Wednesday, December 24, 2003

I am just back from a trip to North Iraq where the electricity is 12 hours on, 12 hours off. Which means that there is often no hot water. When there is also no oil for heating, it’s a disaster.

I can hear the thump and boom from my balcony again tonight after several days of quiet. Sounds like they are pounding al-Dawra and Southwest Baghdad. I’m told the whirring is a gatling gun and that the military is calling this operation Iron Justice.

On the road back from the North, Iraqi police were burning gasoline confiscated from Turkish truckers. The trucks were supposed to be coming back empty after dumping their loads at gas stations in the south, but they were obviously setting aside gasoline to sell to black marketers. Incredulous Iraqi drivers can’t believe the authorities are wasting such precious fuel.

But if the police (or US soldiers who occasionally monitor them) were to simply impound the gasoline, they would surely be accused of reselling it themselves.

In Erbil province, I saw part of the Iraqi flag reproduced on the sleeves of some border guards and former Peshmerga soldiers. But the part that says God is Great in Arabic (in Saddam’s handwriting) was missing. Were the words removed in the fervor to erase all things Saddam? Or because Arabic words are not so valued in the Kurdish north? It was just a shirtsleeve, but if it was the Iraqi flag, it would upset a lot of people in the south and in Baghdad.

Got my first Blackhawk ride, with the 101st Airborne. Noisy but effective way for generals to get to ceremonial handovers of power from the coalition to Iraqis, quickly. Spectacular scenery of deep ravines, green hillsides and snow-capped mountains. When you're in the garbage-strewn flatlands south of Mosul or near industrial centers such as the refinery town of Baiji, it's difficult to imagine the resources Iraq is supposed to have. But Erbil and Sulaymania look gorgeous.

I’m confused about tomorrow being Christmas Eve. It doesn’t feel like it and I have no idea what I’m going to do, apart from the story I’m working on. One soldier said he brought his Christmas gifts in with him eight or nine months ago in anticipation of having to send something home to the States now. He added a few Christian trinkets he bought in Iraq – a keychain cross, a small dangling Bible that I initially mistook for a Quran.

There is a potluck dinner party on Thursday but looking at the Rice Krispies and Lapsang Suchong tea in my cupboard and my semi operational two-range stove, I can’t imagine what I would cook. My more determined colleagues tracked down a Turkey over Thanksgiving but mostly the supermarkets here stock canned foods and wonderful surprises like cheap freshly popped popcorn.

It’s freezing here now, about 37 degrees Farenheit. I might celebrate by doing a little shopping with the outgoing photographers who have become experts at ferreting out stopwatches the former dictator gave out to friends and supporters as well as slightly tacky lighters that burn a multi-colored flame and show the faces of Saddam Hussein and George Bush.

It's 2 a.m. here. More next time.