It was July 2009 and I had never been to the capital of Dhi Qar Province before. Nasiriya lies in south-central Iraq about 185 dusty miles southeast of Baghdad. It looked like other impoverished southern Iraqi towns I had seen in my first few months in Iraq, neglected for decades by Saddam Hussein, left out in the desert sun and sandstorms to fend for themselves. The motorcade trip up from Tallil Air Base, where I had arrived in a small military prop aircraft earlier in the morning, took about an hour and a half but seemed much longer as we passed endless two-story buildings, dilapidated fences, and dry riverbeds and canals. Men wrapped their heads in traditional keffiyeh and moved slowly along the side of the road, as if to conserve energy in the July heat, not appearing to notice the added dust caused by our six black armored Chevy Suburbans as we made our way to a meeting with the Provincial Council. Signs and posters bearing Muqtada al-Sadr’s dyspeptic glare didn’t seem to add to or detract from the décor of the otherwise drab surroundings. His image, too, was cloaked in dust. I stared out the window from my seat in the back of the vehicle,
my mind wandering at times to the broader project of Iraq, what it had done to us, what it had done to the Iraqis, and thinking perhaps not so literally: when are we going to get there?
I had come from Baghdad to Dhi Qar Province to do what U.S. ambassadors do all over the world: meet with local officials and get a sense of what is on people’s minds outside the confines of the capital city. U.S. forces had liberated Nasiriya in their triumphant march to Baghdad in 2003. The province was almost entirely Shia, the majority sect in Iraq that included some of the most trod-upon victims of the Saddam Hussein regime. Our forces expected jubilant crowds to greet them with rose petals, as our vice president at the time had predicted on national television with his confident tone of matter-of-fact certainty that fooled some and infuriated the rest. Instead, when our marines burst through Nasiriya in spring 2003, scattering Saddam’s forces, they saw pretty much what I saw: no joy in dustville, just ordinary people who, all things being equal, would probably have liked us to leave as soon as possible.
We arrived at the city hall and slowly piled out of our vehicles. I had taken my flak jacket (required attire on these trips) off in the car, not wanting to be seen by the staring Iraqis as if I expected one of them to shoot at me. It seemed so lacking in trust. I glanced around at the five-story apartment buildings surrounding us, wondering how the security advance team could possibly manage to deal with the kinds of random threats that could come from behind any one of those numerous windows. I looked around at the shops and the people on the streets, whose languid pace was in sharp contrast to the frenetic movement of the taxis and pickup trucks that seemed to be in a perpetual drag race. I walked up the half-dozen steps and met the Iraqi protocol official, who greeted me warmly (as Iraqis do so well) and escorted me and a few others into the building, while the rest of the security team waited in front of the building inside the SUVs, their motors still running to ensure a fast getaway, and, perhaps more practically, to keep the air conditioners going.
The head of the provincial assembly was not in town that day, so I
was greeted as I emerged from the coffin-sized elevator with the leader of my security detail by the deputy head of the provincial council, Abdul Hadi Abdullah Mohan. The elevator had grunted and groaned the three-floor distance as if it had been asked to do something utterly beyond its capabilities. Mohan, perhaps out of shyness or something else, didn’t appear any more enthusiastic about greeting me than the elevator had been in conveying me, so I set to work to try to put him at ease, and say how pleased I was to be in Dhi Qar Province for the first time.
We sat down in his small office and were soon joined by several members of the provincial assembly, who together with the embassy and provincial reconstruction team staff made the office seem even smaller. Iraqi staffers dragged extra chairs through the door, their wooden legs screeching on the hard marble floor as if, like the elevator, they were being taken to a place they didn’t want to go.
After initial pleasantries, a ritual I knew all too well from my years living in the Balkans (the western part of the same Ottoman Empire that Nasiriya had spent so many centuries under), I opened with a point I would often make in such settings: the United States desires a long-term relationship with the people of Iraq, provided that the people of Iraq want the same. Our troops would be drawing down, but our interest in the well-being of the Iraqi people is enduring. I told him that while it is true the United States is very far away, Iraq would always be very close to our hearts. The war was a very difficult time for all. I described the agreements we had put in place with Iraq, the first governing the presence of our troops, and the second setting out our civilian relationship with Iraq. Thin gruel, to be sure, but nonetheless the documents could show the Iraqis that somebody had at least taken the time to put down on paper the accoutrements of what a normal relationship could eventually look like.
