Baghdad diary 

Editor’s Note -- Local freelance journalist Michael Jordan sent us regular e-mails during his recent trip to Iraq as an embedded reporter with several U.S. military units. On the eve of the December elections in that country and during a rising debate over U.S. troop withdrawal, we present the entire series of e-mails with a few of Jordan’s own photos.

Thurs., Oct. 20 Arrival in Baghdad

Twenty hours after I left the hotel in Kuwait, I’m still not all the way to my destination. Our bus left the Kuwait Hilton at 2 a.m. Tuesday and took us to an American air base deep in the Kuwaiti desert.

On board the bus were more than fifty people, virtually all civilian contractors working for the U.S. government in Iraq. I met an internet security expert who works at the U.S. embassy and a former soldier/Hinesville resident who defuses unexploded terrorists bombs found by the military. What a job!

We sat around outside under a tent until after 7:30 a.m., when we climbed aboard an Air Force C-130 cargo plane and flew to Baghdad. The flight took about an hour and a half. We wound up crowded into a concrete and gravel holding area at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport).

A member of the Third Infantry Division’s Public Affairs Office, Sergeant First Class Flores, picked me up and drove me to the division’s headquarters nearby. I spent the day hanging out with public affairs folks until 6 p.m., when I climbed aboard a Blackhawk helicopter for a hop across town to the Green Zone in central Baghdad.

The flight over Baghdad was enthralling. The full moon illuminated the sprawling city. Our chopper was completely blacked-out to make us invisible to terrorists with shoulder-fired rockets. I was not even allowed to use my little Sony infrared camera, for fear insurgents with night vision goggles might see my “invisible” light.

Zipping over the city at less than a thousand feet, I saw street lights, homes, freeways, headlights and tail lights. It’s amazing how much Baghdad looks like any other city you fly over as you’re landing at an American airport. Then I saw Saddam’s old palace -- familiar from all the coverage on cable news.

After the chopper landed, I waited for a ride in an armored SUV to the Coalition Public Information Center (CPIC). I met a Fort Stewart soldier who survived a roadside bomb blast today and is already on his way back to work.

He was blown out the turret of his vehicle and landed on his back, unconscious. He’s a little sore, but okay. I was not able to interview him, but I’ll never forget our conversation.

It’s now close to 10 p.m. Baghdad time, and I’ll be spending the night on a cot here until I can get credentialed and link up with the 4th Brigade folks tomorrow morning. Then I’ll proceed to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Falcon to embed with 3/7 Infantry Battalion for a few days.

My roommates in this huge office in the convention center are a two-person crew from Britain’s Sky News. We started talking about Old Fort Jackson and the Battle of Savannah, and I learned the Sky producer/editor is a War of the Roses reenactor, who owns a broadsword, bow and arrow, and a complete suit of 15th-century-style armor. He refused to be sent to cover Hurricane Rita because he had to take part in the final battle of the season!

Somewhere nearby, Saddam Hussein is also crawling onto a cot. His trial starts here tomorrow morning.

Fri., Oct. 21 Madrassa & medics

Today Alpha Company soldiers from 3/7 infantry battalion took me to a madrassa (Islamic school) in the Al-Jihad neighborhood. The walls were covered in Arabic graffiti reading “death to Americans” and “Shia and Sunni unite to kill the occupiers.”

But the actions inside the walls overpowered the words on the outside. Inside, members of the new Iraqi police force were providing security for a free medical clinic. Reportedly, this was the first time the Iraqis have handled this on their own.

The 3rd ID soldiers stayed away on the next block, watching but not interfering. I went inside with a translator.

Several hundred Iraqis of all ages came through the gates to see doctors. About an hour after the clinic began, the imam (Sunni preacher) at the mosque next door began broadcasting something on the mosque’s public address system.

The translator told me he was telling all the folks in the neighborhood to come to the Coalition clinic -- an amazing breakthrough considering the time and place. Suddenly, hundreds more people thronged to the schoolyard. In all, more than a thousand showed up.

I was so moved, I had to stop shooting video at one point. I helped one elderly lady step down off a steep sidewalk. She gripped my hand tightly, and we walked together to the end of the line. Then she kissed my hand.

