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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
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
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
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.