Sunday, March 10, 2024

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: March 2024

 “From: Whitehead, Michael (USA)

    Sent: Saturday, March 6, 2004 7:55 am

    Subject: Iraqi hoops

    During my last three days at CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] in Hillah KBR [Kellog, Brown, & Root, our life support contractor] set up a basketball tournament. 3-on-3, half-court, 12 points or 15 minutes, whichever came first. A regular basket was one point, a three pointer counted two. The tournament had 16 teams, double elimination, which meant we had to play ten games a day for three days. Each day lasted almost three and a half hours. I refereed every game. For the first and hopefully only time in my life I wore a pistol while I was a basketball referee. I didn't need to draw my pistol during the three days, but a few times I felt like it.

    We had five Gurkha teams, two Iraqi teams and the rest were Americans with a few Aussies thrown in. At my suggestion, they let the Iraqi workers on the compound watch the tournament. Each team was limited to four total players. Mr. Gfeller's PSD had two teams, the MP's entered a team, Operations had a team and KBR had two teams.

    “KBR set up lights, a mobile microphone for me, and played music during the intermissions. A large number of fans turned up every day. The Iraqis cheered loudly for their fellow Iraqi teams, but shifted to the KBR favorite team when their comrade teams fell out. Only a few of the Gurkhas understood English well, and almost none of the Iraqis did. I had a hard time explaining the rules at times.

    Of course, those that best understood the rules also knew how to break them. The Gurkha and Iraqi games were exciting, sedate and polite affairs. The Americans played street basketball. Not all of my calls were popular. I heard irate protests from fans and players alike. Although I did not use the technical foul (foul shots did not play a part in the tournament), I did take advantage of the three foul limit per player. In one wild game, I fouled out five of the eight players on the two teams. Some people were MAD at me.”

“The favored KBR team won, to the delight of the Iraqi KBR workers. The fans went wild, and the KBR foreman, who played on the winning team, leaped on to the bed of a pickup loaded with Iraqis, held up his trophy, and jumped up wildly with them in celebration. It was a wild moment, where sports brought everyone together. We had a good time.

    I was exhausted. The next morning I left for Kuwait.”

Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

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Saturday, February 10, 2024

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: February 2024

“From: Whitehead, Michael (USA)

Sent: Friday, February 13, 2004 10:22 AM

Subject: Looking at Iran

    On Feb 11 we made our long planned and once canceled visit to the Iran/Iraq border. One of the three major crossing points from Iran into Iraq is in our sector in Wasit province, just north of Al Kut. We had heard many times concerns from many people, including Iraqis, about the lack of controls at the border. We decided to travel to the border to investigate ourselves.

At the Iraq/Iran border. In the background are the mountains of Iran.

    The visit called for traveling to Al Kut, spending the night there and then leaving for the Border the next day. While we were there, we linked up with Timm Timmons, the Deputy Governate Coordinator. Timm traveled with us to the border and was our guide. Timm is the lone American State Department officer in an office of British Foreign Office people. In fact, COL Strong and I call the Governate Coordinator, Mark Etherington, the Viceroy and Wasit the New Outpost of The British Empire.”

“The next morning we headed north for the border… The day we went to the border was windy and cold, with occasional drops of rain. In front of us and flowing toward us was a never ending stream of large 44 passenger buses and smaller minivans with luggage piled on racks on the roofs. They were all full of people flowing to and from the border.”

“Finally, through the haze of this blustery day, I saw them – the mountains of Iran. When we arrived at the border I saw a scene out of the television news, or a movie. The scene resembled the fevered chaos and organization of an ant colony. No vehicles could cross the border, so there was a laborious process of unloading the baggage from the vehicles on to carts for the walk across the border. Numerous men hired out themselves and their carts for this service. In some of the carts were even old women and children. The road in front of us filled with carts, pedestrians, vehicles and border guards frantically trying to clear a path for our vehicle. For some reason in this culture otherwise indolent police or security officials will spring into action at the sight of a Coalition vehicle, especially if it involves ordering other Iraqis out of our way.