I always thought that our “Strategic Framework Agreement,” as it was called (or SFA, as it was inevitably abbreviated—in U.S.-military-occupied Iraq, everything under the sun seemed to be known by its
abbreviation or acronym), looked very much like a 1950s-style Soviet “friendship” agreement with an Eastern European satellite. I had served in Poland during the early 1980s and could recall the government exhortations—often expressed in banners unfurled over streets and roads and on large billboards—to “implement” the friendship agreement, whatever that really meant. For the communist authorities it was an agreement to remind the public that the Soviet Union was their friend and would protect them. For the Soviets, it was an effort to legitimize their subjugation of Poland, but not a particularly successful one. As a Pole once explained to me, it is very bad manners to draw up a treaty with a country you have just invaded.
The U.S.-Iraqi SFA was, of course, none of the above, but it did represent an attempt to show there was a future in this odd relationship. But for each side it represented something very specific—and different. For the Americans, it was a document that took the relationship beyond one based only on military ties. Those were to be addressed in an instrument called the Security Agreement (SA), whose purpose was to serve as a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), much like the ones many countries have with the United States to provide the legal basis for troops on their soil. Needless to say, not all SOFAs are equal. Having worked in Japan on my previous assignment, I knew very well the complexity of the security agreement there, and the obvious fact that the U.S.-Japan SOFA, for example, does not permit U.S. forces to set up roadblocks and checkpoints in downtown Tokyo, or anywhere else in Japan for that matter. The U.S. military in Iraq welcomed the framework agreement, the SFA, as an agreement whose ultimate purpose would serve as a follow-on agreement that would put the U.S.-Iraqi relationship on a “normal” basis, even if there were to be further SOFA agreements to govern the future basing of U.S. troops.
Diplomatic agreements work best when both countries have a similar level of experience dealing with them. The SFA didn’t pass that test. For Iraqis, at least those who were aware of the existence of something called
a Strategic Framework Agreement, the SFA actually represented much more than it did for the Americans. The document laid out the relationship for years to come, and most important, in the minds of some Iraqis, it required the United States to provide assistance in all forms—especially money—to them for the rest of history.
Of course, this was not how State Department lawyers saw the agreement. Prior to my departure for Iraq, I met with two of the lawyers from the legal department, who proudly went through each section of the agreement to point out how they had written it in a way that did not compel the United States to do much of anything. The pièce de résistance was that the agreement did not have to go to the U.S. Senate for its approval as a treaty.
Meanwhile, back in Nasiriya, I gave a message of tough love, cautioning the Iraqis that we could no longer be solving Iraqis’ problems for them. But more optimistically I also pointed out that the embassy was busy setting up relationships with Iraqi universities and that just that morning I had met with law professors and students from Dhi Qar University to discuss their needs. I told them I would arrange for a team of lawyers from the embassy to come down in the next few weeks to talk in greater depth about enhancing our educational cooperation.
The Iraqis gave me that studied look of indifference, one that I suspect they have perfected over the centuries, reserved for pitiable foreigners who do not quite understand that what they really want are things and money, not forms of cooperation.
Deputy Council Chairman Mohan was gradually warming up, evidently energized by his heavily sugared glass of black tea. Within ten minutes he clarified what he really wanted by marching through the list of goodies he was looking for us to provide for him. He explained the tough fiscal environment he was facing, the fact that he had had to cancel 74 projects due to Baghdad’s budget issues, and had suspended work on another 113 already started. We need schools, he told me, and a hospital. too. “We could name it for President Obama,” he generously
offered, hoping that could clinch the deal. He said they needed libraries and businesses and agricultural investments also. And finally—Mohan was on a roll—we need an international airport, he told me, saving the best for last as other members nodded their approval of Mohan’s request for the creation of Nasiriya International Airport. Those others chimed in with their own requests, explaining the drought conditions that had particularly affected the marsh areas, and how the United States could solve this problem, too. During my time in the Peace Corps decades before, I had visited some of the poorest villages in the world, and yet I had never heard such a list. All problems were laid at our doorstep, and the United States was responsible for addressing all of the province’s challenges—and, going forward, for fulfilling the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants. I kept trying to steer back to providing some expertise in small business development, sanitation, health, and education. And Mohan kept returning to the subject of an international airport.
