last month.

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Leaving the Green Zone, you really get to see more of Iraq. I know folks who work here in the IZ. They've never left their compound. They just hunker down in their offices, never going outside...never experiencing Iraq. Granted, Iraq is pretty dangerous, and driving around in an armored vehicle isn't exactly the same experience an Iraqi would have, but you do get to see more than you would watching TV.

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The Rail Station is just a few blocks north of the IZ, where I work, so it's a short drive. Inside, it looks like any other train station.

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Only major difference is your choice of destinations...

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The Rail Yard in the back of the station holds an assortment of engines and cargo trolleys. They even have a few passenger cars, although I wouldn't wanna ride on them just yet.

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Aside from plain-old lack of coordination, the IRR has had a laundry list of major setbacks since the reformation of the government. The biggest problem being that the insurgency keeps blowing up the train tracks. Sad how one tiny bomb can screw up so much progress.

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Trains also make great slow-moving targets. This particular engine makes frequent trips south of Baghdad, through a town called Latifiyah. The town itself isn't very violent, but the trains seem to get picked on. They always come back with a few extra holes in them.

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All along the side, like something in a Western film, bullet holes dot the railcar like a crude decoration.

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It was weird being followed by a security detail. About a dozen or so Private Security Escorts accompanied me on this mission. They also surrounded me everywhere I walked. I felt like some idiot diplomat or celebrity...just awkward. But I knew the escorts were there for my protection. That's just how things are. Iraq is not safe.

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Heading back to our vehicles, the security team swept the area and "cleared us" to leave the building.

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They then stuffed us into our armored vehicles and we drove off.

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Driving back to the Green Zone, we passed one of Baghdad's more ornately designed mosques, known as Bunniyah. Named after the family that built the mosque, Bunniyah is also the name of a fish. The dome reminds me of a Fabergé Egg.

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Also while cruising around Baghdad, you will inevitably drive past a Ministry of Interior (MoI) Police Station. Sometimes, these stations are nothing more than a small building with a few guards. Despite the fact that they have nothing to do with the U.S. and the occupation, these stations are frequently targeted for carbombings and drive-by shootings.

This particular station was only a block away from my work, so we sped past and made it back to our compound.

Now for some local news...

Baghdad has seen a recent upsurge in violence. A rocket hit our gym in the Green Zone while my friend was inside (I'll post pictures later), and carbombs have tried to break through the Entry Control Points (ECPs) that guard admission into the IZ. And all around the city, multiple carbombs, rocket attacks, and shootings have claimed the lives of many Iraqis. It's getting bad.

And the helicopters flying around at night are starting to take its toll on me. Kinda hard to get a full night's rest with helicopters taking off and landing every hour (The Landing Zone is literally 100 meters from my dinky room).

Oh, and it's supposed to reach 118 F (48 C) this week. Time to break out the Slip 'n Slide!

Cheers.

Posted by Dan at 07:25 PM | Comments (8)

June 15, 2006

SUMMER TIME

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Lounging at the pool. I finally had the chance to get some sun and go for a swim the other day. This is one of just a few exclusive pools located in the International Zone (IZ), and I got a great picture of it flying over.

I am now roughly 50 miles north of Baghdad, at Balad Airbase (aka LSA Anaconda). This will be my home for the next week while I do some work. I lost count how many times I've been up here.

In the meantime, here's a few pictures from the flight...

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Baghdad Helipad. There are several Helicopter LZs (Landing Zones) in the Green Zone, but Washington Pad is the main LZ for us civilians. On the way out, we flew past Believer's Palace, and behind that, the Presidential Palace (where Mr. Bush recently visited).

If you want to see pictures from my trip to Believer's Palace, including the underground bunker, click here.

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The Tigris River cuts Baghdad in two. It curves lazily around the city center, just past the Green Zone.

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The city itself is very large, with a population of around six million. At the time of this writing, tens of thousands of Iraqi Army Troops and Police have been deployed to Baghdad, as part of an effort to crack down on criminal elements and insurgent activity. This comes shortly after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in northern Iraq, so it looks like the new Iraqi Prime Minister is trying to use this momentum. I guess we'll see what happens...

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So ya know, this is what 80% of Baghdad looks like.

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Just beyond the city center, the neighborhoods are scattered and some areas are in ruin. This used to be an amusement park, complete with a merry-go-round and steel rollercoaster. This park reminds me of photos I've seen from the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, Ukraine. Very post-apocalyptic.

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And this is what the outskirts look like: somewhere between Mogadishu and Mexico City.

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Flying to Balad, the wind was a bit strong, so we turned east to avoid cross winds. Along the way, I saw dozens of Date Palm Orchards.

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This time of year, farmers across Iraq are reaping their harvest. They need to collect and sell all their prime produce, just before the heat comes. Believe me, it's already 114 F and still warming up. This will be my third summer in Iraq, and I'll never get used to it.

So, like I said, I'm at Balad Airbase. Probably won't update until I fly back down, but check back later.

Cheers!

Posted by Dan at 08:43 PM | Comments (1)

June 24, 2006

RETURN FLIGHT

I finished my work at Balad, and made it back to Baghdad a few days ago. Not much news, but here are some pictures from the trip back.

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Sitting on the flightline, we waited for our UH-60 (aka Blackhawk) to start up. Being the first run of the day, the crew does a "cold start," meaning they have to go through all their checks and maintenance steps. I sat on a concrete block and waited, along with a few other passengers (that isn't me in the photo).

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The crew is almost ready to go, and soon we can jump on the bird.

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With the engines warm and safety checks complete, we lifted off. From the air, you get a great view of the rest of Balad. Pictures of the airfield are usually prohibited, but this photo has been "cleared" as releasable. I flew on a CH-53 helicopter when I was in Ramadi several weeks ago, but I never got any photos, so here ya go. CH-53s are the largest rotary aircraft in the world (not counting an old Soviet prototype).

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Flying south into Baghdad, we had a great view looking out. The doors normally have plexi windows, but they were removed on this Blackhawk.

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We flew in over Sadr City, heading at a Southwest angle towards the Green Zone. This side of Baghdad is poorer, mostly because of the industrial neighborhoods and Shia slums.

I also flew over a large cemetery, but I'm not going to publish the photo. I only took the picture because I didn't know what exactly it was...and I'm only mentioning it because I've never seen anything like it. It looked like a large park with palm trees and walkways, only little wooden boxes were scattered everywhere. We have large cemeteries back in the US, but certainly nothing like this. And not above ground.

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We are now really close to Washington LZ in the Green Zone. This is my stop, so I took one last picture before putting the camera away. The bridge in this photo connects Karradah District with the Green Zone. It is known as the 14th July Bridge; named to honor the day Iraq's Monarchy was overthrown and the country became a Republic.

For more info on the coup of 14 July, click here.

That's all for now. I still have to post pictures from the rocket attack on the Green Zone a month ago. It landed in our gym but didn't explode, to the fortune of three people, including a friend.

Speaking of rockets, Anaconda took six rounds, one of the days I was up there. Mortars used to be common, but Balad has been so quiet lately. One of those six rounds landed in some guy's trailer while he was sleeping, right next to his bed. But again, to his fortune, the round didn't detonate. Wow. That's the definition of luck if I ever had to explain it.

Gotta run. More to follow. Cheers...

Posted by Dan at 07:53 PM | Comments (4)