Two Bucks

For tonight, at least, I declare the notion of currency is overrated. John, my brother, points out a good Nicholas von Hoffman piece in The Nation on the new United States “embassy” in Baghdad. Another development in plain sight but somehow virtually invisible from these shores:

“Among the many secrets the American government cannot keep, one of its biggest (104 acres) and most expensive ($592 million) is the American Embassy being built in Baghdad. Surrounded by fifteen-foot-thick walls, almost as large as the Vatican on a scale comparable to the Mall of America, to which it seems to have a certain spiritual affinity, this is no simple object to hide.

“So you think the Bush Administration is planning on leaving Iraq? Read on. …”

Yes, read on: Here. By the way, that $592 million price tag — which I’m sure we’ll be able to multiply by two or three or four by the time all is said and done — is two bucks a head for each and every American.

Technorati Tags:

Visiting Iraq

I search for the word “Iraq” on Technorati, the blog-content indexing and search service. I view the results in Technorati’s “Mini” applet, a neat little pop-up window, updated every 60 seconds, showing the latest blog posts related to Iraq. At the bottom of the Mini window is a perky little ad that’s supposed to be relevant to my search:

Visiting Iraq?

Find cheap flights and hotel rates for Iraq from over 100

top travel sites at Book direct and save.

Clicking on that link takes you to a Kayak page that invites you to choose one of seven Baghdad hotels for your upcoming trip. Top of the list: The Ishtar, on Saadoun Street. Amenities include free parking, car rental, a multilingual staff, an outdoor pool, and jogging (with all that going for it, the joint still rates only 5.0 out of 10 based on 32 Kayak users).

When you try to book a week at the Ishtar, though, Kayak returns a screen saying that if you want a reservation at any of the listed Baghdad hotels, you need to call them. If you try to book a flight, you hit another roadblock: a browser window pops up saying that no one Kayak does business with is flying to Baghdad. Just out of curiosity, I checked two other big online travel agents, Orbitz and Expedia, and they won’t get you to Baghdad, either. Curious, eventually I found the booking site for Iraqi Airways, which flies three round trips a week between Baghdad and Dubai in United Arab Emirates for 1600 AED (Emirati dirham), about $450.

WAYGTB-MOYOE* Update No. 99

Bush in Washington yesterday: “We’re seeing progress on the ground. And we’re also seeing political progress on the ground. The constitution has been written; folks will have a chance to vote it up or down here this month. And then there will be elections, if the constitution is approved, for a permanent government.”

Here’s how that progress looks to a Knight-Ridder reporter from the ground Bush is talking about:

“1 p.m. – On phone with the major, who’s apologizing for being late when a car bomb explodes at Checkpoint 3 entrance. Gunfire ensues.

“1-3 p.m. – Locked down in National Assembly building with legislators while bomb debris and bodies are cleared from the street.

“3:15 p.m. – The major calls back. Come on out, he says. I join him walking to Checkpoint 3.

3:25 p.m. – We step around football-sized chunks of bomber hanging like gruesome Christmas ornaments from the razor wire. I point out the journalists’ security fears, being forced to walk through a dangerous area to get to Iraqi government and U.S. Embassy briefings. He is concerned. “Wow, that’s dangerous,” he says, pushing aside a smoking piece of car interior with a booted toe. …”

*Who are you going to believe — me, or your own eyes?

‘Exciting Times’ in Baghdad

As noted yesterday, Bush (countdown: 1,453 days) summed up the situation in Iraq going into the weekend of the vote this way: “It’s exciting times for the Iraqi people.”

The New York Times today carries a story from John Burns in Baghdad that captures the sense of excitement:

“… Daily life here has become a deadly lottery, a place so fraught with danger that one senior American military officer acknowledged at a briefing last month that nowhere in the area assigned to his troops could be considered safe.

‘I would definitely say it’s enemy territory,’ said Col. Stephen R. Lanza, the commander of the Fifth Brigade Combat Team, a unit of the First Cavalry Division that is responsible for patrolling a wide area of southern Baghdad with a population of 1.3 million people.

“In the week that ended Sunday, according to figures kept by Western security companies with access to data compiled by the American command, Baghdad was hit by 7 suicide car bombings, 37 roadside bombs and 52 insurgent attacks involving automatic rifles or rocket-propelled grenades. The suicide bombs alone killed at least 60 people and injured 150 others.”

Portraits of Crazyworld

The New York Times has a fine story on an artist, Steve Mumford, who’s gotten himself embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq as a combat artist. He’s been working for Artnet, which has posted a 15-part Baghdad Journal featuring Mumford’s drawings, paintings and dispatches. I’ve only looked at a couple of the more recent installments. I think they’re frank and human in a way you don’t often see in the mainstream press. In the Times story, he says his view of the war has changed. When he first went to Iraq, he thought the whole operation was a “huge blunder.” But he says he’s been won over to the view that the U.S. mission could succeed, partly by talking to Iraqis, partly by seeing firsthand what U.S. troops have been doing to fix things in Baghdad (which one Army officer he quotes calls “crazyworld”).

Despite his expressed optimism, his picture of Iraq — the violence, the apparent distrust of anything American, at this point — looks anything but hopeful. His most recent dispatch ends:

“When I get back to my hotel the following week Baghdad’s streets feel more dangerous than ever. A rocket has hit the nearby Sheraton; reporters are largely confined to their hotel rooms amid a rash of kidnappings. Only five other people are staying at the Al Fanar: an American contractor, his Iraqi wife and a British colleague, a rather mysterious Japanese woman who tells me she runs a massage parlor in the Green Zone, and a reporter, a young French woman who I occasionally spot in a headscarf, in the lobby.

“Drivers and hotel staff, with little work to do, hang out there, watching TV, while a lone macaque monkey in a small cage stares quietly out the lobby window at the street. In an effort to salvage something from this depressing scene I’d tried to arrange for this monkey to be transferred to Baghdad’s zoo, but the hotel owner refused to sell.

“For several days I stay within the confines of the security zone around the hotels, while my friends Esam and Ahmed come to visit. I’m quite sure my movements are being watched, and when I’m finally ready to leave Iraq I tell the hotel staff I’m going to visit a friend for a day before leaving town.

“However, the hotel driver, Farouk, looks not in the least surprised when I ask him to take me directly to the airport. We drive past the blighted landscape of palm tree stumps next to the highway, cut down and bulldozed to lessen the danger of ambushes. After 30 minutes we pass the first military checkpoint at the airport’s outskirts, and I breathe a sigh of relief.”