February 25, 2007

On My Way to Iraq

I’ll be spending some quality time in Iraq over the next two and a half months doing consulting work, journalism, and video – first in the northern Kurdistan region and then in Baghdad and the heart of the Sunni Triangle.

Sign Pointing Toward Baghad.jpg
Photo copyright Patrick S. Lasswell

My first job starts two weeks from now and will be another private consulting gig in Kurdistan with my business partner Patrick Lasswell. This will be my fourth trip to the region, which is becoming a regular beat for me now. I’m more comfortable there than I was when I first visited. The people, the terrain, the logistics, and the job are all familiar. The learning curve has flattened out, which means I can multitask now.

Last time I went there as a consultant I had no time for reporting or writing. This time I will because I know how to squeeze it in, even though my first obligation will be to my employers, not to my blog. I won’t be able to write full time, but I will be able to give you something now and then.

This time I’m going to give you some video as well as writing and photographs. Stay tuned for taped interviews with Kurdish civilians and officials, and also some video postcards of what this place actually looks like. Kurdistan always shocks people when they see it for the first time. It doesn’t look anything like the hellish images that come out of Baghdad.

Kurdistan Between Suli and Erbil.jpg
The Mesopotamian plain gives way to the mountains of Kurdistan

Utah of the Middle East.jpg
Suleimaniya, Iraq, the Utah of the Middle East

Large Houses Dohok 2005.jpg
New houses in the city of Dohuk

I’ll be there for a month or so, then will come home for a short break. Then I’m off to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle for two weeks with the American military.

I’ve been coordinating a trip to Baghdad with the Department of Defense for months now. If the original plan worked out I would have been home from Baghdad already. But DoD is a bureaucracy at the end of the day. The troop surge means I'm even lower on their priority list -- which is, of course, understandable. My schedule keeps getting pushed back, but they promise to fly me there and provide me with as much access as possible. Theoretically now I’m going at the end of April. Hopefully the trip won’t get postponed again.

I need body armor and combat zone insurance for Baghdad. And I’d like to pick up a new handheld video camera for Kurdistan. I want to give you the highest quality video footage possible over Internet broadcasts. Spending 10,000 dollars on a professional camera would be a waste of money for Internet video, but it would be nice to pick up a 1,000 dollar camera if possible. Best not to waste the opportunity using a cheap one with a small cell phone camera sized lens.

Any donations you can send my way via Pay Pal will help me give you the best content possible, and will help keep me alive and insured when I finally make it, and long last, to Baghdad and the war.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

Here are some still shots I took on my first couple of trips to Iraqi Kurdistan. Imagine what these pictures would look like if they moved. Help me buy a good camera and you will get some pictures that move.

Boy Erbil.jpg
A young Kurdish boy in the northern city of Erbil

Erbil Sheraton.jpg
The fake “Sheraton” hotel in Erbil that isn’t really a Sheraton

Woman Naza Mall Erbil.jpg
A Kurdish woman enters Erbil’s new Naza Mall

Khan Zad Lobby.jpg
The lobby of the Khan Zad Hotel overlooks the mountains near Gaugamela, where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire’s Darius III. The Battle of Gaugamela is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Arbella (Erbil).

Kurdish Family Iraq Iran Border.jpg
Patrick and I shared tea with this Kurdish family in the shade of walnut trees just a few feet (literally) from the Iranian border

No for Violence Kurdistan.jpg
Political murals espousing liberal-democratic values are everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan. This mural is painted on concrete bomb blast walls erected to protect civilians from possible terrorist attacks from the Sunni Triangle.

