Meals Ready to Eat

• Photoessay: Mac Dougall in Sadr City
Have a question about life in Sadr City? Are you curious about the troops or the Iraqi people? E-mail David!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sadr City, Baghdad — This was the final day of our Sadr City embed, and we realized we've become experts on military rations, or MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). They're full of calories and carbs, a Dr. Atkins nightmare. But they do the job, sustaining soldiers (and journalists!) in tough times. Inside, there are usually crackers and peanut butter or cheese spread; a main dish; a cookie or cake; and powdered drinks. After just a week, we have already decided which MREs are our favorites.

I like the pasta. Cameraman Michael Pohl likes the spare rib (which curiously contains no actual ribs — just a meat patty). Producer Nicola Sadler likes the beef enchiladas. We do a lot of swapping. I take Nicola's peanut butter; she prefers the cheese spread. Michael swaps chocolate mint cake for strawberry milkshake powder. It's really obvious which MREs the soldiers don't like; Cajun rice with beans, and jambalaya remain unopened.

A week ago, getting to the Joint Security Station (JSS) was difficult. It took us two and a half days in cars, helicopters and humvees. Today, we figured out pretty quickly the military didn't have an exit strategy to get us out of Sadr City. Sometimes on embeds you have to make things happen for yourselves. That's where Michael and Nicola managed to work miracles. I was busy typing while they talked to any soldier who arrived at the building. All we needed was someone going to the Green Zone or Baghdad airport — and our own security team could come pick us up from there. Our bags and gear were packed; all we needed was a ride.

Nicola and Michael's first willing victim was SFC James Greer. He offered to take us as far as Combat Outpost Callahan — just a couple of miles from the JSS. It was a good start, but Nicola and Michael knew they could do better (no offence, SFC Greer!) Then we met some Military Police from the 118th. Michael knew them from a previous embed. They had chatted with us during the week and taken photos of our live position. They had shared valuable insights on which MREs were good, and which were bad.

As luck would have it, they were available and very willing to take us to the Green Zone. "Sure" they said, "It's only a twenty minute ride from here!" Twenty minutes — compared to two and a half day — an offer too good to pass up.

Good things don't happen often in Iraq, especially in places like Sadr City. The MPs saved us from a long return journey at the end of a very difficult week. They cheerfully helped load our gear into their humvees and took us to the Green Zone. The drive was a risk for us, and a risk for them, but they drove us cheerfully. And at the end of the short trip, they happily posed for pictures. Thank you.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Video: Progress in Baghdad?

Sadr City, Baghdad — This is day three of our embed in Sadr City.

Cameraman Michael Pohl and I woke up at 6am ready to go out on patrol with U.S. and Iraqi forces — deeper into Sadr City.

By the time we left the Joint Security Station (JSS), rush hour was in full flow. There are a lot of beat-up old cars on the streets here, and they don't always move quickly when they see a convoy of army Humvees coming up behind them. Worse still, are all the donkey carts loaded with vegetables going to and from the market. They're not very maneuverable in the narrow streets when they're trying to get out of our way. Usually, the donkeys stay remarkably calm in all the noise and chaos of traffic.

This morning I drove in SSgt. Dave "Tank" Gurba's Humvee. Turns out I'd been in his vehicle once before, back in August 2004 during my first visit to Sadr City. It's a small world after all!

At the rendezvous point, we got out to walk around. At that hour, lots of children were going to school. Some Iraqi schools are boys only or girls only. Other schools have classes for girls in the morning and boys in the afternoon. We met lots of pupils on their way to lessons. Michael's camera is like a magnet for them; they all want to be on TV. And I think we're less intimidating than the American soldiers, so they like to talk to us. Their favorite phrases are, "What's your name?" and "Mister, give me money." SSgt. Gurba told me that a few days earlier, they stopped some children going to school. Their textbooks had a picture of Moqtada al-Sadr on the front. On the back was a picture of burning American and Israeli flags. The books were printed in Bangladesh, but copyrighted to a company in Germany. We looked at a lot of textbooks today, but couldn't find any with the unusual artwork.

"Tank" and his paratroopers linked up with a squad of Iraqi National Police. The Iraqis took the lead going into homes, and we followed. People were quite willing for us to look around and film. Sometimes there's just one family in each dwelling, and sometimes the buildings can be pretty crowded. Inside the main living area there's usually religious pictures on the wall.

The Iraqis were searching for illegal weapons. Each household is allowed one AK47-type rifle and one magazine of ammunition for personal protection. In total, today, we found just two illegal weapons. "Tank" told me you'd be lucky to shoot pigeons with them. The Iraqi police inspected the guns, and presumably drew the same conclusions as "Tank" because the weapons were handed back to the owners.

Have a question about life in Sadr City? Are you curious about the troops or the Iraqi people?
E-mail David!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sadr City, Baghdad — This is day three of our embed in Sadr City.

I woke up at 4 a.m. to the sound of a soldier talking on the radio right next to my cot. He kept calling for one of his colleagues. Somewhere in the Joint Security Station (JSS) there are soldiers awake at all times of the day and night. After a few days, we've come to understand the rhythm of the building: soldiers waking and sleeping, going on missions, preparing their body armor and weapons, the guard shift change, and peak times for getting food — which is stored in boxes at the end of the hallway where we're sleeping.

After a few very long workdays, we decided to stay at our makeshift office today. The office space consists of storage boxes on the floors, with the computers balanced

on top. We've snaked the cables out a broken window up to the roof of the building, so we can set up the mini-satellite and get on the Internet.