    The Iraqi Customs building was built in the shape of a little fort, with turrets. The Customs Director spoke English, and briefed myself, COL Strong and Timm Timmons on his situation. He had a list of complaints and items he needed which he immediately supplied to Timm. The Director said that he was stamping passports. I wanted to see the process and Timm did too, so we walked out of the building and toward the border. The crossing was a cut in the land about the size of a two lane road, with a strip of barbed wire down the middle. On the right a stream of people walked toward Iran. On the left, a stream of people came into Iraq. We followed the stream toward Iran.

    After 75 meters we came to a mud hut about the size of our bathroom. Inside were a wooden table and one Iraqi Customs official with a date stamp. If you wanted your passport stamped he would do so, but only a few applied for this service. No one was checking the baggage. Some of the people coming into Iraq were refugees who had fled Saddam. They had no passports, and were very happy to see Col Strong's and my uniform. To a number of people I pointed to the flag on my right shoulder and they nodded happily. COL Strong took a picture of a family walking by, and then showed the digital image to them, to their great delight. Timm did not dress for the weather, and was freezing, so we headed back. As I looked back, I could see about 200 meters away the Iranian border crossing point.

Lt Alicia Galvany and I at the “passport office” on the Iraq/Iran border.

    While I was away, my troops had made friends with the Iraqi border guards, who had not been paid for five months. They posed for pictures. Before we left, we gave them a case of our MRE's to eat. On the way out the road turned into Iraqi gridlock, as it has in so many other places in Iraq. As I had done before in such situations, I got out of the vehicle and walked forward, pistol in hand, to clear a path through the ant bed. I led both vehicles out of the confusion and then got back into my seat for the trip back to Hillah.

A memorable day.”

Colonel Bede Strong, of Her Majesty’s Army, and I on the banks of the Tigris River in Al Kut, Iraq. This was our last visit to that city

Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

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Wednesday, January 10, 2024

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: January 2024

 “From: Whitehead, Michael (USA)

Sent: Saturday, January 24, 2004 5:36 PM

Subject: Alan Prizzey, CBS News, reporting

I saw a familiar face in a crowd of news people at the Woman's Rights Center in Diwaniyah today. He identified himself as Alan Prizzey, CBS news. We ended up escorting them to Hillah and dropping them off with our press person at the Hillah Woman's Rights Center. I guess if I get to hang out with important news personalities that must make me important, too. Or does it?

Convoy briefing prior to departure from the Coalition Provisional Authority -
South Central compound in Al Hillah.

Earlier this week I stopped by the Abu Ghraib prison, which is on the western outskirts of Baghdad. A miserable US MP Company was condemned to supervise the Iraqi guards and prisoners in this former model of Saddam's fascist society. Inside the prison are prisoners who have violated Iraqi law. Outside is a barbed wire encircled Stalag 17 only with tents. At the corners are guard shacks with machine guns. I didn't see any German shepherds. The guards on the camp were MP's, and inside were "security detainees", or persons who have committed crimes against the Coalition forces. If you rob a fellow Iraqi and get caught, you go inside the prison. If you take a shot at a “GI and survive to get caught, you go in the barbed wire camp.

At a meeting ceremony in Al Hillah. I am surrounded by students of the local university.

I haven't been in too many prisons, and I imagine that old prisons, like this one, look even grimmer than usual. An MP assigned there told me that when they first arrived the inmate areas of the prison were covered in several feet of human excrement, and the prison under Saddam had been packed to overcapacity. I'm sure it was a charming place to live and work.

 Two Ukrainian sailors are imprisoned there for smuggling, and they were the purpose of my visit. A Ukrainian Army Officer works here at CPA with me, and he asked to be taken by the prison during our visit to Baghdad so he could check on his countrymen.

 Jan 21 marked the 10 month anniversary of my arrival in the Middle East. I am ready to come home.”

Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

This material may be protected by copyright.

