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Letters from Iraq

Staff Sergeant Christopher E. Alley
United States Army
Emmitsburg Native

February 2007

Well the calendar now reads February which means I stepped out of my trailer this morning and I didn't see my shadow! Meaning I have only 5 more months of deployment! The weather is starting to warm up a bit and the sun is starting to heat things up. The situation in Baghdad contrary to reports is not total chaos, but it isn't a walk in the park either. We still face the daily occurrences of war to keep us focused, but as of yet our small band of brothers and sisters has yet to face any insurmountable challenges or injuries.

The IZ

Things are starting to happen in the International Zone. My duties have expanded if you have not heard from being just the Real Estate guy to now being the face man of "Operation Clean Sweep". Operation Clean sweep is an effort I am involved in to clean up the International Zone of trash and rubble, which sounds like a daunting task during the middle of a so called "civil war", but has at worst been challenging. Our plan of attack so far has been multifaceted; Education, Repair of Infrastructure, Contracts, and Social and Law Enforcement.

First off I have learned entirely too much about the infrastructure of trash removal. Which I guess could be a feather in my cap if I were to run for a local political office. My team of "Trashy People", have now established a Trash Transfer Point (TTP) so that our trash trucks in the International Zone no longer have to leave the IZ to dump their loads and return. At the TTP our trucks now dump their load and then it is loaded onto large "long haul" trucks to be taken out to a dump 12 Kilometers form the IZ. This has given us the ability to triple the amount of pick ups from within the IZ, because now there is now longer the long process of entering the IZ through security for our drivers to go through. Also during our initial setup time I "acquired" 250 dumpsters from a local contractor which we placed within the IZ "surging" our trash pick up locations.

Now that the basic infrastructure is in place we had to get the word out and to break the cycle of not picking up after oneself. During our travels and meetings we came to meet a now very important individual in our quest, Dr. Nabil Al-Baldawi. Dr. Nabil is an Iraqi-American Doctor of Medical Preventive Health. He was a professor at Emory University before returning to Iraq and also has worked with the C.D.C and the V.A. Meeting and conspiring with him we came to the conclusion that one of the best ways to change a culture in Iraq was to target the Iraqi Children. They are the future of Iraq, and we all know it is hard to teach "old dogs" new tricks! We have started a program in all the schools giving a class once a week rotating between schools about the need for individual health and social health. We have gotten the kids interactive in these classes by giving out rewards for individual and class participation. Classes and students have been rewarded with such things as toothbrushes, school supplies, and new chalkboards. Just the interaction with the kids has been very rewarding for both sides and we have already seen the classes paying dividends! I was at a house one day, and one of the kids from a class was telling her mother that we were the soldiers who gave her pencils and the mother thanked us and waved her arm around the room saying that her daughter kept making sure that the rooms were clean so that flies would not come inside to carry germs in! Talk about goose bumps, now if only my kids cared so much and listened to my wife and I so well! Anyway Dr. Nabil has really come in handy and has really helped us get a positive message out to the Iraqi people.

The next part of the puzzle was showing the people in the IZ that we were serious about cleaning up. After presentations and meetings we were given $100,000 of Iraqi money seized from the prior regime to clear and remove rubble from the IZ. This contract is going on as we speak and we have removed an estimated 93 large dump trucks worth of rubble. We are only half way through and the difference has caused eyes to open towards our cause. One lot that was cleared is now the future site of a middle school and soccer field. Once we have all the paperwork together we should be awarding the Soccer Field contract next month and the kids can't wait! I have enclosed pictures to show a before and after of the site so you can see what I mean. This project has gotten such notice that for the last few nights I put together a PowerPoint slide which was briefed this morning to General Casey at his last Update Briefing before the Change of Command tomorrow. The "Golden Nugget" slide was well received and my team has received a few "kudos" for our effort.

The last piece to the puzzle, which has made me IZ famous to the Iraqis, is enforcement and setting standards. I have become the defacto Home Owners Association President and there isn't a board that is elected to add bureaucracy to my endeavors. Daily with my interpreter and another soldier I go out in search of violators or look for things that could be done to "freshen up" the area. During my travels I constantly look for violators illegally dumping rubble, trash, or yard trimmings. I also look for such things as trailers placed on public property which usually houses a Personal Security Detail (PSD) for someone who thinks they are important. Once I identify who this PSD belongs to, I talk to the individual about moving the trailer onto their property and off MY street or public land. Also during such conversations I ask for all badges and weapons cards for the individuals. This usually leads to me calling the IZ Police to enforce the standard of living in such a "Gated Community". So, needless to say being the President of the IZ Homeowners Association can be very interesting and I will put my problems up against any other HOA in America whose worse problems are American Flags that are to big, or plant branches 6" into an alleyway. Everyday though I have to say, I have become numb to a lot of things in life here, because it is very hard to surprise me with a situation, a reason, or an excuse of why something can't happen. I have even come to the point that in the note book I carry with me I have written down in English and Arabic the names of people who move trailers, rubble, and even do construction to repair walls.