It was clear that the deputy chairman had come to regard Americans as visitors bearing gifts, and who could blame him. The U.S. military, having rediscovered the fact that money can be a weapon of war, to paraphrase from the redrafted field manual of counterinsurgency (COIN), had spent billions of dollars in the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), itself a euphemism for a program whose purpose was as old as the history of warfare: provide money to local chieftains so that they will forbid their people to shoot at your soldiers the next time. This time honored, field-tested approach had been around for thousands of years, but in Iraq it became an example of derived wisdom. An updated U.S. Army field manual was coupled with the proprietary relationship that some senior generals and researchers in Washington-based think tanks claimed for any and all ideas related to tactics and strategy in Iraq. In a country on whose ancient land the wheel had once been invented, in our vanity we were claiming the reinvention of other ideas in the cradle of civilization.
The only problem was that this so-called new weapon of war was
fast drying up. L. Paul Bremer, whose civilian operation was in effect a wholly owned subsidiary of the military, had some $20 billion at his disposal for so-called reconstruction. Bremer was a civilian, a retired Foreign Service officer who had been dispatched to Iraq as the lead U.S. official when it was understood that the tasks would be more political than military. But during his one year in Iraq he still reported directly to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, not Secretary of State Colin Powell, and his mission took on the character of a sprawling civilian component to the U.S. military rather than a Foreign Service post reporting to the State Department. Bremer’s colossal budget was far more akin to the military’s mega-budgets than to those the State Department was used to managing. As Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority (of course, “CPA”) became an American embassy accredited to a sovereign Iraq a year later in the summer of 2004, the downward pressure of funding a State Department operation began to be felt. As I sat in Nasiriya, the State Department was struggling to convince Congress to support less than $500 million in Iraq-related projects.
I tried to be as forthcoming as possible with my Iraqi hosts, but on the issue of the international airport, I took a tougher line, explaining the enormous funds that would be needed for construction of such an investment in Dhi Qar, that the citizens there need to create more reasons why more people should come to their province. I tried earnestly to explain the need to take ownership of their own problems, to work together, and to be realistic about what can come from outside. “The best thing I can do as an American diplomat is to be perfectly honest with you. We cannot solve all your problems.” That was a formulation I had used in Albania years before, and it had been understood there as the country and its brave people struggled to emerge from decades of communist totalitarianism. But U.S.-occupied Iraq was different.
Indeed, Mohan was nonplussed, suggesting by his body language that part of what was going on was his effort to show the other members of the provincial assembly what a tough leader he was and that he was
not afraid to ask for more, because the Americans always have more, and should give more. Watching this ambitious deputy, I took a measure of optimism in that as painful as some moments of this meeting had been, there was a spark of democratic life here. Mohan had a political interest in showing that he was a doer and a leader. I found myself liking him for that. As if to slow down any emerging comfort level on my part he returned again (and again) to the subject of why an international airport near Nasiriya would be what the doctor ordered. I held my ground on their airport, though flying away from there did have some appeal.
We parted amicably after he had graciously escorted me out of the building to our waiting vehicles; their exhaust fumes mixing effortlessly into the hot afternoon city air. It was late, and we had less than two hours of daylight remaining, with a dust storm on the way, as we headed back to the sprawling U.S. base at Tallil. The team started piling into the cars, including Greta Holtz of the Embassy Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team, who took a seat in the second row next to where I would be sitting. The other “limo” carried staff assistant Jen Davis, a former Peace Corps volunteer and now a Foreign Service officer embarking on a promising career that would soon have her in Chinese language training.
Also in her car was the embassy’s military advisor, U.S. Air Force Col. Jeff Prichard, “JoBu” to his many, many friends. JoBu worked entirely for the embassy, was our liaison to the military, and went on all my trips throughout Iraq. A career officer, he understood the military, its strengths and its foibles, and had a capacity to explain those issues to those of us who had not spent two decades in uniform. A good military advisor—and JoBu was a great one—is invaluable to an ambassador in a country where the U.S. military is so prominent. Nothing ever seemed to faze JoBu, a former F-15 and F-22 pilot, except when the University of Alabama Crimson Tide would occasionally lose a football game. He was extremely quick and smart, as flying those complex aircraft would suggest, but he also had an emotional intelligence.
I said farewell to Mohan and turned to the vehicle that Lance Guillory, the lead security agent, motioned for me to use. Before climbing in I took one more look around downtown Nasiriya, marveling at how our security could have guaranteed our safety in that hardscrabble town. I looked over at JoBu, who was about to get into his vehicle, which would be ahead of mine, and whose opinion I always sought immediately after a meeting (“hot wash,” he would call it, an Air Force metaphor that refers to cleaning a plane’s tail section from the grit and grime while it is still hot from flight). “Hey JoBu, see you back at the base. We’ll talk.” He gave me a thumbs-up and got in his vehicle.
