JimSpiri ”THE LAST LAP #2”
The latest journey called, "The Last Lap" - IRAQ, 2015
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© Jim Spiri 2015

The Last Lap #2

Today is Sunday, July 5, 2015.  I am at this moment at the Albuquerque Airport, awaiting my flight to Atlanta, then onto Dubai and eventually to Iraq, Baghdad in particular.  I have not so excited feelings in my being about this journey.  There are a number of factors involved giving me such a feeling but first and foremost is the fact that it is really a very hot time of year to be doing what I am about to do.  Secondly is the matter of the unexpected on the ground that will await me once there.  Originally, my friend Mohammad was to be my minder.  However, he is in India and will not be in Iraq when I am on the ground.  At the moment, I have a contact named Haithem, who is a friend of Mohammad and also a terp, that is scheduled to meet me at the airport in Baghdad.  We’ll see how this turns out.  It is always the unknown in the coordinating of getting from point A to point B that causes me undo stress.  It is the one thing I should learn by now that all will be how it is, no matter how much or how little I fret about it.  So much easier said than done.  July 7, 2015, 7am in Dubai at the airport…. Made the long journey from Albuquerque to Atlanta to Dubai and then to hotel near airport.  Got shower, rested  and brief meal in morning.  Made my way to the airport at 5:15 AM.  Long lines, rather smooth processing.  Good  I got here early though.  Temperature is blistering hot and muggy.  Must drink lots of water.  Had some chats with  Michael Yon who speaks negatively about my journey.  I am for sure concerned about things but will proceed as  planned.  Should be ok, but heat will be difficult.  My first order of business is to see how it will go with Haithem  picking me up in Baghdad and shuttling me to wherever.  This will be the big test.  If all goes as planned, I should  be in the village of Dholoyia soon and being cared for by someone who knows Mohammad.  It is really too bad  Mohammad is not going to be there.  That would have been good.  Maybe I can get him there, who knows.  I’ve  been thinking a lot about the song, Forever Young, by Bob Dylan.  I see that as a closing song for the documentary.   It says a lot. In the airport here in Dubai, I have memories of having been at the Kabul Airport on my own back in 2010 or 2012.  I think the one in 2012 when I was all on  my own, no transport by US.  Dubai is a large step up from that and for sure this place is very wealthy.  Playground for the folks in this side of the world in this  culture.  I knew this already and vaguely remember having been here with KBR on some R and R journey.  I think 2006.  Saw many civilian contractors, (KBR  types) loading onto a plane for Bagram.  The gravy train still exists and it brought back many unfavorable memories.  Once again, seen too much.  The matter of  what lays ahead is always on my mind.  Should always figure out how to travel much, much lighter and adapt from there.  Carrying the flak vest and helmet  takes up all the weight and makes life hard.  Carrying three cameras and a small video camera is hard also.  In  hindsight, maybe a smartphone would have eliminated lots of things but too short of a time to learn it all.  I’m not  wanting to go down that road.  Not yet.  I for sure look for the end of this journey to come upon me as soon as  possible.  Just getting in, do my thing and then get out.  That’s the plan.  Always has been.  Will close out now and  prepare for going to Baghdad, Iraq at a time when the summer is in full swing, all hell is for sure breaking out  everywhere and I’m doing the impossible on a the fly and on a shoestring.  Let us see what the Lord has in store.  It  should be noted that my back up plan is Erbil, but, that’s another story.   Evening of July 7th. The first evening I was taken to a man’s home who was a Colonel in the former regime.  Prior to this meeting I had  been somewhat informed about the situation that had been in this town called Dholoyia.  I had much to absorb and  learn.  We in the US had heard that ISIS had moved rapidly through Syria and even to Mosul which astounded  those in our government.  Now, the eyes of the world are watching intently as ISIS and it’s folks make serious  attacks all over the place, including now other countries on the planet.  Just as recently as two weeks ago, attacks  in Tunisia, Kuwait and France are claimed to have been sponsored by ISIS and its’ fighters.    In the beginning of this thing we now call, ISIS, few of us that watch the news knew of such a group.  We have all  been aware of the ongoing situation in Syria.  However, no one saw coming what would eventually take place in  Mosul.  Then, what has happened in Anbar province a place where much blood was spilt especially in 2004.  Yet,  what no one knows is that there is a place in Iraq that stood firmly against this scourge called ISIS and that place is  exactly where I am now.  It is terribly complicated to convey in words to the audience the background of the entire  situation in Iraq before, during and after American involvement.  In very simplistic terms however, it can be said  that after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there is not a way to “put the genie back in the bottle” as is said.  Even those  in authority that were advising the President and his cabinet members, tried to explain that if we (the US) invade  and occupy Iraq, there will be a matter of chaos that will result after we leave.  Not many wanted to talk about  “after we leave” especially when the focus was the heavy drum beat to war.  But now it is 2015 and for the most  part, America has left, even though there are “some” that are still here and “some” that are even close by to where I  am at this moment.  There is a reason the US kept Saddam Hussein in power in spite of all that was said.  Like it or not, there was not  the chaos there is now and the void that now exists when things are left to “civil war” if war can ever be called  civil. We have watched for a long time what has been happening in Syria and now it has engulfed much of Iraq.   