Making Bread Kurdistan.jpg
Young men make bread at a popular stop on the road between Erbil and Suleimania

Ziggarats at Lalish.jpg
Ziggarats at the pagan temple of Lalish where the Yezidis say the universe was born

Kurdsitan Child Lalish.jpg
A shy child at Lalish

Men and Women Suli Street.jpg
Pedestrians, downtown Suleimania

Plasma TVs Dohok.jpg
Plasma screen TVs for sale in Dohuk

Man with Baby Kurdistan.jpg
A man comforts his infant while taking a break from a long cross-country drive

Flower Kurdistan Mountains.jpg
A flower somehow survives the punishing heat of July in the Kurdistan mountains

UPDATE: My Kurdistan business partner Patrick Lasswell kindly adds the following in the comments section:

When you give Michael the means to report interesting and important stories, he reports interesting and important stories. We're going to try to do more than we have before this trip, while still providing our employers exceptional results. Our wives are alright with us going out and working ourselves to exhaustion in far off places because we married well and got lucky besides.

As understanding as our lovely wives are, our mortgage companies are less cordial. While we would love to pay for the best reporting gear out of our pockets, the guy with the forclosure notice simply ruins our shopping.

If you value independant reporting, I urge you to support Michael in his efforts to provide exceptional writing with exceptional media. I'm not just saying that because I get to play with the new gear, honest.
He does too want to play with the new gear. So help both of us out, and yourself as well, by donating money for a good video camera so you can see Kurdistan and Baghdad move instead of only through still shots.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos except otherwise noted copyright Michael J. Totten

Posted by Michael J. Totten at February 25, 2007 07:33 PM

Comments

Michael, have a safe trip.

Posted by: leo at February 25, 2007 08:02 PM

Michael,

I wanted to place a link to this article on my site, and also wanted to post your "leb pic" in the upper left hand corner.

May I?

Posted by: OregonGuy at February 25, 2007 08:05 PM

Oregonguy, of course. Thanks.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 25, 2007 08:09 PM

When you give Michael the means to report interesting and important stories, he reports interesting and important stories. We're going to try to do more than we have before this trip, while still providing our employers exceptional results. Our wives are alright with us going out and working ourselves to exhaustion in far off places because we married well and got lucky besides.

As understanding as our lovely wives are, our mortgage companies are less cordial. While we would love to pay for the best reporting gear out of our pockets, the guy with the forclosure notice simply ruins our shopping.

If you value independant reporting, I urge you to support Michael in his efforts to provide exceptional writing with exceptional media. I'm not just saying that because I get to play with the new gear, honest.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at February 25, 2007 08:11 PM

Patrick Lasswell: I'm not just saying that because I get to play with the new gear, honest.

Liar!

Ha ha, no seriously, thank you for this, Patrick.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 25, 2007 08:18 PM

Michael Totten: Liar!

How sharper than a serpent's tooth is an ungrateful business partner!

After watching The Amazing Race I can say very convincingly that I'm just in it for the travel adventure. Would you believe it more if I said it with an accent?

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at February 25, 2007 09:03 PM

Looking forward to some great reports, pics and vids.
Keep your self out of harm's way.

Posted by: jonorose at February 26, 2007 01:43 AM

Mr. Totten:

"Suleimaniya, Iraq, the Utah of the Middle East"

Pardon my ignorance, but in what way exactly. The terrain...?

I don't even know why this particular tidbit stuck out with any significance (amidst the wonderful pictures), but it made me curious.

Posted by: anuts at February 26, 2007 04:37 AM

anut,

Seriously, Suleimaniye is the Utah of the Middle East. When you go, you'll see it for yourself.

Michael,

Try and drop by Beirut, if you can. From your pictures, it seems that Iraq is a lot nicer and happier than Lebanon right now.

BTW, are you flying through Turkey?

Posted by: Charles Malik at February 26, 2007 05:02 AM

anuts,

The terrain is not dissimilar, but more importantly the culture is different but not dangerously so. They are conservative and different than us, but to a resolvable level.

Of course, conservative is a relative title. I've stood outside Michael's house and watched three kilt wearing vespa riders drive past hemp wearing lesbian couples and thought nothing of it. Compared to where Michael lives, Suli is Utah. Compared to the Wahabist Saudia Arabia, it's a party town. Last summer I saw a young woman in Suli wearing a sleeveless shirt with only one man protecting her! Scandalous!

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at February 26, 2007 05:02 AM

"I've stood outside Michael's house and watched three kilt wearing vespa riders drive past hemp wearing lesbian couples and thought nothing of it."