Monday, December 18, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: December 2023

 “From: Whitehead, Michael (USA)

Sent: Friday, December 05, 2003 7:39 AM

Subject: Hail and farewell

    The staff here continues the normal Army custom of a Hail and Farewell evening. The room normally fills up on Saturday and Sunday night for football games. They get a cake for a birthday, some wings and pizza chips for a farewell. We even had a promotion there the other day. This week Air Force Sergeant Vanessa Kidby got fare welled. She had been here four months, and was rotating home. The Air Force takes care of their people, she confided to me. Vanessa has a husband and two small children waiting for her. She deserves to leave. Nevertheless, her farewell depressed me. She was leaving after four months: I had four months to go – but I had already been here for eight months.

Myself and my friend Colonel Bede Strong, from Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, at a Hail and Farewell.

    The view from my foxhole is that we are doing what needs to be done right now. Everyone is on board with what the President and Amb. Bremer have decided to do. There isn't much second guessing here about our future course. As for past actions: several critical mistakes were made and one fundamental one. The fundamental mistake, and I blame the Bush Administration at the highest level for this one, was failing to recognize up front that we would be an occupying power. This was obvious to me when I first saw the plan in November 2002 but no where did I see the kind of detailed planning required to execute such an awesome and unprecedented task as occupying a large Arab country. 

Myself and a crowd listening to President Bush announce the capture of Saddam Hussein.

    During all the frantic planning before the war we (the Civil Affairs people) were screaming for answers to fundamental questions. Plenty of plans and annexes and appendices were written, but the critical questions were not answered. And the reason for this failure is that the political decision directing the military to prepare (in earnest) to occupy the country never came. And what is infuriating is that we have made this same mistake so many times before. We do a great job of planning for and executing the war and a miserable job of dealing with the aftermath.”

Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

This material may be protected by copyright.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: November 2023

From: Whitehead, Michael (USA)

Sent: Thursday, November 27, 2003 9:28 AM

Subject: The end of Ramadan and Thanksgiving.

    Ramadan ended Tuesday night according to one Najaf cleric and Monday night according to another. Evidently, Ramadan starts on the full moon and ends on the new moon. The leading cleric is supposed to make this determination. Confusion reigns because they cannot decide which cleric is the lead.

November 2003, city of Ramadi, Anbar Province, Iraq.

    It has been overcast and rainy for two days. This has turned desert dust into desert mud. Since it seems like EVERY vehicle in Iraq either leaks or spews oil, the introduction of water on the roads has sent some of us spinning. One SUV slid into a ditch and we had to call a Humvee to winch it out.

    By order of the Combined & Joint Task Force today is Thanksgiving and everyone will be served turkey, even if they are a Pole, Brit or Ukrainian and didn't ask for it. Today we will have a Continental breakfast from 0630 to 0900 and then a Holiday meal from two to 6 in the afternoon. The Packers against the Lions on TV in the evening. The Pakistani cooks have been busy smoking the turkeys.

Group Captain Wilkinson, our resident Aussie Air Force rep, said at a meeting the other night, when told CPA would have reduced activities and a holiday turkey meal, said "Oh, so we're going to follow their quaint custom." There is a lot of friendly international needling. The Group Captain is suffering from the jibes of Col Strong, of Her Majesty's 1st Royal Tank Regiment, after the Aussies lost to the Brits in the Rugby World Cup final.

“There was tremendous interest in this game on this compound, and people who actually saw it on television. The Aussies and Brits look with amusement at our fanatical interest in football, and only ask that they not be required to sit and watch an entire game. They will watch for a few minutes, grow bored and move on. "Too much standing around," they will say.

Convoy briefing prior to departure from our compound in Al-Hillah, Iraq.