So as you can see my days are full, which makes the time fly by! If I could figure out a way to have my family here and safe I would try to keep this job forever. It is challenging yet fun, and just when you thought you had heard everything, something new comes along. One case comes to mind. We have a water point here in the IZ and on the wall I have spray painted "DO NOT WASH VEHICLES" in both English and Arabic. Now I came by one day and found 5 guys washing their cars. SO, being the good HOA President I am, I pulled over and started to ask for badges and through my interpreter is asked "Can't they read?". Well guess what, they couldn't. Not because they were illiterate but because they were Kurdish! So now on my list of things to do is to have "DO NOT WASH VEHICLES" in Kurdish put up on the wall as well. Sometimes I feel like I am trapped in a Monty Python movie!

The Situation in Iraq

One of the things I am always asked is "Why is it taking so long to get things straight in Iraq?". Well this is a very complex question and I will try to simplify it as much as possible.

The system of government is not like ours. To get to be Prime Minister you have to form a coalition of parties to achieve a majority in Parliament to become PM. So you can see the problems this may cause, because "drug deals" have to be made to form this coalition. This being said you now know why PM Maliki is aligned with AL-Sadr, whose party holds 32 seats in Parliament.

The Culture of Iraq and even on a broader sense the Middle East is laid back and a culture of bartering. Simple questions are never answered "yes" or "no" there is a time of contemplation, a drink of tea (chai), and then a time of haggling about even the smallest points. Sometimes things are done so that it looks to be done as a favor that way later it is easier to bring back up for something else to be done. So for a typical American who has had very limited dealings with the Middle Eastern culture it is hard to understand why things take so long to get done.

Religion plays a part now in Iraq, but under Saddam it wasn't really an issue. Saddam beat into the typical Iraqi's mind that they were all Iraqi's first, then tribe, then religion. Once Saddam was taken out of the picture, the "leadership" was lost due to haggling in the government so the Iraqi's went to religion for guidance. The religious leaders or those posing as religious leaders, al-Sadr, now had more power than ever before and now have a say in the future of Iraq. Many do not know that al-Sadr's father was assassinated by Saddam and was a very outspoken religious man who spoke out for social issues. His son and one of the problems of Iraq today, NEVER graduated religious school, and has gone against many of the teachings of his father.

Lastly, the foreign involvement in the struggle for Democracy is overwhelming! You have to understand that the entire Middle East has an interest is what is the end result in Iraq. Right now a proxy war is being fought in Iraq by Iran (Shia) on the side of the Shia and Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Jordan (Largely Sunni) on the side of the Sunni. Then you add Syria in to the mix that is backing whoever will attack Coalition forces. The struggle in Iraq though is limited to a small part of Iraq contrary to the Mass Media and 24 hour talking heads. The struggle in Iraq is in Baghdad, the seat of power, and al-Anbar Providence which contains the Euphrates River which is the 21st century "Ho Chi Min Trail". Northern Iraq which is largely Kurdish who by the way are a mix of Sunni, Shia, Christians, and Turkmen is largely quiet. The South is being turned over monthly by the British to the Iraqis and is also largely quiet! The problem lies within 50 miles of Baghdad and the Euphrates River area of Anbar Providence. Minus these two areas less happens in Iraq than a combined night in Los Angeles and Washington D.C.! Once violence has come to a simmer under the "New Plan" and a show of leadership is done by the Iraqi government then Iraq will become a model in the Middle East! Under the "New Plan" Baghdad will be flooded with troops and nine "gated communities" will be carved out. Access through these areas and security will be controlled by Iraqi's in the lead with Coalition backing them up. Battalions (600 men) units will be living within each one of these "gated communities" and there will be a 24 hour presence to deter any violence and to quickly react to any situation with overwhelming force.

So, as you can see, there are many reasons for the slow progress in the general view of Iraq. I also have another theory which also might come to play in the situation as well. My theory is: "The problem with the government in Iraqi is that it is being taught on how to be a Democracy by the BIGGEST bureaucracy in the world, to a people who because of an Iron Fisted Dictator, now are in a position that has to make decisions who come from a culture of take your time contemplate, drink tea, and haggle over each decision!". In my humble opinion Iraq will succeed given time and proper guidance. Whatever happened to the saying "Rome wasn't built in a day!", because given the deep history of the land formerly called Mesopotamia the Iraqi people deserve patience!

Well I must say goodbye for this month. Who knows what will happen in the next month but I do know I will be that much closer to being home and spending time with family and friends. I would also like to let everyone know that my letters are now posted on the Web at Right now they are running past letters every two weeks until they catch up with the current edition. I have found this experience of writing a release and a reflection on what I and many others have experienced and achieved during our deployment. In some ways I wish Americans as a whole could see for themselves without relying on 24 hour news or slanted one way or the other papers how the world really is and how it functions. I would bet most Americans would be surprised how the world really exists and would be even more grateful for being afforded the opportunity and luck of being raised and living in a place of such opportunity.

See you next month and everyone……….keep your heads down!


Read other Letters from Iraq by Sergeant Christopher E. Alley

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