The rampant crony capitalism of the federal government simply can't be ignored anymore, but the media has made a habit out of selectively picking and choosing what it wants to report on with this administration. This latest example may ultimately be ignored and denied too however, because it involves the brother of our current vice president.
According to Charlie Gasparino of Fox Business, a subsidiary of the construction company called Hill International was handpicked last year to oversee the building of at least 100,000 affordable homes in decimated areas of Iraq. When asked why his company was chosen over all the others, company president David Richter didn't beat around the bush. "It really helps to have the brother of the vice president as a partner," he said. [Video of FBN's exclusive coverage below]
With gratitude to Providence and thanks to all who kept me in their thoughts and prayers, I'm happy to be home from Iraq. I arrived in Ithaca last night at about 9 PM, about 43 hours after beginning the journey home from Baghdad. Naturally there were a few more plot twists along the way. Instead of traveling via Rota Spain and Dover, DE, etc., it was Qatar, Ramstein Germany, Charleston, Charlotte, Philly, Syracuse and Ithaca. I'll spare you all the details, but will say that the East Coast being socked in made for lots more time to appreciate the charms of the Philly airport. Also, if you ever have the choice, opt to travel on a comfy C-5 with commercial-style seats that let you stretch out across a row, versus a spartan C-17. That said, the Air Force crews were great and did their best to keep us comfortable. And the bottom line is that I'm home, safe and sound.
It's 5 AM in Qatar, where we landed an hour or so ago. Yes, the Iraq portion of this trip is over. Not without a few final twists and turns, naturally. We got into the Green Zone Monday night and camped out in a media lounge. Standing outside in the parking lot the following morning, a very sharp explosion could be heard, but that's not enough to stop people from going about their business here.
Tommy Clarkson, host par excellence and official at the Gulf Reconstruction Division of the Army Corps of Engineers had arranged interviews with a number of senior GRD folks. There is a major disconnect between the way the reconstruction story is reported in the MSM and the reality on the ground. Much of the MSM focus is on the fact that Baghdad residents enjoy fewer hours of electricity now than before the war. That ignores the fact that, overall, electricity output has increased significantly and that Iraqis in other areas of the country enjoy much more daily power than before the war. During his reign, Saddam monopolized power for the capital, literally threatening engineers with death should there be an interruption. Power is now equitably shared across the country. There are also hundreds of major water, oil and other infrastructure projects that have been completed or are under construction.
When last we spoke, I had completed a work-out at the Camp Al Asad gym - just like home but for the presence of weightlifters bearing M-16s. The plan had been to spend the rest of the day working out of the Public Affairs Office at Al-Asad, but to be on the safe side it was decided to go right out to the air terminal. We were flying Space 'A,' the military equivalent of stand-by, and it's always better to get there early.
In the waiting area, a number of dogs, accompanied by their military handlers, were in their travel kennels. When one would howl, the others would join in. Kind of eery, kind of homey. I made good use of the time in the terminal, pounding out a story for our sister site Cybercast News Service about the heroic work of the Combat Logistics Battalion surgical hospital.
We’re at Camp Al Asad, about 150 miles west of Baghdad in Anbar Province. We began our day with the famous Navy Seabees, the construction battalions that historically have gone ashore with the Marines to build what needs to be built. We spoke with Seabees largely from a reserve unit from Washington State. Most of the men work construction jobs in civilian life, and here they were getting the job done in conditions about as far as can be imagined from those of the Pacific Northwest. I also spoke with the Chief in charge of food for the unit. He mentioned that, in the constant pursuit of improvement, the Navy actually draws upon the expertise of the Culinary Institute of America from my home state of New York.
A couple of the men were from an Alaska reserve unit. One of them works as a firefighter/EMT in a gold mine in the Fairbanks area. Once a month he makes the 350-mile roundtrip to his unit in Anchorage – on his own dime.
On our way from Habbaniyah to Camp Al-Asad, further west in Al Anbar province, we found ourselves out on the tarmac at Camp TQ awaiting our helo. After 15 bone-chilling minutes out on the cold and windy tarmac, we were rescued by a Marine from the ground crew, explaining that there'd be a delay and inviting us to share his crew's quarters - a Conex box, roughly half the size of a shipping container. In the blackout conditions, we sat in the light of the red and green chem-lights. To pass the time, one of the men grabbed another's iPod, mentioning out loud the musical selections found. A variety of ingenious and occasionally unprintable critiques of the various artists and songs were offered up.
We were down on the Euphrates this morning with Navy LT Torres and eleven Iraqi soldiers that he is training. On today's menu: learning to board crafts encountered while on patrol on the the river. The rule is to board every craft, again and again, as encountered. Yesterday's friendly fisherman could be today's insurgent, or someone who is perhaps being coerced by others on board.
We were in a three-boat unit. The technique consists of the lead boat coming alongside, greeting the passengers in a polite fashion, at the same time ordering them to the front of the boat with weapons trained on them. The second boat in our unit will align directly behind the first, and the third off to the left, forming an 'L.' One of the men from the first boat will then board, inspect whatever there is to see aboard, and as appropriate give an all-clear sign and return to our boat. The men are trained to keep their weapons aimed at the passengers till we are well clear. Passengers could be waving a friendly good-bye, only to grab weapons or hurl a grenade as soon as our guard is down.
After last night's slight detour, we headed out toward Habbaniyah today, but not before we were given a windshield tour of the huge Al Taqaddum Marine base. We were passing by some absolutely desolate, petrified sand dunes when, almost miraculously it seemed, we saw a huge body of water - Habbiniyah Lake, so vast that even from some elevation we couldn't see the other side. Along the way we saw remnants of Saddam's air force that never made it into the air in Desert Storm.
