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• Video: Mosque Attack
April 7, 2006
Despite a warning from Iraq’s Interior Ministry to avoid crowds near mosques and markets today, three suicide bombers managed to get inside a Shiite mosque in northern Baghdad and blow themselves up, killing more than 50 and wounding up to 158 worshippers by the latest count.
Security forces were told to be on alert for car bombs. Perhaps they were so focused on vehicles, they missed the belt or vest-wearing terrorists. In any case, the obvious concern here, beyond the awful deaths and injuries, is that an angry Shiite community will lash out against Sunnis, perpetuating the violence. This is apparently the goal of the bombings in the first place. Target innocent civilians, inflame the population, create stress and strife and serious unrest, and disrupt the democratic process. The coalition believes a stronger government (with the help of more aggressive Iraqi security forces) can reduce the violence and harden the resolve of the citizens. Some are convinced it will take a new prime minister to make that happen.
At this week's CPIC (Combined Press Information Center) press briefing, I asked Major General Rick Lynch what he'd say to people back in the States who hear about these bombings and get the impression the security situation is out of control, and things are getting worse, not better. He told me he's aware of the perception, and asks people to take a step back and look at the big picture.
More than 250,000 Iraqi Army and security forces have now been trained and equipped, which is 75% of the goal. In addition, many of the provinces are now considered relatively safe and peaceful.
The Iraqis are taking the lead on many of the patrols across the country, and are finding and clearing roughly half of the IED's being placed. They continue to find weapons caches and catch terrorists, in many cases with the help of Iraqi citizens. And they've stepped up patrols along the border, targeting known points of entry, stopping more unwanteds from getting in, which appears to have significantly reduced the number of suicide bombers.
Obviously, they're not stopping them all. Baghdad remains the "center of gravity" for the enemies of democracy and freedom, according to the general. He expects insurgents to continue to zero in on this city. Hopefully, the situation will improve. There is obviously much work left to be done.
April 5, 2006 • Video: Saddam Trial Update
The water didn't work in the hotel this morning when I woke up. Some guys were banging on pipes in the hallway outside my room. We are hoping they get it fixed soon...
My other three trips into Iraq, I drove into the country. The first time was with Marines in an LAV-25, a light-armored vehicle with a 25-caliber chain gun on the roof. The next two visits I was a passenger in a civilian SUV. These vehicles were also armored, but I suspect would not have fared as well as the LAV in any sort of attack.
This time, for the first time, I flew in aboard a small Royal Jordanian jet on a regularly scheduled flight from Amman's Queen Alia International Airport to Baghdad International. We were only in the air about an hour and ten minutes, a big improvement over the land route, which took up to ten hours. The flight was smooth, except for the corkscrew landing I’d heard so much about. In order to avoid being an easy target for rocket-firing insurgents, incoming aircraft descend much more quickly from high altitude, with a series of banked turns almost directly over the runway. The last turn was the most jarring, with the ground fast approaching and the wings tipped nearly sideways.
* * *
Before I left New York I was out to dinner with friends, and one said, "has it really been two years since you've been to Baghdad? Doesn’t seem that long." Then he paused for a moment, and remarked how odd it was that the statement seemed so normal. Two years since I’ve been to Baghdad? Growing up I’d never have predicted traveling to Iraq. Now it's a regular consideration.
It’s a bit strange being here again. I haven't seen much of the country yet, so it's hard to make comparisons to how things have changed, but what struck me driving in from the airport, and during a quick visit to the Green Zone, was how some portions of the city have become one long concrete blast wall topped by razor wire.
There are more police and military checkpoints now, many of them pockmarked or blackened by evidence of car bomb attacks. It’s almost impossible to get onto the airport road without passing through one of the checkpoints, which has had a dramatically positive affect on the number of explosive incidents along that stretch of highway, considered not long ago the most dangerous in the world. Unfortunately, I’m told there are still incidents, which are largely unreported, sometimes several a day, involving sniper or RPG's targeting vehicles on airport road.
In between the Green Zone and our hotel, things seem relatively unchanged by war or its aftermath. The streets are alive with the hustle and bustle of daily life and commerce, although I didn't see any smiles. I wondered as we drove past, with my flak jacket on inside our allegedly bulletproof vehicle, if the people outside were worried about a car bomb going off or some other attack disrupting their day. Normally I’d stop the car and grab the camera and get out and ask, but things here are far from normal, so the question will have to wait.
