Head Shed

20 November 2003

On top of the crescent-shaped building that is the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headquarters are four giant, stern-faced bronze representations of Saddam Hussein’s head.  Inside, on the high walls of the central grand concourse, are quotations of his chiseled in Arabic.  I was told they are quotes from Saddam by my Iraqi translator.  None of us new-comers can read them—I’d assumed they were passages from the Koran--and no one really even notices them anymore as we wolf down our lunches in what is now a cafeteria.  Even the Saddam heads have lost their power.  What were once imposing monuments to a recent regime of terror are now viewed by most as curious, silent left-overs from an ancient ruler.

CPA HQ is like a New York investment bank inside of a frat house punctuated by the occasional rocket attack outside.  I visit two or three times per week when I need to do some heavy lifting on the economic development projects for which I am responsible.  It is a building abuzz with activity 24 hours a day as people from all over the world write plans and proposals and supervise the execution of same. 

There are a lot of intrepid civilians from all the coalition countries working on new systems and regulations for the various Iraqi ministries.  The political appointees stay for three month tours, but the unsung bureaucrats are in it for the long haul.  Beside them are soldiers from these same countries, each wearing their distinctive desert camouflage patterns with national flag patches sewn on their shoulders.  These men and women have traded in their swords for plowshares and are making good things happen with a no-nonsense, mission-first attitude that is inspiring to everyone around them. 

When there is a rare hour of free time, the pool out back is a popular hangout.  It is maintained by a big Texas contractor, the same contractor that handles the dining facility, the laundry service, the barber shop, etc.  You needn’t guess where they’re from.  The cowboy hats, snakeskin boots, and enormous gallon-sized coffee mugs declaring “Don’t Mess With Texas” say it all. 

Then there are the folks from the dozen or so private security firms running in and out of the building with short hair, sunglasses, ear-pieces, and hard looks on their faces.  Civilians all, these guys have pistols strapped to their legs, pistols strapped to their belts, pistols strapped to their torsos, and sometimes even pistols strapped to their pistols. 

You’ve got Iraqis at CPA HQ too, of course.  Lots of old men and pretty young girls.  They work on policies or help with translation or sit with the lonely so far from home. 

The hallways are always jammed with people carrying ideas from one office to the next.  Meal times are especially crazy, as everyone vies for an empty table, or at least two seats together.  Bulletin boards abound, announcing various important official things.  But there are also little leaflets posted advertising fun runs and trips to Babylon and information about a picnic or a party that’s coming up. 

Bremer spottings make for good chit chat.  The Ambassador dines with the regular people inside the crowded cafeteria everyday.  We all respect that.

Status is measured by who has a cell-phone, who has a car, and who gets to sleep in a two-man trailer versus the empty corners of the CPA building itself.  It used to be that living in the Al-Rashid Hotel (with its restaurants and discos) was a perk, but since the rocket attack, that’s no longer the case. 

Some of the brightest folks in the world are putting everything they’ve got into this project.  Everyone knows the consequences of failure and everyone’s made enough Iraqi friends that they don’t want to see that happen.