The US is daily getting more and more drawn back into the mess that some say they created and forgot their  responsibility towards.  This time however, there are no weapons of mass destruction nor is their some heavy  handed dictator that they can blame.  This time, there is a vacuum or a giant void left at the close of the  “occupation”.  Again, to try to explain the “void” would be a long, long lesson in the history of Iraq.  In a nutshell,  here is the problem for informational purposes only.    Life was sufficient under Hussein.  The Americans invaded.  Chaos ensued.  War happened.  Divisions were  created.  Sectarian violence exploded.  Clear lines of separation were drawn mostly on religious lines.  Mostly, Sunni vs Shia vs Kurds.  Somewhere in there is a  small population of Christians who were for the most part living in peace under Hussein.  After the war and especially after the Americans left and with the rise  of what has been going on in Syria, a huge mess brewed.  Political solutions were of no existence in the newly formed government of Iraq.  Old hatreds boiled to  the top.  Sunni’s got a lot of the short end of the new stick created by the change.  Shia militias gained much strength supported by Iran.  Now Iraq has a big  influence from Iran.  All hell has broken loose in Syria and those opposing Asaad have formed a strong oppostion that has now spilled into Iraq and voids left  behind.  The region is in a mess.  And, Iraq now is bearing the brunt of it all thanks to the departure of the Americans who remember were not invited but now  are requested to return.  Any further explanation in this venue is just too long winded.    I sat down with the Colonel and interviewed him about the events of one year ago.  His right elbow has been blown apart and recently he had it taken care of out  of the country in Lebanon.  Good health care treatment is found outside of Iraq.  He began to educate me of the events in Dholoyia beginning in June of 2014.  I  learned from him first hand how the ISIS folks came and then dug in and how war here in Dholoyia happened.  This is where the ISIS fighters would meet their  match.  I spent the better part of the next couple of hours beginning to learn what I have come to and learn about the situation as of now.  Needless to say, it is  impossible to convey to the audience what I heard, learned and listened to.  Dholoyia and the residents had no choice but to stand up and fight against ISIS.   And, that is what they’ve done.  I have now spent the last two days conducting several audio interviews on those that led the resistance against ISIS.  The things I learned fascinated me yet the  things I heard concerned me even the more so.  It is hard to take it all in.   July 8, 2015  5:00 PM in the village of Dholoyia I am here in Dholoyia, the destination that I had planned from the beginning.  It is now Wednesday afternoon and it is very hot outside.  Well over 110 degrees.   I arrived into Baghdad at 10 am yesterday from Dubai.  I had taken a motel there and ended up sleeping for about 4 hours.  That helped.  Also took two showers  which was nice.  The heat just hits you all at once and I have forgotten how all that was.  I’m obviously not in as good a shape as I used to be and I’ve tortured  my body since doing something like this over three years ago.  Nevertheless, I’m here and rolling as best I can.    After arriving at the airport in Baghdad, I had to go through customs.  Not too bad, but a little bit of a scare when they sent me to some room to get some stamp  on my passport.  I thought this is where I would have a problem.  But, not the case.  The only delay was waiting for my bags.  The place had one plane and it  took over an hour to turn the conveyor belt on and await for the bags.  Eventually, they came and the guards at the bag check place just smiled and said, “go”.   So, I did. I had tentatively arranged for a man whom I had never met to pick me up at the airport.  What I did not realize was, getting picked up at the airport is not how  we do it back home.  I’m in Baghdad.  Not Albuquerque.  I also of course have no way of communicating because I’m so old school that I do not have one of  those smart phones currently in my possession.  I probably should have listened to my youngest daughter and accepted the one she wanted to give us.  But, I’m  just too old school.  After waiting for over an hour for my bags to come off the plane, not because of a crowd, but just because that is how it is here, I retrieved them and then  walked out of the holding area and looked around for my ride.  And then I looked around and looked around and looked around.  This lasted for over an hour  until I managed to find someone with a phone and I called my contact.  He explained to me that I had to take a taxi because no one is allowed to come to the  airport.  I should have realized this early on, but I catch on slowly.  I was able to reach my contact after securing a taxi that cost me $35 US dollars to go about  4-miles.  But, I gladly paid it because the journey was now on and I had no back up plan should I be stuck at the Baghdad airport.    After ten minutes, I met my contact who had a small white car, fairly new and two friends with him.  He told me he had been waiting for over three hours and  was thinking I did not come to Iraq.  I realized at that moment, I almost missed the whole journey by not having good comms.  My fault, again.  But, seriously,  lesson learned.  Will not make that mistake again.    I was so happy that I had my ride that almost wet my pants.  Now I knew I was committed to this adventure and it would take shape in a remarkable fashion that  I would soon learn.  Before I had arrived at this point I had been told by all kinds of friends, acquaintances, colleagues and just a whole host of folks that know  me for one reason or another that what I was attempting to do was not possible.  This did weigh heavily on my thinking but I have no other way to go on but  forward.  It is the last lap after all.  Why quit now…?  These people are members of the Al-Joubury tribe.  They are Sunni’s.  I was heading now to a place that I had been once before in 2004 after befriending a  remarkable man I had met named, Mohammad Abdullah.  