Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mike-Farewell to the Palace

December 16, 2008 - On December 13, my office moved from its old premises in the Palace to its new space in the "New Office Building" (NOB) in the New Embassy Compound (NEC).  The move also represents a turning point in the U.S. relationship with Iraq.  On December 18, the Ambassador and the rest of the Embassy front office will move, after which we will close out our presence in this remnant of the Saddam regime and return the Palace to the Iraqi government.  The transfer of the Palace will accompany the implementation of the Security Agreement and provides a strong signal of the diminished role the U.S. government will play in the running of Iraq's affairs.  I for one leave the Palace, however, with mixed feelings.

Like the vast majority of my colleagues in the Palace, I'm used to moves.  I've moved at least every three years throughout my working life, and, for a period of a decade, averaged one move a year, but I have to admit that I didn't look forward to this move.  The photos in Anne's website are a historical curiosity now.  None of us, and possibly no one, will be lazing around the Palace pool, catching a few rays, and none of us will be checking the pool from a second-floor office to see whether a woman might be stretched out instead of the usual guys in speedos.  Nor will anyone be playing ping pong or billiards next to the pool, pretending they're at a Club Med, instead of the Baghdad "sand box."

I was comfortable in the Palace.  I would walk from the south entrance toward my office in the north section in the morning.  As I passed the Palace mini-DFAC, I would fill up my thermos with coffee and duck into the mini-DFAC to grab a boiled egg or energy bar for breakfast.  Late mornings, I would take a break by walking back to the mini-DFAC for a cup of coffee and to get a free copy of the military Stars-and-Stripes newspaper.  One or two evenings a week, I would go to the Palace movie theater to see a first-run movie.  The ten-minute commute to the Palace was also a time to mentally prepare for the day, to read the Stars and Stripes, to catch up with friends who happened to be on the same shuttle, or eavesdrop on other people's conversations.  We now have a five-minute walk to the Embassy from our apartments, but are missing the casual socializing that took place on the shuttles.

Some amenities are being transferred to the NEC, but, of course, the transition period is difficult.  We received a staff notice" yesterday that a snack bar would open at the NOB, to accompany an existing one that has been operating in the New Office Annex (NOX) next door for several weeks.  Of course, when I checked on it, the doors were still closed and nothing had been prepared, so I went across the street to get my coffee at the NOX.  The NOB snack bar's coffee and hot water servers had been filled and were operating the next day.  I'm still not sure where I can get a Stars and Stripes.

There were a number of other small problems, primarily because we were working against a deadline to move entirely out of the Palace by the end of the year, so the move occurred before everything was quite ready.  We're often doubled up in cubicles, but the cubicles haven't been provided with extra telephones and still lack the additional computer terminals.  We were also told that we would have to choose between the telephone and the terminal because each cubicle only had one extra electronic outlet.  I share a waste basket with the next cubicle.  I also expect the extra set of drawers that we were promised will be a long time arriving.

The lay-out really sucks.  I have to know three combinations to get to my office.  My section has also been divided up into two different office spaces, which are actually a fair distance apart.  Because of the silly security rules, no toilets could be installed in the classified space where I have my office, so I have to walk around the corner, through two sets of doors, and walk to the far corner of the building before I get to the toilet.  We're not allowed to keep our office door open, so we're walking down anonymous corridors of locked doors and, once through the doors, find ourselves in a Dilbert cartoon of cubicles with no privacy.  During this transitional period, the drab furnishings are accentuated by a deserted feel.  The office where I work, which will eventually hold 17 people, seats five right now.  On the other hand, the greater separation between seats does mean that my neighbor can actually have a semi-private telephone conversation.

The most aggravating issue, however, is the lack of telephone connectivity.  We are not allowed to bring cell phones, which we relied on completely, into the new building at all.  Unfortunately, our desk telephones are remoted into an exchange in the U.S.  We can call each other, but anyone in Iraq has to make a long-distance call to the U.S. in order to reach us.  For the same reason, we can't set our cell phones to forward calls to our desk phones, which was the normal procedure at my last post.

The Palace always had a jury-rigged feel to it.  Its larger ball rooms and auditoria were sub-divided into rooms constructed of white-washed, construction-grade plywood.  Desks were squeezed into large rooms to maximize occupancy.  My old office, for example, was crowded with a motley assortment of desks of differing styles and age to hold 12 people in an approximately 30" x 20" space.  The Palace, however, with its over-the-top decor, had a distinctiveness and personality that is sorely lacking in our new office space.  If you're reading this to prepare for your assignment to Embassy Baghdad, then you will only have Anne's photos to appreciate the faded grandeur that was once our daily environment.  I will miss it.