Fifteen minutes into the ride, Lance, riding shotgun in front of my seat, started speaking into his walkie-talkie in an agitated tone as he saw ahead that our Nasiriya police detail had inexplicably turned left onto another main road while the plan was to continue driving straight. The procedure for these motorcades was never to inform the police in advance which road we would take, but rather to tell them during the journey by radio what turns to make (or not to make). Lance, subbing for my regular head of security detail, Derek Dela-Cruz, who was on leave, was concerned that the trip go well under his command, and therefore seemed particularly annoyed with the police for turning off the route.
As we moved forward along the two-lane road, all wondering why the police car had turned left at the intersection, we heard a deafening boom and saw just ahead of us a massive plume of thick black smoke rise into the air from the right side of the road. The vehicle ahead of us carrying JoBu and others sped furiously through the wall of smoke. My vehicle began to slow down, the U.S. driver momentarily unsure whether to keep going through the smoke, which is a standard maneuver in such situations to foil the possibility that the bomb was a decoy designed to make a stopped vehicle a sitting target for a rocket-propelled grenade or small arms fire. Lance, his diplomatic security training and his personal leadership very much in evidence, immediately shouted at the driver, “Go! Go!” and the driver slammed the accelerator to the floor, violently flinging
those of us who had been leaning forward, back into our seats as the vehicle surged ahead into the thick wall of smoke.
We braced ourselves in the expectation that our armored Chevy Suburban would hit something ahead hidden in the smoke, but as we emerged from the detonation area, I marveled that we were still roaring forward, as was JoBu’s car in front of us, now only vaguely visible through the dust and smoke. Just then the road took an abrupt left turn that our skilled driver, even at an accelerating speed, managed (barely) to careen through, getting us safely onto a bridge and over a dry riverbed. A huge gasoline truck stood on the side of the road. Could this be the real bomb? We sped by it, holding our breath at the thought that everyone had but nobody dared utter. Greta Holz, sitting next to me, shouted to me, “Get your PPE on!” referring to personal protection equipment, a flak jacket, something I had neglected to do when we were departing Nasiriya. “It’s too late, I’m going to be in trouble with Lance. He’ll write me up for this,” I responded, managing a lame joke.
We continued to drive at breakneck speed on through a small settlement, where nobody except for some young boys playing by the side of the road even bothered to look up at our speeding convoy. It took still another thirty minutes to get back to the base at Tallil, where we entered the safety of the facility, past the American soldiers on the checkpoint. We all wearily lumbered out of our SUVs, still feeling the brush with fate in our stomachs. Roadside bombs had claimed so many lives over the course of the Iraq War, but it was not a subject I wanted to dwell on that day. I felt fine and quickly checked the vehicles to see how others were doing.
Jen Davis, who had been sitting next to JoBu, was having serious headaches and some bleeding from her ears, an apparent concussion, and was whisked off to a medical facility. I moved away from the vehicles to telephone the embassy and tell them we were all fine. I told our public affairs team to try to downplay the attack in talking to the press, since we didn’t need any panic buttons pushed. Just as I completed the call my mobile phone rang and it was the State Department Operations Center
patching through a very concerned Secretary Hillary Clinton, who asked for details. I told her “it was nothing,” and that we were all fine. I wasn’t really sure that was true, having been through other such circumstances in the past and realizing that people are not always as okay as they appear.
After concluding the call I found myself momentarily reflecting on the fact that the purpose of the bomb was to kill somebody. Later I saw on the internet the creepy video belonging to a group calling itself the “Regiments of Promised Day,” relating news of the incident with the voice-over, bragging that the intention was to kill me. Whatever the intention, I thought it was best not to dwell too much on that either. I looked up at the darkening sky and saw that a sandstorm was fast approaching and that we would probably be spending the night in Tallil, instead of returning to Baghdad. That was fine with me. I had had enough traveling for the day.
JoBu was also checking on how everyone was doing, with no shortage of his usual high energy.
“You good, JoBu?” I asked. He stood there, glancing around briefly at the scene of hastily parked SUVs, and took his helmet off. He ruefully shook his head in relief as he wiped his brow, and finally looked back at me.
“Sir, you should have said yes to the airport.”