It’s so much more real when you connect with people in person -- and they stop being “the Iraqi’s” we see on the news every night and become people just like our own families.

We only stayed at the school for a couple of hours, then our convoy moved to a local district council building so Captain Ike Sallee of Alpha Company could meet a local citizen and hear his complaint. The entire time, Sallee’s Iraqi cell phone was ringing off the hook with calls from neighborhood people giving tips on insurgents, asking for help, and keeping him informed of goings-on.

The soldiers have a very hands-on relationship with the neighborhood—almost like local politicians or cops on the beat. It’s hard to get the idea from network nightly news coverage, which makes you think American soldiers hide in armored compounds and never venture outside for fear of their lives.

Sat., Oct. 22 Slow news day

Today I accompanied Captain Sallee as he met up with his local police contacts within the company’s sector. We met with the colonel of the elite Lion Brigade commandos, the Public Order Brigade, and the local Iraqi Police.

Afterwards, we dismounted from the Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and strolled through the Al Jihad open-air market. The market includes just less than two hundred stalls given to the Iraqis by Alpha Company.

Tomorrow morning I’ll join another 3/7 company and some civil affairs troops as they deliver wheelchairs to local disabled folks, then I’ll rejoin Captain Sallee at a District Advisory Council meeting. This is kind of like an Iraqi neighborhood council.

Afterwards, Sallee and his men will drop me off at the larger, more central 4th Brigade headquarters so I can transition to the 2nd Brigade and Sadr City on Monday.

Mon, Oct. 24 Triple car bombing

Wow -- it’s been quite a day. Let me begin by telling you all that I’m okay, and so are all the local soldiers here in Baghdad tonight. My day started with a tour of the base where I’m staying now --Camp Loyalty -- home to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (last week I was with 4th Brigade — both brigades are part of the 3rd Infantry Division).

The base used to be Saddam’s internal security compound (translation: spying and torture center). The complex appears on no Iraqi maps. It has a huge bombed-out prison in the middle, with underground tunnels connecting the prison to the hospital, in case someone was tortured a little too much.

According to Capt. Melissa Ringhisen, “mayor” and chief administrator of Camp Loyalty, Saddam hired Chinese laborers to build the place, then jailed and killed them so the design plans would remain a secret. You can still see Mandarin Chinese characters scratched on one cell wall.

After a tour of the prison, I joined a group of soldiers for a series of activities that culminated with a walking patrol of a market in the Shiite Zaphernia area.

About 5:30 p.m., when the sun was setting and people were preparing to end the daylong Ramadan fast, three distant rumbles shook the ground. We could see three distinct plumes of dark smoke rising over central Baghdad.

We rushed back to Camp Loyalty and joined a group of soldiers preparing to speed to the scene and assess the situation. We arrived at the location -- Firdos Square and the Palestine/Sheraton Hotel complex -- in a matter of minutes.

This is the same square where people toppled the big statue of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, and the hotel complex where members of the international media are holed up behind concrete barriers, razor wire, and security guards.

It turns out a series of three suicide car bombers had detonated their explosives in the area. The first, in an SUV, blasted an opening through the concrete barricades protecting the hotels.

The second was stopped by gunfire across the square. The bombs still went off -- sending shrapnel ripping through nearby homes and businesses and killing several Iraqis.

The third and final vehicle bomb-- packed into a huge cement truck-- made it through the hole in the wall and into the hotel complex. An alert Fort Stewart soldier fired his rifle and stopped the attack.

Our group got there just after the Iraqi first responders had cleared out the dead and wounded. As we walked quickly from our Humvees to the scene, I felt glass and metal crunch beneath my feet. I soon realized this was pieces of the exploded vehicles.

Soon we found chunks of the frame and engine block, and a U.S. Army Bradley Fighting Vehicle blackened by the blast. In the traffic circle around the square, two cars sat gutted by the explosion.

Across the square, the sounds of screaming and wailing women pierced the darkness. Nearby, we found more gutted cars, and a three-foot-deep crater craved by the blast. The engine block was blown seventy-five feet from where the explosion began.

I was surrounded by American soldiers this entire time, with one soldier specifically assigned to keep an eye on me. I was wearing my helmet and body armor. I shot video with my small, night-vision Sony camera, and took the attached still pictures with my canon digital Elph.

