Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Baghdad Days

Baghdad Days, Out and Back

There’s a nice contrast to be observed between the lifestyle of a Baghdad Embassy American and a Baghdad Central Bank Iraqi. I had occasion to sample the contrast as it relates to travel on a recent trip to Beirut.

The payments project has recently added another module: a system to automate the issue, handling, transfer, and redemption of Government Securities. The idea is that this will simultaneously improve the current largely manual process, provide credit support to the settlement of payments, encourage the development of a secondary market, and give the Central Bank important monetary policy tools. The provider of the software is reluctant to travel to Baghdad and has adopted a practice of meeting with Iraqi counterparts in surrounding countries. Amman, Jordan had been a favored site but the terrorist attacks on Amman hotels have made it difficult for Iraqis to obtain visas. Fortunately Iraqi Airways has recently resumed service and includes Beirut as a destination. The Iraqis will travel to Beirut.

The trip has been planned around the days Iraqi Air flies. They fly out on Tuesdays and back on Sundays. This will stretch what would have been a two day conference to four days with one of the four, a Friday, set aside to observe the Moslem holy day. The stretch is a distinct advantage to the Iraqis who will each receive a $50 per diem allocation and will enjoy some stress-free days out of Baghdad. From the American perspective, the trip merely reduces the number of days that could be spent at the Central Bank in face to face meetings. As it turns out, however, the Governor is in Switzerland, the first Deputy Governor is in Istanbul, and the Central Bank will be closed for two holidays that week anyway. On balance it makes better sense to accompany the Iraqis out of town.

The Bank’s travel service offers travelers abroad an excellent facility for changing arrangements but it is not clear that the service extends to travel on Iraqi Air. Tickets on Iraqi Air are to be purchased with cash in person at an office in Baghdad. We decide we will have to take care of this locally. Our office assistant and translator makes cell phone contact with the local Iraqi Air rep. The rep is out of the office but she thinks we can book a seat if we promise that we will pay for it. There is no question of offering a credit card number. If credit cards were an option I suppose we would not be building a payment system. We are face to face with the reality of a cash economy without ATMs and we scramble to assemble $700 to pay for the round trip ticket. A colleague offers to lend me the money but the military finance unit will cash only one check a week for a maximum of $300. He turns to a friend in PCO who lends him the last $400. We recruit an Iraqi employee in Baghdad, to pick up the ticket. He does and we meet him at the 14 July bridge check point to exchange cash for the ticket.

I will take the Rhino to the BIAP because we have a late conference call that extends later than the last likely Blackhawk flight. Showtime is 2315. The bus leaves at 0130. We arrive in time to get 3 hours of sleep in the travelers’ tent on the military side of the airport. The handy Blackberry alarm clock works and we get a ride to the commercial side of the airport. The eleven Iraqis meet me there, having taken taxis to the airport down the BIAP road that morning. When I say I rode the Rhino to the airport last night, an Iraqi remarks that that is dangerous. On the way back he acknowledges that he is concerned about making too many trips to BIAP because there are people watching for those who make too many trips and are suspected of working with the foreigners. That puts him at risk of kidnap and ransom demands or worse.

At the commercial terminal the security is robust. There is a Global checkpoint as we approach the terminal. Then we line up the luggage on the ground outside the terminal for the bomb sniffing dog. The luggage is x-rayed before we enter the terminal and then again when we go to check in. Our carry-on bags will be searched one more time before we get on the plane.

There is also a surprisingly active flight schedule from the commercial terminal. Our flight is delayed about three hours and as we wait flights for Dubai, Amman, Cairo, and Damascus are announced and depart. Iraqi Airways, Royal Jordanian, Emirates Air, and others are all flying into and out of Baghdad.

In Beirut the meetings are productive. The software vendor explains the functionality of the GSRS and asks the CBI and MOF representatives to describe how securities are currently issued and redeemed in Iraq and any special requirements needed to address unique practices. It is gratifying to hear the Iraqis describe their implementation of the laws and regulations put in place during CPA days.

On the last night we go to dinner with two Iraqis and the software team at Abdel Wahab on Abdel Wahab Inglisi Street in the Ashrafiyeh district. We leave the selection of dishes to the waiter who will bring us a mezze feast that includes hummus, fattoush, tabouli, kibbeh, falafel, garlic paste, three kinds of kebabs, and a variety of other dishes all accompanied by Kefraya wine and the Lebanese version of pita that arrives warm and puffy. It is wonderful. While walking back to the hotel, one of the Iraqis turns to me and says that someday he would like to walk down a street in Baghdad with me like this. I think I start to understand what the trip means to him.

The next day we are in the departure lounge at the airport waiting for our flight to Baghdad. Across from us sits Brent Sadler, CNN’s chief Beirut correspondent. He tells a colleague by cell phone that a demonstration is expected in the Ashrafiyeh district. Shortly thereafter the local TV station broadcasts video of the demonstration that will result in the burning of the Danish consulate in Beirut. The cartoons again.

Be well.
February 6, 2006


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