Thanks for the visual...(I guess-hehe) It probably wouldn't surprise many that I don't even see that here in downtown Dallas...for whatever that's worth. Anyway I think I understand. Tame? Would that be another way to take the comparison?

Thanks for the response.

Posted by: anuts at February 26, 2007 06:03 AM

I thought Iraqi-Kurdistan was akin to Utah because of the "al-Mormonoun," an obscure sect not much unlike the Mormons of Utah.

/joke

Anyway, Michael, be safe.

Zak

P.S. When are you gonna to go Iran? I looked into it, but it appears US passport holders can go only if on a arranged tour. My only other passport is Israeli ... the only passport NOT ALLOWED by the Islamic Republic.

Posted by: Zak at February 26, 2007 07:16 AM
Mr. Totten:

"Suleimaniya, Iraq, the Utah of the Middle East"

Pardon my ignorance, but in what way exactly. The terrain...?
The skiing and 3% beer. Posted by: Naha at February 26, 2007 08:19 AM

Michael,
Can you see if you can post a reply about Sy Hersh's article and interview. Or can you get another person who might know a bit more about this to post.
He is claiming that the US is supporting 3 sunni jahadist groups in lebanon. This does not pass the quick smell test but what is up with it. He normally knows what he is talking about.
The following is where I saw the transcript and they have the video.

There are three Sunni jihadist groups whose main claim to fame inside Lebanon right now is that they are very tough. These are people connected to al Qaeda who want to take on Hezbollah. So this government, at the minimum, we may not directly be funneling money to them, but we certainly know that these groups exist.

FYI for email to me remove the _NOSPAM from my email

Posted by: crazyman in NYC at February 26, 2007 08:38 AM

Have fun. Take some risks. Learn some stuff. Don't die!

Posted by: glasnost at February 26, 2007 09:05 AM

If you're willing to spend a little more, I would recommend the Panasonic DVX100. You can probably find one at a reasonably reputable reseller for 25-75% again as much. Though your immediate format is web, it might be worth spending a little more to have high-quality master tapes for posterity.

Posted by: Naha at February 26, 2007 09:20 AM

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 02/26/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

Posted by: David M at February 26, 2007 09:59 AM

Naha,

I love the concept, and if you want to pay for it, I'll carry that big thing and it's tripod all over Iraqi Kurdistan. The problem is that at the best place for us to buy that camera, B&H Photo in NYC, the best price I'm seeing is $4,000 without batteries, tapes, cleaning materials, and a case.

Personally, I'd rather get the Canon XL HD or the XL2 if I have carry a tripod mounted large system. I like the capacity to change lenses that you get with the Canon XL series. I've gotten to handle them here and I love what I see. If you want to front the money for a big new camera and want to specify the machine, we'll be happy to let you.

Seriously, we want to use a big camera eventually and will put one to use immediately if we can get one. If you want to help us with that, we will be exceptionally grateful for your assistance with our professional film aspirations.

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/bnh/controller/home?O=Search&A=details&Q=&sku=402800&is=REG&addedTroughType=search
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon_XL-H1

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at February 26, 2007 10:15 AM

Yes, we would love a big camera. But a small one will work just fine for right now.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 26, 2007 10:22 AM

When you get too comfortable is when bad things can happen.. Please stay safe and aware.

Posted by: Kenneth Noisewater at February 26, 2007 01:05 PM

Hi,

I linked this article and borrowed the top image -- with attribution. Hope that's ok.

http://moralauthority.wordpress.com/2007/02/26/michael-totten-is-heading-back-to-iraq/

Good luck and looking forward to your reports.

Scott

Posted by: mesablue at February 26, 2007 01:31 PM

Hey Totten,

Be sure to get yourself some Hassan Nasrallah in a vile:

http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=1&article_id=77967

That way you can at least smell like a man.

Posted by: The Other White Meat at February 26, 2007 01:41 PM

Other White Meat is banned for trolling.

I am neither gay nor a woman (not that there is anything wrong with being either), and besides if I were a lesbian I would still go to Baghdad.