We kept on the move, never standing still for too long in one spot-- lest our silhouetted forms draw the attention of snipers. We left within half an hour.

Gazing past the scene to the roof of the Palestine hotel, I saw network TV crews doing their live shots. I asked my escort, 2nd Brigade Public Affairs Officer Major Russ Goemaere, if the network camera crews had likely already been to the scene.

He explained the Western news networks get much of their video from Iraqi “stringers” who are essentially photographers-for-hire. I realized I might be the first American videographer on the scene.

Back at Camp Loyalty, the public affairs soldiers helped facilitate my live report on WSAV-TV/Savannah via a military satellite system. It was 6 p.m. in Savannah, 1 a.m. here. Now it’s 3:05 a.m., and I’m starting to wind down.

Tomorrow, I’ll go on a guided tour of the well-known Sadr City neighborhood -- one of the poorest in Baghdad -- to see water, sewer, and trash projects that are making life tolerable for the two million people who call Sadr City home.

I’ll have more -- hopefully more mundane -- info to report then.

Tues., Oct. 25 Mid-afternoon

Things are a little quieter here in eastern Baghdad today. Today we left the base at 9 a.m. for a tour of Sadr City. This 7x7-mile area is home to roughly two million Shia. It is wretchedly poor.

We were traveling with military engineers who are overseeing large water, sewer, and electrical projects in the district. They said things are much better now than just a year ago, but it was still pretty squalid. The sewage was so pungent it made my eyes water.

I could barely get any video because of the children who mobbed us everywhere we went. They shouted “STA, STA!” (mister, mister), and tapped or tugged incessantly on my arms and clothing. The soldiers give them candy, money, and toys, so kids have come to associate military convoys with handouts.

Tues., Oct. 25 Evening

Another once-in-a-lifetime kind of day here in Baghdad. Tonight, I joined a group of Fort Stewart soldiers invited to break the day’s Ramadan fast with members of a local neighborhood advisory council.

We all gathered, standing, around a big ovular table. The hosts passed around big trays of chicken with sweet rice. When the clock registered 5:30 p.m. (time to break the fast), we dug in.

Afterwards, hosts and guests got down to business. I was ushered into a backroom as 2nd Brigade Combat Team commander Lieutenant Colonel Merkel met with a man whose son-in-law has been detained on suspicion he is part of the insurgency.

Through a translator, the elderly man begged for help, and insisted his son-in-law is innocent. Colonel Merkel promised to look into the man’s concerns.

After the main course at dinner, the hosts passed around plates of a baklava-like desert and cups of hot sweet tea. I spent about half an hour learning Arabic words from a bodyguard named Muhammad.

I’ve attached a tantalizing shot of the wonderful flat bread sold in the markets here. The bread is baked in the big concrete-and-brick ovens you see in the background. Sometimes they make it thick and puffy with a pocket inside, and insert grilled meat and vegetables.

Thurs., Oct. 27 Combat injury (sort of)

CAMP HOPE, EASTERN BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- Coalition forces regret to announce injuries sustained by Savannah, Ga.-based free-lance broadcast reporter Michael Jordan while embedded with Coalition troops in eastern Baghdad. At approximately 0145 local time, while attempting to avoid an oncoming Humvee traveling at approximately one kilometer per hour, Mr. Jordan stepped off the road, twisted his ankle, and fell face-first into a sharp-leafed desert plant.

Mr. Jordan now has a swollen ankle and a fat eyelid. He will not be evacuated from the area of operations.

Well, there you have it... klutziness apparently follows you even to the other side of the world. But let me rewind the tape a bit and tell you about the events that led up to my fall.

Yesterday (Wednesday), I traveled in a convoy from Camp Loyalty (the former Saddam prison/evil compound) to Camp Hope (FOB Hope, as the military calls it), to spend some time with troops from the 3/15 Infantry Battalion. I accompanied members of E-company on a patrol in Sadr City.

First off, we visited one of the new neighborhood stations that provide safe, clean drinking water to Sadr City residents. While we were there, I noticed an Iraqi man who seemed to be arguing with the soldiers. I learned that they were asking him to take down a poster of local leader Muqtada al-Sadr from the water station wall (it’s inappropriate to hang political posters on an official government building).

