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Alumni
Voices:
The View from Baghdad

By Mercedes Fitchett '91

“Sept. 24, 2004: I have 12 days to go—I am so nervous and anxious. Nervous that my luck may run out soon … anxious about re-engaging in my life back in Washington, D.C. What does the future hold for me?”


From March 26 through October 7, 2004, I served in Baghdad, Iraq, with first the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under Ambassador Paul Bremer, and then the U.S. Embassy under Ambassador John Negroponte. Surviving military plane and helicopter rides, mortars and rockets, convoy attacks and kidnappings, I was nervous about coming home. My time in Iraq will be the most memorable in my life—for the mission, the people, and the experiences—and also the most unsettling.

It started back in June 2003, when my agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce, moved me from the World Bank to a new post as an adviser to the U.S. executive director to the newly created Iraq Task Force. While I was ready for my next career challenge, I was hesitant about working on Iraq—I didn’t know any Arabic and had minimal Middle East experience. Also, this meant a return to headquarters and the bureaucracy. Did I really want to do this?

At that time, we had three Commerce colleagues in Iraq who were doing tremendous work under extremely difficult circumstances. After nine months on the Iraq Task Force, including several trips to the region and endless discussions with U.S., foreign and Iraqi business persons, I was ready for Iraq, but no one who loved me was. I jumped into my next adventure “where the action was,” but with only the grudging support of my family and my then-boyfriend. (That relationship was a subsequent Baghdad casualty.)

When I landed on the ground Friday, March 26, at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP), I was tired, hot and thirsty, having been through a 12-hour journey starting at 5 in the morning in Kuwait and ending with a corkscrew C-130 landing at BIAP in the early afternoon. Wearing our flak jackets and helmets, we boarded school buses.

At this point, the BIAP road had yet to become the most dangerous road in the world. That began two weeks later with the killing and mutilation of the Blackwater contractors in Fallujah, followed by subsequent attacks and killings. Thereafter, the BIAP road was sparsely traveled by U.S. officials, and official convoys and supply lines frequently came under attack. An armored bus called the Rhino Runner was eventually purchased to transport U.S. government personnel between the Palace and BIAP. Everything was fortified and accompanied by tanks, Humvees and shooters.

That day, however, we gazed at the houses, palm trees and destroyed buildings as we made our way to the Green Zone and the mysterious CPA that was squatting in Saddam’s presidential palace. My new home was a cot in a big tent with 50 other women, with air conditioning that frequently broke down and a bathroom trailer with running water only about half of the time.

You quickly come to understand the meaning of Carpe Diem—live for the moment—and appreciate the people around you, because they may not be with you tomorrow. For me, initiation comes in the form of a mortar shell that lands 30 feet away and doesn’t explode. (My parents don’t know that one yet.) A dream trip becomes a Black Hawk helicopter ride to the safer and more prosperous Kurdistan.

As I settled into the CPA with the regular barrage of mortars and rockets, I became more convinced about the good that had been done in removing Saddam, but humbled that we hadn’t done a better job in managing Iraq and its affairs during our occupation period. Where were the best and the brightest to undertake this effort? Where were the endless discussions with the Iraqis to keep them engaged in our efforts? Where was the accountability and transparency in our use of the Development Fund for Iraq (DFI), especially in contracting practices?

I sought out my Iraqi colleagues in Baghdad to stay engaged with what they were thinking. I was whisked away wearing head scarves only to be reprimanded for circumventing security procedures. (But how else to get out if my convoy request gets turned down? And who wants a friend showing up at their front door accompanied by three tanks?) I also sought out the expat Iraqis who were working with the CPA—many of them spent time with family and friends in Baghdad—and I yearned for information on what was taking place in the streets.
Professionally, even with mortars falling, the U.S. business community was still keen about doing business in Iraq. I counseled hundreds of U.S. firms by e-mail and telephone and through Commerce headquarters. Iraq was an unknown, and the information that I could provide was critical in securing a U.S. export, navigating a contract or helping to establish an Iraqi business strategy. I was doing my small part in rebuilding the commercial and business environment of Iraq.

Those who take the inconceivable risks are the Iraqis who work with us and the young military recruits. They are my heroes. The Iraqis who work with us enter the Green Zone every day, waiting in long lines through check-in procedures. When they leave, they’re on their own. They have no security outside these walls. They have spouses, children and family. We hear endless stories of kidnappings, torturings and killings of Iraqis who work with us. One of my employees was targeted for killing but survived an assassination attempt. Several weeks later, his house and car were firebombed. He still works with us in the U.S. Embassy. I am concerned about him and the others that I hired. This is my Iraqi family, and yet we can’t do more for them. They are so vulnerable. I am putting their lives at risk. But they would have it no other way, as they want to be involved in this historic undertaking for themselves, their families and their country.

For me as a civilian, Iraq was a crash course in the workings of all the U.S. military branches—Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. I learned after several weeks that each has a distinct “personality,” and that usually being a colonel is a high level of distinction. But this was Iraq, and colonels were a dime a dozen. Generals were everywhere, too.

I worked most closely with the Marines who were overseeing the Al Anbar governate, which included the dangerous cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. They were interested in a comprehensive development approach, including business and commercial activities, so we worked together. These Marines would go into Fallujah and then come to the Palace for meetings—as would countless other soldiers who were working with Iraqis all over the country, such as the U.S. Army civil affairs teams at the Kirkuk and Baghdad Business Centers. Some of these soldiers were too young to be here—they were 18, 19 or 20 and from all over the U.S.A. Some were U.S. citizens, some were not. I kept thinking, “Shouldn’t they be in college or playing video games somewhere?”

For my work in Iraq, I have been recognized to an extent that I never imagined. The Department of Defense awarded me the Joint Civilian Service Commendation Award, the highest-ranking award under the approval authority of Ambassador Bremer of the CPA. The Department of Commerce awarded me its Gold Medal, its highest form of honorary recognition. While I do not yet know if I will stay involved in Iraq, the people and this time in history will always be in my heart. I pray that the U.S. will continue its strong commitment to the people of Iraq so that it can and will become safe and secure for its people and its new future.
 
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