The trooper running the JSS on the American side is 1st Sergeant Don Knapp. Since we've been here, he's achieved an important victory — stopping stopping the Iraqi police and civilians from chain-smoking on this floor of the building. They try to hide the cigarette smoke with incense … but 1SG Knapp can smell a burning ember at 50 paces, and he makes them stop. The soldiers tell me when they first arrived at the JSS, the hallway was thick with smoke. 1SG Knapp has made a big improvement in the air quality — and it's no small miracle to get Iraqis to obey the "no smoking" signs.

1SG Knapp isn't here today. He's gone to a large base in Taji, about 15 miles away. In theory, soldiers should get a 48-hour chance to take a shower, clean up, do some laundry, and enjoy a decent meal every 31 days — they call it a "refit." Don Knapp went about 23 days without showering. He's become an expert at using baby wipes. The crew and I are using baby wipes too. Lots of them. And we're running low on supplies! SFC Knapp promised to try and bring some back for us.

Tomorrow is another busy day. Cameraman Michael Pohl and I plan to go out on patrol again with troopers from the 82nd Airborne (to be precise, we're embedded with Bravo Troop, 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division). We're hoping to interview some Iraqi security personnel who are part of the big Baghdad security plan here in Sadr City, to get their perspective.

Have a question about life in Sadr City? Are you curious about the troops or the Iraqi people?
E-mail David!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sadr City, Baghdad — This is day two for us inside the Sadr City Joint Security Station. This morning cameraman Michael Pohl and I went on patrol with troopers from the 82nd Airborne. It was a dismounted patrol, which means we drove into the streets, got out of the vehicle and walked around.

It's been more than two years since I was last in Sadr City, yet it's been in the news so much. People were curious about the soldiers — both Iraqi and U.S. — coming out of their homes and shops to see what was going on in the streets.

Sadr City is home to around 2.5 million people — most living in what we consider poverty. The good roads have concrete; the bad roads are just dirt. We dismounted in the middle of a market. People were selling produce, like lettuce and cucumber, small herds of goats were wandering around and people were shopping. We also saw a flourmill and workers were outside loading up some bags of flour for delivery. This was a busy industrious part of the city, which could have been a market in any Arab city, like Jerusalem, Cairo or Damascus. I was expecting something worse after so much violence and so much misery in the last few years.

Apart from being curious, residents in the neighborhood we visited were pretty friendly. The called out greetings to us or waved as we went past their homes. The Iraqi security forces conducted a "soft knock and search" operation, consisting of talking to homeowners and going inside to look for banned weapons and ammunition. There was no kicking in doors, no shouting or shooting, and no screaming or crying, which can sometimes accompany more "kinetic" raids (as the military calls them).

But the soldiers we're with weren't lulled into a false sense of security. They still kept up a very vigilant stance. The signs of Moqtada al-Sadr's militia were all around us. Flags were flying from most homes, as well as banners featuring Moqtada scowling down on the Sadr City residents.

The patrol lasted five hours, and now we're back in the JSS building. Conditions haven't really improved. Everybody's still sleeping wherever they can. There's still not much water (we started the day getting clean with baby wipes) and there's still no proper toilets. But there is one sign that things are getting better — a street vendor showed up selling us "real" Rolex watches … for just $30.

Have a question about life in Sadr City? Are you curious about the troops or the Iraqi people?
E-mail David!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Sadr City, Baghdad — We started traveling at 1 a.m., and finally arrived at the Joint Security Station in Sadr City at 11:30 a.m. On the crew for this trip are producer Nicola Sadler and cameraman Michael Pohl. We're spending the week with the 82nd Airborne to get as broad of a picture as possible of the work they're doing to try and bring security to this vast, sprawling slum of 2.5 million people.

The Joint Security Station (JSS) is situated in an old Iraqi police station, manned by an equal number of Iraq and American security forces. Just a few months ago Sadr City was strictly a "no-go" area for US troops — the whole district ruled by militia fighters from Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

Under the new Baghdad security plan, the U.S. Army is back. With the backing of local community leaders and with the (seeming) approval of Moqtada al-Sadr, they've partnered up with Iraqi forces to become a visible presence once again on the streets of Sadr City.

The JSS building itself is in a terrible condition. On larger U.S. bases they have luxuries like showers, an efficient laundry service, and massive dining facilities serving lobster and steak. Out here in Sadr City, the soldiers are living in extremely basic conditions. Every room we look in has soldiers sleeping on the floor. The corridors are lined with army cots.

Space is at a premium. There's no food — just army rations. There are no bathrooms or even running water — we have to use porta-potties and dress in full body armor plus helmet to go to the toilet. Showers will have to wait until we get back to a larger base — for now we'll rely on baby wipes to try and stay clean. We can forget about privacy too.

But these conditions are no different to conditions faced by tens of thousands of soldiers across Iraq. As journalists, if we want to tell their stories, we have to live with them and experience what they experience — and be somewhat grateful it's only for a week at a time.

Have a question about life in Sadr City? Are you curious about the troops or the Iraqi people?
E-mail David!

David Mac Dougall is a FOX freelance reporter currently in Iraq. David has spent much of the past three years in Iraq, and has been embedded with U.S. troops on numerous occassions. Prior to becoming a journalist, David spent ten years working as a diplomat with the British Foreign Service.