The trip was made by conventional SUV till we got to a bridge that ties Al Taqaddum to the Habbiniyah base but that is not secured. We were met by two Marines in an armored Humvee who gave us a quick lift to the other side.
We helo'ed out of Fallujah last night but not before having the chance to spend time with the CO, Colonel Bristol. A Marine's Marine, he was the man who created the martial arts program that we had witnessed yesterday. He has a quiet-but-powerful force field around him, a passionate belief in the Marines, their mission and our ability to win and to train Iraqis to stand up for themselves - given the time.
We were on our way to Habbiniyah base but on a stop along the way we were mistakenly waved off the helo and got stranded at another base. No problem. Caught z's at the tent city, good showers and chow in the morning, and we'll be convoying the rest of the way in a little while.
Reading yesterday's entry I realize I never did get around to describing my meeting with Dr. Ali Aldabbagh, chief spokesman to Iraqi PM Maliki. Dr. Aldabbagh told me that a precipitous US withdrawal would be a "huge gift" to the terrorists. He also described Muktada Al-Sadr as a man of "restraint" and said that, like it or not, he is a "player." Events of today have perhaps put those statements in an interesting light. For a full report see my story at Cybercast News Service.
We made a quick Blackhawk trip from the International Zone to Fallujah on Monday night, and were met at the helipad by Captain Duncan of Gary, Indiana. He escorted us to our quarters which were a pleasant suprise - a modular unit with actual beds and a unit just down the line with internet. That was very welcome of course, but it put things in perspective when we learned today that one of the Iraqi internet technicians who installed and maintained the service was murdered, presumably for his collaboration with US forces.
What a day. We learned that the IED we heard yesterday killed 35 police recruits. As fate would have it, this morning I interviewed Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hunzeker, who heads the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team. You should find a full report on our conversation over on CNSNews in the next day or so, but I will pass along the fact that Iraqis show a tremendous determination to serve in the police despite the violence. Recruitment and training goals have been achieved, and as tragic as it is, when some recruits have fallen, others have stood up to take their place.
Later we visited the US Embassy within the Green Zone and spoke with folks from the GO operation, a press project designed to bring good-news stories to the attention of the media and to get people out to the field to cover them. Example: our S. Korean allies have created a vocational training program in the north, helping Iraqis gain skills in everything from auto repair to plumbing. These are people who will now have jobs and a stake in society. A thrill for me: I was permitted to tape a couple minutes of a special edition of my TV show, 'Right Angle,' from the embassy studio!
Today was a day of great contrasts – a small taste of the kind of dangers that abound here, a look at the work being done to rebuild Iraq, and finally the privilege of an extended private interview with one of Iraq’s great hopes for the future: Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.
Coming out of breakfast this morning, we heard a loud explosion that couldn’t have been too far outside the International [Green] Zone where we were located. The blast was immediately followed by small-arms fire and the wail of sirens. “IED,” explained our experienced host. What got our attention was the fact that about an hour later, we were to be leaving the IZ behind to venture out into Baghdad and tour two of the hundreds of Army Corps of Engineers [ACE] reconstruction projects in Iraq.
Landed at the Balad base 40 miles north of Baghdad about 11 PM local time Friday night. Smooth ride but after we touched down the crew let us know that “the flaps had decoupled.” Not quite sure what that means but some things are better not to know until after you land. Quick stop by the media HQ where at midnight two airmen, in honor of Veterans’ Day, marched back and forth in front of a memorial to veterans, a display reminiscent of the sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.
I’m writing this from the passenger deck of a C-5 somewhere out over the Atlantic, heading toward Rota, Spain. There were a couple of major plot twists before we were able to board. We had initially been told there simply might not be any available seats. As it turned out, that wasn’t quite it. Our plane was to be carrying an exceptionally heavy load of military goodies to be delivered to Iraq and was right at its payload limit. Once it was determined that we could be squeezed aboard, weight-wise [thank you, Jenny Craig ;-)], we learned that Corey, Dave and I were to be – the only passengers!
Three flights and 11 hours after leaving Ithaca I made it to our rendezvous spot in Charleston, SC, the Sheraton North, and met two of my three team members: Navy Lt. Corey Schultz of CENTCOM, who did an absolutely wonderful job organizing the trip stateside and who will now accompany us to and around Iraq, and Dave Kelso, classic rock DJ extraordinaire at KRXO in Oklahoma City.
We shared dinner in the hotel restaurant, and I rolled tape [as you'll see the lighting was dim but the stories were good enough to justify sharing less-than-perfect footage with you]. In this montage, Corey explains the reason behind our middle-of-the-night flight schedule, and Dave tells a moving story from a previous trip to Iraq.
Although not as bumpy as the road the GOP encountered last night, I've hit some turbulence on the first day of my Iraq trip. With weather socked in on the East Coast, my US Airways flight out of our little Ithaca airport was cancelled. A quick phone call later I was on the road to Syracuse. For my sins I decided to listen to Air America all the way - the Stephanie Miller Show as it turned out. They spoke of being in "full gloat mode," and that was no overstatement. Multiple renditions of the "nah-nah-nah-nah, goodbye" song, endless repetitions of Paul Begala's slur of Rush Limbaugh, fantasies of Tom DeLay slipping in his own sick - a class act all around.
Oddly, I didn't find it getting under my skin much. After 12 years in the wilderness, I suppose it's just human nature for Dems to revel in the moment. Every dog has its day. Then again, on election night 1994 I don't recall the GOP revolution, welcome as it was, sending me into paroxysms of puerile chest-pounding. Sidenote: the Air Americans mocked the Fox & Friends cast's notion that, after all, many of the successful Dem candidates were of a moderate to conservative stripe. Miller & Co. are apparently expecting Pelosi to govern in accordance to what they gleefully referred to as her "San Francisco values."