Insults like these are a better fit on different blogs.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 26, 2007 02:06 PM

Scott: I linked this article and borrowed the top image -- with attribution. Hope that's ok

Of course! It is not necessary to ask permission to quote me or link to my blog. I always appreciate it.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 26, 2007 02:07 PM

'Here are some still shots I took on my first couple of trips to Iraqi Kurdistan. Imagine what these pictures would look like if they moved. Help me buy a good camera and you will get some pictures that move.'

Michael, the truth is that 'we' are moved by your photos and the stories you share.

Godspeed and good luck.

Posted by: John H at February 26, 2007 02:11 PM

After the post concerning "...Utah of the Middle East.", I though either the Kurds wore odd undergarments or the Kurdistan Tabernacle Choir was performing somewhere. Someone is in for a big surprise in trying to find the answer to the former or the CD for the latter.

Posted by: Pat Patterson at February 26, 2007 02:22 PM

Check is in the mail Michael. Please be careful.

Posted by: spc67 at February 26, 2007 02:26 PM

Michael, Patrick,

Two quick questions:

Are you guys strictly looking for a high-def video camera, or are you also considering a pro, or semi-pro camera?

Are you in the New York City area?

Posted by: NooYawkah at February 26, 2007 04:10 PM

Michael, two things:

1. I also, would like to here your views on that article by Hersh, mentioned above in the comments.

2. I'm gonna have a check in the mail for you tomorrow. :-)

Posted by: Renée C. at February 26, 2007 04:59 PM

NooYahkah,

In the short term we'd like to have a small HD camera. Medium to long term, a real pro camera.

We are nowhere near New York, unfortunately. We're both in Portland, Oregon.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 26, 2007 05:41 PM

Renee,

I'll try to take a look at the Hersh article. I have a huge list of things to do first, though, unfortunately. Planning trips to Iraq is very time and enery consuming.

Thanks in advance for the check. :)

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 26, 2007 05:43 PM

NooYawkah,

There's a relatively large logistics chain associated with taking a pro or semi-pro camera in. We need lots of batteries and lots of tapes to serve the camera. We need professional sound and lighting to support the image quality. We can get a tripod in country, although I would take a good, light tripod if it was available. Possibly it's a limitation in my own mind, but I want to take everything in Pelican 1610 cases. There aren't many good tripods that will fit in the Pelican 1610 and carry the weight of even a semi-pro camera. We could go with the larger 1650 cases but the extra 10 pounds that box weighs is only worth it if we HAVE to fit something seven inches longer than the 1610 allows.

I would love to have the trust of somebody to loan me an $86,000 professional camera to take to Iraq. (Besides the Navy, who trusted me with shipping $2.5 million worth of electronics out of the US earlier this month. That was going from a base to a base with a lot of tracking. ) The 10-20% image quality reduction of a $8,000 semi-professional camera is worth the tenfold reduction in liability.

I can handle the additional logistics burden of transporting a serious camera to Iraq. The thing is that if we are going to take the trouble to schlep all that gear in, I want the best image quality recording tradeoff I can get. Partly that is because the Kurds deserve the best recording of their story we can make. Partly that is because some of the documentary venues are scraping for HD content and the Kurd's story will get out to a broader audience in HD.

I'm more comfortable asking for money for a new camera from people who can afford to spend it than I am for the loan of a camera from people who can't afford to lose it. I've got a plan for what to do with whatever we can get, everything is deeply appreciated.

I'm really sorry we're not able to meet with you before going, that's just one of the problems with going quickly. We want to go back again soon, and we will make an effort to get out to the other coast before we do. There are a lot of great people we would like to hand deliver copies of what we have recorded so far and talk with. Maybe we could arrange a screening, or perhaps I'm planning too far ahead.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at February 26, 2007 06:37 PM

We are thinking about going back with a much larger and more serious camera and a budget, and we have at least one professional filmmaker who wants to go with us. It's a bit tough to put that together in a week, though, so that isn't our short term goal. That's a medium term goal.