    The Iraqis have definitely not been standing around, but have been celebrating the end of a month of fasting. There are similarities and differences between how we Americans celebrate a holiday and how the Iraqis celebrate. From my observations of Hillah, Karbala and Al Kut the last few days, the Iraqis appear to have combined our Easter and July 4th. Like Easter, there are lots of families out in their best attire, little boys in suits and ties and little girls in adorable dresses and hats. While on the 4th we use firecrackers, bottle rockets and fireworks, the Iraqis use AK's, RPG's and hand grenades. I walked to breakfast to what sounded like a gun battle, but what I knew to be the famous or infamous Iraqi "celebratory" fire.

“Other Iraqis walked through the streets beating a large drum or playing a horn in a decidedly off tune non-medley rendition of something. Yet, as I stood on the roof of a building in our compound in Al Kut, inspecting the line of Texas barriers and barbed wire we had erected in the last two weeks, I could see Iraqi families promenading in the park, enjoying their holiday in peace and without fear. As we left the children ran up to us shouting, "Thank you" in English. I had never heard them say that before. We waved back.”

Excerpt From

Messages from Babylon

Michael Whitehead

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Wednesday, October 04, 2023

My Memory of the War in Iraq 20 years later: October 2023

From: Michael Whitehead  
Sent: Friday, October 3, 2003 4:40 AM 
Subject: Moving across the street 

We went to Baghdad yesterday (1 OCT) to discuss our mission with the Powers That Be and FINALLY got some resolution. We are moving to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Regional Headquarters in Hillah, which is five minutes away from Camp Babylon. Our move is only five minutes away, but it will be a world of difference. 

Our new workplace, the Coalition Provisional Authority South Central Headquarters, a 5 minute drive from our former quarters at Camp.Babylon.

Our trip to Baghdad was interesting. I had not been there since July, and there had been a lot of changes. Most of the changes were security related: lots of new concrete barriers and streets closed. We had to take different routes to go where we were heading. There wasn’t as much of a military presence in the city as I had remembered. This was intentional on the military’s part. 

I had a near religious experience during my visit. I got to use a commode in a real bathroom for the first time in almost three months. This wasn’t any old bathroom – it was a Saddam palatial bathroom in one of the buildings in the main palace complex in Baghdad. There was a real commode (not some hole in the floor), with a real sink with running water, and a mirror and a towel rack. The floors were marble, with some special kind of rock trimming the sink, and a bidet next to the toilet. Lots of toilet paper. I mean fancy. I paused during this moment to savor the experience. I luxuriated, even I dare say reveled in this rare and unique moment. 

You may be laughing at me, but you have to look at the chain of events that brought me here. I went from an airman during the war giving me a shovel and pointing to a spot of desert near an airfield, to using a Seabee constructed wooden outhouse with a sawed off 55 gallon drum, to the ever fragrant and widely varied quality conditions of the INNUMERABLE portajohns that are scattered everywhere in Iraq, to the mountaintop of the Saddam palatial toilet. Wait a minute… I think I missed a category there, like a McDonald’s bathroom and then a Holiday Inn. Don’t have those here. I am really sick of portajohns. I am ready to trade the experience of them all for my newly renovated bathroom back home. 

We traveled to Baghdad with some Polish MP’s and some Filipino police as force protection. The Filipinos are dressed all in blue, with black helmets and a sign on their back that says “Philippines Police.” As we passed through a checkpoint, I saw a G.I point at one of the Filipinos and say, “Hey, who is that?” I was afraid he was going to stop and question us. 

 The interesting part, though, was on the highway back to Babylon, when two Apache helicopters took a VERY great interest in us as we rode down the highway. They moved very slowly down the median, only 100 foot above the ground. I immediately sat up in my seat because I thought they may be trying to warn us about something. One of them turned sideways and hovered as we approached. I have no idea what they were doing, but I think they were looking at our Filipino and Polish comrades, and trying figure out who they were. The Apache moved off as we got close, sending a backwash of wind rolling over us as we passed through. The Apaches are scary enough when you just look at them flying by – to have one LOOKING at us was disconcerting.”

 Excerpt From Messages from Babylon Michael Whitehead This material may be protected by copyright.