The man protested that he would endanger, embarrass, or humiliate himself if he removed the poster. The troops backed off and asked him to remove it before they returned.

I should take a minute here to explain who Muqtada al-Sadr is. Sadr’s father was the longtime spiritual leader of the two million-plus downtrodden Shia people who call Sadr City home.

He was murdered by Saddam a few years ago, and how his son Muqtada has created a cult of personality centering on himself. He’s the Shia leader whose militia battled with American troops here earlier in the year.

Sadr’s image is everywhere -- one finger raised as if he’s making a point-- leering down from every street corner and most buildings. There are also Sadr stickers adorning regular official signs.

On one of the day’s patrols, I saw a soldier carrying a tabloid-sized Sadr poster; the troops are required to remove any poster or sign that shows Sadr with weapons, and this poster featured a masked militiaman shouldering a bazooka.

After the water station visit, the 3/15 troopers visited a sewer pumping station to check on a malfunctioning piece of equipment (3/15 infantrymen are engineers as well as soldiers), then stopped on a major highway to set up a roadblock to search cars for weapons and explosives.

I headed out into the stopped traffic with an interpreter to ask the drivers if they were irritated with the hassle.

All I spoke with -- even cabbies -- said no, and that they supported the Coalition. I’m not sure how honest they were being, but the Shia in Sadr City did vote to support the new constitution.

On our way back to the base, we passed a large pro-constitution demonstration. I saw Iraqi news crews videotaping the activists, who marched with large Arabic banners and posters of Shia leaders.

Another thing that made a real impression on me during this visit was the large number of rocks thrown at our Humvees by neighborhood kids -- many of whom had been smiling and asking for candy and money just moments before. The soldiers just keep moving and do not respond to the stonings, which leave small dents in their Plexiglas window armor.

After dinner, I went back out on patrol, this time with soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York. One company of this unit was traded from across town in exchange for an armored company from 3rd ID.

The New York soldiers wore the funky new “pixilated” camouflage the army has adopted, rather than the standard desert DCU’s most soldiers wear, and head four-inch-long night vision monocles protruding from their faces.

There are infrared lights attached to the barrels of the soldiers’ rifles. The resulting illumination is visible only through the night-vision goggles. With their helmets, body armor, hi-tech camouflage, gloves, radios, wrap-around shades, and huge automatic rifles, the soldiers looked like starship troopers or Robocop.

Our night patrol took us into some rough neighborhoods, where trash piles climbed up gated walls and spilled out onto the road, and untreated sewage bubbled up from the street.

As we walked through one particularly rough patch, Capt. Stephen Sumner told me to walk alongside the rolling Humvee so I could jump back inside if there was trouble. It reminded me of TV news stories I’d seen about constables in Northern Ireland or Israeli troops in the Gaza Strip.

We walked the streets slowly and quietly, the soldiers scanning rooftops and dark corners with their infrared-emitting rifles, as the heavy armored Humvees with their big top-mounted high-caliber guns crept along in front and behind.

It was eerie and unnerving. The streets were empty, as Ramadan dinner parties were winding down and the midnight curfew was going into effect.

I have so much new respect for our soldiers now, knowing they do this on a regular basis, day in and day out, battling boredom and fatigue that can take away their edge and place them in danger.

No more high adventure for this reporter. Today, I’m going to nurse my fat ankle and be a “fobit” (a person who stays on the FOB, or base, all day). Hopefully I can begin looking through the mountain of videotape I’ve accumulated during the journey.

Tomorrow morning I’ll chopper over to the Baghdad airport base and climb aboard a C-130 for the flight back to Kuwait. I can’t wait to pack up my heavy body armor and finally leave it in my room!

Oh, I almost forgot -- it was after the late-night patrol that I fell off the road. I inadvertently emitted a high-pitched yelp upon contact with the evil desert bush.

Soon afterwards, I saw a passing soldier and hoped he did not see my embarrassing fall. He just said, “Hoo-ah” and kept walking.

Feem Al’lah (Go with God -- Arabic for goodbye) from Baghdad....

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Michael Jordan

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