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Friday, June 04, 2004

One True Thing
Gary, glad that you like James' missives. James really is a great guy -- he's the perfect dinner guest: funny, interesting, kind, and generally a good guy. I definitely count him among the great American's I know. I miss eating lunch with him.

Dateline Baghdad: 16 May-19 May
Pomp and Circumstance, and One True Thing

Dear Kids,
As I said yesterday, I've had mondo computer problems, what with nit-wits burning through the fiber optic cable and technical experts unhooking my computer. Here is a little info on what has transpired recently. The biggest news was the doin's on 15 May. That day was we had an event of significance for us, and probably of no interest to anyone else. That was the day that Combined Joint Task Force Seven(CJTF-7), the overall command for all Coalition Forces in Iraq was disestablished and a new organization Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNFI) was stood-up to take its place. CJTF-7 evolved out of the American U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), which deals with events in the Mideast. CJTF-7 was in many ways subordinate to the CENTCOM. The new, Mult-National Force will be largely autonomous, with its own resources and policy, much as U.S. Forces Korea are largely autonomous of the U.S. Pacific Command (the theater Commander for that geographic region.)

The new MNFI will have a significantly different headquarters structure, and is postured to work with international organizations such as the UN. The change is meant to be a step on the way to full Iraqi control, a big part of which will happen (God willing) on July 1 when a UN appointed and ratified Interim Iraqi Government (IIG) will take power. What the Iraqi people will think of this new government will have to wait 'till then, but the military forces take it very seriously and are working to realign themselves to workwith an Iraqi government that will have a major say in how security operations are conducted.

Anyway...back to my story. This was the "stand-up" of this new multi-national command. In the military that means a big ol' ceremony with flags and brass bands and such. Representatives from most (maybe all) of the Coalition nations traveled to Baghdad to attend the ceremony. It was held in the atrium under the dome of the Al Faw Palace, known to many Coalition soldiers as "Victory Palace" after its first U.S. occupants, the U.S. Fifth ("Victory") Corps HQ. From all over Iraq, soldiers from about forty nations mustered up at one of the regional chow halls to get a bite (I assume) and get on busses for transport to "The Palace". The largest contingents were from Poland, Britain and Italy, but there were also Philippine soldiers, Albanians and at least one Thai (among others). I as one of the local commuters, I was able to get to The Palace without a helicopter flight, and so a friend and I went over to see the festivities.

Upon arriving it was made clear that We were not considered important enough to be allowed in the front door (an impressive portal with a 15 foot high green and bronze door). Apparently there was a honor guard of saluting dudes inside and their salutes would have been wasted on Us. Instead we was directed to a servant's entrance around the side.

We walked through a warren of offices carved out of massive marble audience chambers by American cubical partitions and made our way to the gigantic four story high, octagonal atrium. It is a spectacular public space, made to make other powerful men feel like supplicants when they came to pay homage to Saddam. Inlayed marble floor, massive columns, and pointed Arab arch ways stacked level upon level. Although immense amounts were spent on marble, as is usual in Saddam's palaces, the quality of the workmanship is a bit dodgy when you get a close look at it. Poorly aligned joints, oozing mortar, gaps filled with caulk. From a distance though, it looked pretty good. The Real show stopper is a massive Phantom of the Opera style chandelier that hangs in the middle of the atrium. It is likely that as with all the other chandeliers in the building the "crystal" chandelier droplets are plastic.

My companion tolerated my wandering around in the atrium, taking happy snaps of all the multi-national dudes (and dudettes) in attendance. Different contingents are stationed in different parts of the country so we don't often see the troops from some countries. The 1st Cavalry Division (Armor) Band was there (as they had been at the PX Grand Opening) playing appropriate martial music. Eventually we removed ourselves to the second floor gallery where many of the on lookers, who were not distinguished guests, stationed themselves for the best view.

Jump forward. Most of the highest muckidy mucks were there. Ambassador Bremer, the President's Special Representative to Iraq and the boss of the CPA was front and center. So were diplomatic and military bigwigs from many of the Coalition nations. Many members of the Iraqi Governing Council were there as honored guests, as were many other politically important Iraqis.