Anyone who wants to be our sugar daddy (or mama) and buy us some serious HD theater-quality gear is more than welcome to do so. :)

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at February 26, 2007 07:19 PM

Michael Totten: Anyone who wants to be our sugar daddy (or mama) and buy us some serious HD theater-quality gear is more than welcome to do so. :)

He's not just saying that because I'll be the one figuring out how to pack everything... Actually, he may be saying that just because I'll be the one figuring out how everything works. I better pack a good soldering iron and spare connectors.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at February 26, 2007 07:29 PM

Michael -- Will you be in Ankara by any chance?

Posted by: Fred at February 26, 2007 09:01 PM

Michael, if you don't have time for a look at the article, that's fine. You just get ready for your trip. I hope that you get tons of money for the new camera because if your regular pics are as great as they are, I can't even imagine your video!!! Hit the tip jar if you can folks. :-)

For others who wanted to hear a good review on the Hersh article, check out this blogger's review.

And then, you'll have to also check out the latest by the Sandmonkey, LOL!! Hershed!

Posted by: Renée C. at February 26, 2007 09:10 PM

Fred,

I'd love to see Turkey, but this trip came up a bit too quickly to jaunt about on the way in. On the way out, we have a bit more flexibility.

Feel free to message privately, but even though things have gotten better in Kurdistan, we're still defining our travel plans by their unpredicatability. Locking down a schedule in public invites unpleasant surprises. Just because the Hezborroids have been banned doesn't mean they aren't reading.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at February 26, 2007 10:46 PM
Suleimaniya, Iraq, the Utah of the Middle East
I thought it was the Somaliland of the Middle East (joke: see Kristoff's NYT op-ed today).

To Patrick, you can often find older models of the DVX-100, refurbished, on the internet for $1500 up.

Posted by: Naha at February 27, 2007 05:55 AM

Naha,

I really want a first rate production camera, but unlike the handycam, there is a lot that needs to go with it.

Batteries: $500-1000 Because you always need to be able to shoot video and power is often hard to get in Iraq.
Tape: $500-1000 Because running out of tape is bad.
Tripod: $200-300 Because cameras that good deserve and often require a steady base
Sound: $1,000-If you have to ask... Because great video and lousy sound make a lousy recording. You can get away with lousy video and great sound. (See Blair Witch Project for details.)
Lights: $1,000-2,000 The base on this is buying and carrying around a generator to provide interview lights that will be steady through the many blackouts.
Cases: $500-1,000 Because cameras that do not arrive intact do not shoot good video.

I really want to shoot this big, but the next step up from handycams is steep. As much as I want to go in cheap and get things done, the safety net available in the US is much bigger than it is in Iraq. A lot of that is because I don't speak Kurdish or Arabic and can't always wait for the translator to help me find the place that has what I need. More than a little of that is my military mindset that insists on planning every contingency.

If it makes you feel any better, other reservists think I overprepare...until they need something I happened to bring!

I promise you, Naha, that we are going to do everything we can to bring back the best video we possibly can. We might be able to borrow a camera from somebody in Iraq or the horse may learn to sing.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell at February 27, 2007 11:21 AM

Michael,
Just recently I was trying to explain to my 83 year old dad about blogging. I mentioned your site and how your work is superior to the regular media. My dad only had a 2nd grade education and was a migrant laborer; he has a tough time understanding the internet and all that. He finally understood and appreciated my description about you and your work when I told him you were "un vato muy chingon!" He knows enough to comprehend the dangers of the places that I told him you continue to visit. Be safe.

Posted by: Israel at February 27, 2007 12:36 PM

Very nice photos. Be careful, and thank you for all the wonderful reporting.

Posted by: John Norris Brown at February 27, 2007 01:12 PM

I'll PayPal $10.00 towards your camera. Have a safe trip. Do your loved ones a huge favor and buy some Iraqi Dinar while you are over there!

peace out-

Mike

the link below helps keep the mortgage man away...
www.TheLendingPage.com

Posted by: Mike Eckley at February 28, 2007 04:33 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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