April 4, 2006
He is wealthy, intelligent, and smooth, with a well-trimmed mustache, ready smile and engaging personality. He wears a traditional Arab headdress and dish dash, accented with sparkling diamond cufflinks, a gold pen, and an expensive watch. His English is excellent, although at times his accent makes him a bit difficult to understand. Dr. Najeeb Al-Nauimi is the former Qatari Justice Minister. He’s a successful and influential lawyer and businessman with a privileged lifestyle, a wife and five kids. So why is he risking it all to defend Saddam Hussein?
He tells me it’s his sense of justice and fairness. He wants to be sure the former Iraqi dictator is treated with respect and dignity. He says when he first met Saddam in his cell, he had one ill-fitting suit and a single pair of shoes one size too small. Dr. Najeeb says he immediately protested, and the Americans responded, tailoring Saddam a new set of clothes.
I met Dr. Najeeb for dinner at a lively Lebanese restaurant in Amman, Jordan. He was catching a flight for Baghdad early the next morning, and would be meeting with Saddam and the rest of the legal team in the Green Zone that afternoon. Our meal was arranged by Jomana Karadsheh, a Jordanian producer for FOX who met the lawyer during trial coverage last fall. Jomana and her friend Tanya were there, along with Simon Jenkins, a freelance engineer who lives in Cyprus.
I sat next to Dr. Najeeb and peppered him with questions for most of the meal. He answered with a mixture of good humor, thoughtful reflection, and passionate determination. He deflected a couple of the more pointed questions regarding details of Saddam’s life behind bars and the stories they’d shared. “I’m saving that for the book,” he said as he smiled.
Saddam no longer has visions of returning to power, according to Dr. Najeeb. He knows he will never lead the Iraqi people again, but remains proud and strong. He likes to smoke cigars, and is able to joke and laugh, according to the lawyer, though remains convinced he will be sentenced to death. “He (Saddam) understands his fate and is prepared to die,” Najeeb told me.
Najeeb himself is at risk. He says he’s received countless threatening e-mails, and knows two other lawyers associated with Saddam’s trial have been murdered. Another fled the country after an attempt on his life. But Najeeb plans to see Saddam’s case through to the end, which he reluctantly concedes is most likely a death sentence.
April 2, 2006
I knew I'd forget stuff.
Just a few hours into the trip to Amman, Jordan, on my way back to Baghdad, I'm already remembering things I meant to bring but didn't. It's hard packing for five weeks, especially when you're not exactly sure where you'll be and what conditions will be like once you're there.
I'm taking lots of extra underwear, socks, and t-shirts, in case the laundry services aren't as reliable as advertised.
I have several books and a travel case of DVDs. l filled up my iPod and brought some exercise gear, but left my jump rope in the closet by mistake. I also forgot my handheld GPS, which I used while embedded during the invasion. It was comforting to know precisely where I was, even in the middle of nowhere.
I'd intended to fit everything in one big backpack, but it wasn't nearly big enough. I had to add a gym bag and a small backpack that I carried on the plane, with a couple sets of clothes and my shaving kit, in case my checked bags were lost. I also brought my laptop and two hard cases, one filled with video phones and satellite pagers that the engineers in New York asked me to deliver to the Baghdad office.
I managed to find room for snacks and comfort food: about 30 power/breakfast bars, two jars of peanut butter, several bags of peanut M&Ms, and six bags of Skittles, a gift from a friend who knew how happy they made me when I found them in our MRE's during the war.
I bought lots of gum and mints and extra shampoo and deodorant and toothpaste. I forgot to pack my own soap, but I hope to pick that up in Amman before I leave for the Iraqi capital.
I have rain gear, cold weather clothes, shorts, a pair of nice shoes, and three baseball caps. But, one of the most important items will be given to me at the airport, after I land in Baghdad: a flak jacket.
We always enjoy your coverage on FOX News; and during your first embed we were glued to the TV. Take care on this trip and know that you along with all our troops and support teams are in our prayers daily!
Peanut M&M's and Skittles are favorites at our house too. We love you Rick! Stay safe in Iraq!
Susan Canham and family
Just caught your latest blog (Packing for Iraq).
I have been wanting to tell you thank you for you work you did on the march on Baghdad. I recall the work you did with the 3rd LAR, and found that very informative. I was wondering if you had run across any of those Marines since then, or if you stayed in touch with them?
You and your peanut butter!! We'll all be looking forward to the great job you do as always!
My Dad told me,"American people don't realize how lucky we are to have freedom, food, water, homes etc." I know my Dad is right.
We are under high risk for tornadoes and a hailstorm in Kansas City and St. Joseph, Missouri area. St. Joseph has a new mayor and city council. Kansas City is going to improve the Royals and Chiefs Stadiums. Royals has lost 2 games. I know you like baseball.
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