The officiating officers were LTG Sanchez (The theater commander), LTG Metz (the Corps charge of activities in the filed), and General Amer Ahmed Bakr Hashemi the commander of the new Iraqi Army. (Gen Hashemi was a respected retired career officer who has come out of retirement to take a mind bogglingly hard, and spectacularly dangerous job...building a new non-political Iraqi Army while multiple groups are murdering such officers.)

Right from the beginning there was a strange note in the proceedings. In order to, I suspect, emphasize the expeditionary nature of their mission all the Coalition participants (including all the American Generals were wearing their helmets (and body armor!!) during the ceremony. Some spectators might have suspected that they feared that a bad guy rocket was about to punch through the Palace's dome and interrupt the parade. The fact that Gen Hashemi had chose to wear a more sensible beret made the picture stranger still. (Lt Col Simon just noted that the senior British General sent his regrets and did not attend because he felt that it was somewhat farcical that the mandated "dress code" was full "battle-rattle".)

The flags of all the participating nations (including Iraq) were paraded in. The 1st Cav band played a jaunty military tune. I was impressed at the military bearing of the flag bearers. Considering the small size of the military forces deployed from some nations, the flag bearer may have constituted a significant percentage of the nations' military detachment in Iraq. Then there was the "Casing" of the colors (flag) of CJTF-7 and the "un-casing" of the colors of MNFI and its subordinate "field" command Multi-National Corps-Iraq. The new logos are pretty cool and incorporate traditional Mesopotamian iconography. (I'll send them to ya'll later.)

After that there were typical military speeches, obviously crafted by Public Affairs officers. Someone has a tin ear for diplomatic speech in this region. The speeches were extremely positive, almost triumphalist in tone, describing all the (quite real) achievements of the outgoing CJTF-7, and the great work yet to be done by MNFI and MNCI. However, considering the dangerous security situation and fragile political situation they sounded somewhat inappropriate in tone. That was certainly the opinion of many Iraqis in attendance, especially the Arab language press, who seemed less than engaged in the American speeches. (Some sat and stared at the ceiling.)

The occasion was saved by General Hashemi, who stepped to the podium and delivered a heartfelt speech filled with love of country and yearning for a better day. His comments took note of the dangerous task ahead but addressed the risks with determination and courage. When he finished he walked away from the podium, and I stupidly put down my video camera. Instead of returning to his seat the General strode across the atrium to the massed flags. He stopped next to the Iraqi flag bearer. (The flag in question was the traditional Red, White, Green, and Black banner that has been Iraq's flag since 1963, not the much hated "pretend" Iraqi flag dreamed up by the Governing Council and rejected by pretty much everyone in Iraq.) General Heshemi gently picked up the flag and kissed it reverently. Then he stepped back and saluted the flag smartly. The reaction was electric. The Iraqis (who, as stated before were almost totally disengaged from the proceedings) cheered and applauded, as did everyone else. I, and everyone else I think,was moved by this act of unabashed patriotism in a troubled land.

He then returned to his place with the two American commanders, and sailed through the rest of the ceremony. After its' conclusion, General Heshemi was mobbed by guests and military members who wanted to speak to him, take his picture, or just shake his hand. Then he was spirited away to meet the Arab language press where he was mobbed again. He delivered a series of long series of animated interviews on his views on the difficulties facing Iraq and the way ahead. The reporters were engaged and receptive. I wish everyone involved with policy could have seen him in action, and the extremely positive reaction. It validated the opinion of everyone in theater, more Iraqi control fast as better. I hope the General makes it. He is brave patriot, trying to do the best he can for his country.

Now on to a subject of much less import. Yesterday night I was walking home and passed the little old exchange. Far fewer people go there now (what with the big new one down the road), so they sometimes have interesting items that are sold out elsewhere. As I stated before, window shopping is a popular wartime recreational activity. Lo and behold they had Surefire flashlights! Ha! Now I have one too and Major Sean and I can engage in MAB (mutually assured blinding). This will possibly act as a deterrent to him. Ow! No it won't. I just said this out loud and he responded by shining his Surefire in my eyes. Apparently deterrence can fail, but at least I had the satisfaction of responding in kind.

Well, that's all the news that's not fit to print. See you next time, same Bat time, same Bat channel.

God Bless,

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