As I have mentioned before in many of my writings I had come to his village once while I was  working at Camp Anaconda when I had some time off.  It was extremely risky to have done that in those days but I felt I needed to get an idea of where I was  and who these folks were.  It turned out to be one of the most incredible things I have ever done and our friendship has lasted now over a decade.  I had always  promised my friend I would come back and visit this area along the banks of the Tigris River.  That has now transpired.  It is now July 2015.  The daily  temperatures rise to 120-degrees and hotter at times.  The volatility in this country is beyond measure as the new emerging threat is this group we now call, ISIS.    Where I am at this time is close to a large base that was once known to tens of thousands of US troops as Camp Anaconda.  I spent a lot of time there and pretty  much saw all that could be seen concerning troops coming and going to and from Iraq between the years of 2004-2007.  The last time I was in Iraq I departed  from Camp Anaconda on a medevac flight to Germany on a C-17.  I was allowed to be a space available passenger something that used to be my job finding  seats for folks that had permission to go on such flights.  From my vantage point at the moment, I can see the lights of this base way far off in the distance over  the banks of the Tigris River.  Even tonight, I saw flares being fired off in the distance which in the past meant something or more likely, someone, was trying to  breach the perimeter.  As we conversed on the ride from the Baghdad airport to our destination, I peered out the window intently watching life go by here in Iraq.  I was now here.  It  was hotter than hell outside the car and I wondered how in the world I was going to survive this journey, just concerning the heat.  I come from the New Mexico  desert, but this heat here in Iraq in summer is absolutely oppressive.  Thankfully, it is a dry heat, not a humid heat.  But, 120-degrees is still hot.    The drive to my destination takes about two hours all up.  The distance is not that great, but the traffic and conditions slow it down quite a bit.  As we neared the  area that was familiar to me, I looked deeper out the window.  All along the way I was getting an education as to what has been happening, what is currently  going on and how things have evolved since my last visit to Iraq 8-years ago.  Off to the left and to the right there were different colored flags over this and that  property and homes.  I asked, “what are all these flags?”  It was explained to me that some are from the Iraqi Army and some are from different Militias that  currently have “domination” over this or that sector. Sometimes there were multiple flags in a very small area, even over the same building.    I am in Sunni area now.  This is one of the strongholds of the Sunni region.  Many in the past knew this area as part of the “Sunni Triangle”.  It has seen an  immense past during the war years when America was here in full strength.  A lot of blood on both sides has been spilt on the ground below my feet.  As we  approached the area where it was time to cross the river, we had to go a different way because the main bridge was gone.  This is still a war zone.  The entire  country is still a war zone.  The terrain looks similar to the southwest, even like Mexico.  There are no mountains however.  The river is much larger than the Rio Grande but it is also the  only water in the area other than the Euphrates which is the other main water supply.  Some things were now beginning to look a little familiar.  I was getting  close.  My friend Mohammad, was not in country at this time.  He is currently in India assisting his brother in law who is battling cancer.  Treatment for such  things is done outside Iraq for those that can afford the journey.  Mohammad had apologized repeatedly over the last month prior to my departure for not being  able to be present during my visit.  I had to come at this time because the visa I had obtained in Los Angeles has an expiration date on it and must be used.  I  could only come now and Mohammad was stuck in India.  He assured me his people would care well for me.  This he is absolutely correct on.    The one thing Americans never understood prior to coming to Iraq is the culture and the matter of the tribes.  It is just something that is not familiar to all  Americans who know nothing about this land.  Even those in the high ranking places of our government didn’t really get it most of the time.  Not to mention the  everyday soldier who was on the front lines.  I know something about it and have a little experience in it.  But now I have a more full understanding of how  important it is to grasp this particular piece of the Iraqi culture.  It to me is the key to perhaps finding a solution to the chaos that has permeated this land since  the departure of US troops here.  By about 2:00 pm on Tuesday July 7th, I arrived at my destination which is the home of my host.  His name is Haithem and his English is excellent.  He is a  young man with a wife and two children.  He is 35-years old.  His past included working extensively as an interpreter for US forces throughout the war years.   He has also visited the United States and has good knowledge of how things really are.  There could not have been a better host for me. My friend Mohammed  assured me this was the best thing in his absence.  He, (Mohammad) was exactly correct.  I was welcomed to the home of Haithem.  I was shown my room and offered much to drink.  I have arrived in the very middle of Ramadan which means no one  eats or drinks from sun-up to sun-down.  I respected this tradition and refused to eat or drink at that moment.  Later however it was assured to me that water is a  must for me and I accepted.  During such heat, eating really isn’t that enticing.  I can always stand to lose a little weight so I felt that this was a good thing for  me.  After the sun goes down, a wonderful meal is prepared and consumed.  It is one of the things I remember about this area.  The food was precious and  delicious.    
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