In preparation for my embed, I checked out of my hotel. This was a strange (although thankfully expected) experience because the hotels in Baghdad only take cash, thereby necessitating that I pay for all seven weeks in greenbacks. Then it was off to the Green Zone to catch my Blackhawk. For those of you who have never flown by Blackhawk, I highly recommend it. I had flown in one when I was embedded with the medevac unit for a day, but they fly doors closed. These fly doors open, with belt-fed 50 caliber guns on each side of the bird. For safety, the birds fly low—about 50 – 60 feet—rising in altitude only to clear the high tension power lines, and then dropping fast (thrill ride fast) as soon as they passed them. The birds tended to make banking turns when over palm groves (which are areas from which Ali Babas love to launch attacks), presumably to give the gunners a clearer look through the palms. Of course, tipping the birds also gives reporters like me, sitting as I was in an opened-door window seat, an equally fine view. When we cleared the cities and were over a salt flat where there were clearly no people, the gunners each let off some rounds to test their weapons. The shots literally out the blue were somewhat startling, and were followed by the cascade of shell casings following the slip-stream of the aircraft.
After leaving Baghdad, there was a surprising amount of green. Much of the flight was over small farms, and many of these farms had some modest amount of livestock—sheep, goats, chicken, and cows. One thing that I found surprising was that the majority of the people I saw working the fields were women—some of whom were assisted by children of varying ages. I do not know if this was an odd cross-section, or if this is common.
Upon arriving in Tikrit, we went to the largest of Saddam’s palaces. There are over 30 palaces in Tikrit alone—the biggest actually consisting of 7 connected buildings. That edifice is grand, with many chandeliers, literally tons of imported Italian marble, and walls detailed by ornate carving. (Saddam had his initials carved into the border detail of these carvings, assuring that he cannot be completely “defaced.”) In one area of the palace, Saddam placed three Shakespearean-styled balconies. The interpreter informed me that this seemingly odd choice was made because Saddam was a great fan of Shakespeare’s plays—or at least the Arabic translation of the plays.
Upon arrival, the press corp. was briefed by Major General John Batiste. The opening statement gave a general overview of security conditions in the 1st Infantry Division’s area of operations. During questions, the General asserted that the route between Baghdad and Mosul is secure. It is useful to note that secure does not mean IED-free. There are still a significant number of IEDs found on the roads, but the more organized attacks and hijacking that was a serious issue a couple of weeks ago does not appear to be an issue now.
While it does not dominate the news in the way that Fallujah does, the 1st ID conducts almost daily raids in Samarra and Balad. Of course, we are in Tikrit, Saddam’s home town, which has been relatively quiet despite the unrest in other Sunni cities. I asked the General what the secret was for Tikrit—why, when the world expects it to be a hotbed of violence, is it relatively calm for the region. While he suggested that there is the potential for things to go badly in Tikrit (presumably based on the number of Baathists and Saddam loyalists), he pointed to a number of features which have prevented this. In particular, he pointed to engagement, predictive intelligence, and working with the mayor. While he did not say this, the first of these, if not all three, had been deficient in Fallujah preceding the recent unrest. The General also pointed to those good people in Tikrit, who are tired of the insurgent attacks. If he is right, and segments of the population have been able to have a moderating effect on the extreme elements in a stronghold such as Tikrit, than there is some reason for a modicum of hope that other Sunni cities would be able to replicate this success. Fallujah may still be a problem, however, because the insurgents there are believed to include a healthy mix of foreign fighters, who are likely to be less moved by the appeal of locals for armistice.