The Beginning of WiRED's Work in Iraq

BY WIRED DIRECTOR GARY SELNOW, PH.D.

 

May 2003, soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq — Some people are blessed and can sleep through anything. As luck would have it, I’m not one of them. It was 1:30 in the morning, my first night in Iraq. I was staring at the ceiling, listening to the howling sandstorm pounding the side of the building, which happened to be one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. Along with the sound of wind and the grating of sand against the windows, I could hear the snoring of 20 men in our makeshift dorm — two rows of steel-frame cots — set up for advance teams. With the arrival of troops in Baghdad in the spring of 2003, the United States and other coalition member countries sent people to help with infrastructure, security, administration and the other services needed to stabilize Iraq.

 

Eighteen hours earlier, I had left Kuwait with several others — a U.S. State Department employee, a contractor and a few armed people, including a Navy Seal — in a three vehicle convoy heading north to Baghdad on Highway 1. Farm vehicles and passenger cars used the road, but mostly military trucks and Humvees traveled on the divided highway, the only real highway in the country. The 750-mile road starts south at the Kuwait border, passes through Baghdad, then turns west, stopping at the Jordanian border.

 

My first trip began in early spring 2003 when Pen Agnew, a Programs Coordination Officer at the State Department who had tracked WiRED’s health education work in the Balkans, called to see if someone from WiRED would visit Iraq to assist physicians with information technology-based education programs. Working with the Iraqis fit our mission to provide medical education in war-affected regions, so we said sure, we’ll join the State Department’s Global Technology Corps team to see what we could do.

 

It took the better part of a day to drive from Kuwait to Baghdad, a half hour to get through security at the Green Zone, then over to the palace, also known as the Republican Palace, one of Saddam’s many palaces scattered around the country. Word had it that every evening the staff at each palace was instructed to prepare an elaborate meal in the event he would choose to visit. Saddam was security obsessed and rarely announced his schedule. Heads would roll if he showed up, and a feast wasn’t ready and waiting. So staff prepared everywhere, in case he dropped in anywhere. When we dropped in, there wasn’t much of a feast waiting, but the military did a pretty good job of feeding the hundreds of people who arrived every day.

 

The palace was overwhelming. It was a gilded, marbled, frescoed, crystal-chandeliered display of a tyrant's self-indulgence. Other despots have venerated themselves with monuments of such extravagance, but few could have trumped Saddam. This Baghdad palace was as garish as a Vegas hotel and larger than most museums. One day, trapped inside by a sandstorm, we tried to measure the place and gave up, running out of time before we ran out of rooms. It had three levels, a huge rotunda, great rooms large enough for banquets seating hundreds. Marble covered the walls and the floors. In a large room on the first floor a massive painting depicted seven Iraqi missiles launching toward their target, which was said to be Israel.

 

Perched on the banks of the Tigris River, the palace was an unlikely place for an encampment of several thousand troops, administrators and contractors, and yet it became headquarters for the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, the first administrative unit set up by the United States in Iraq after the invasion.

 

To a newcomer, Saddam’s palace, grand and gaudy, was as disorganized as Delta Tau Chi, the Animal House fraternity. It was the Wild West. Old homesteaders had staked out their 160 acres; here, we staked out a room and a cot. There were no desk clerks handing out keys, asking how they could make your stay more enjoyable. You wandered through the palace, found a room with an unoccupied cot, put your stuff on the cot and declared it your personal 21 square feet.

 

I discovered a room on the third floor with nearly two dozen cots, a few of them empty, and so Jim Mollen, the head of the Global Technology Corps at the State Department and I staked our claims. The other occupants were contractors, security advisors, engineers and logistics experts. They spoke a variety of languages, a few knew each other from work in other countries — part of a subculture of first responders, advance teams, and people who went to conflict regions because they possessed a special skill and sought the adventure and the pay. I ran into a transportation specialist I knew from Kosovo. Small world.

 

So, I lay in the cot that first night thinking about the past few hours and about the work ahead, when a window crashed open with an explosive bang, and a torrent of sand came pouring into the room. Almost immediately you could feel the grit on your teeth and the full force of the wind howling through the room. And yet no one got up to close the window, so I closed it and realized that these guys could sleep through a gunfight, and that I really was the only one awake.

 


 

The next morning, I went with Jim to several meetings where U.S. government officials and contractors were working on infrastructure, which included hospital issues, my principle interest. At that time, few outsiders knew much about the training of doctors or the delivery of medical services in Iraq. We heard rumors that Saddam kept his doctors isolated, preventing them from traveling abroad for conferences and training, depriving them of funding to purchase journals and medical books. We heard rumors about the harsh restrictions on communications between Iraqi doctors and their colleagues outside. Those reports and others about tight government reins on medical schools proved to be largely true.

 

Jim asked me to attend a meeting headed by Steve Browning, a remarkable fellow with the Army Corps of Engineers, who two years earlier served as the senior defense official in New York overseeing emergency response in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Three years before that, Steve served as the Federal Technical Lead for Hurricane Mitch Recovery and Redevelopment. Now Steve was in Baghdad heading up an eclectic group of specialists, mostly Americans, with a daunting roster of responsibilities. 1

 

Steve and this group of specialists were responsible for addressing the emergency needs of the Ministries of Health, of Transportation and Communications, of Electricity, of the Environment and of Religious Affairs. If that bucket wasn’t full enough, their portfolio also included infrastructure for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the temporary government of Iraq following the invasion.

 


 

I have generally avoided politics in this version of WiRED’s history, although I have deep and abiding views about the wisdom of our invasion and about decisions made during those first few months. Our early policies would determine the course in Iraq and the Middle East during the next decade and a half. Claims about weapons of mass destruction served as a pretext for our invasion, which set in motion a dreadful chain of events. Let me share one brief story about those weapons — in this case, Saddam’s chemical weapons that he claimed to have destroyed, weapons that people promoting war claimed he had not.

 

A week after I arrived, I was in one of the many ornate marble hallways waiting to join a group heading to Baghdad for a meeting. A few American soldiers were mopping the floor; their supervisor, a lieutenant with an angry scowl, stood watch. To pass the time, I asked the lieutenant about his work, about his hometown, about his military specialty. I should have noticed that he wore an insignia on his uniform indicating he was in the engineering corps.

 

This fellow didn’t like chit-chat, and without preamble he told me (I’m cleaning up the language here) that he was angry to have been assigned a floor-mopping crew. He was a chemical engineer with a specialty in chemical weapons. The Army had sent the lieutenant to Iraq to find and neutralize the weapons Saddam said he didn’t have. “You know what,” the lieutenant said, “there are no chemical weapons. It was all bullshit. We scoured the entire country, and we couldn’t find as much as a can of Raid.” Now he was in charge of floor mopping, and he didn’t like it very much. For a career officer, this was not a fast-track to advancement.

 

That was an important conversation because it was around this time that many in Washington at long last conceded there were no chemical weapons to threaten Iraq or its neighbors. The fiction that had helped justify our invasion had melted away. Soldiers like this lieutenant knew the truth soon after arriving in the country. Others probably knew it a lot earlier; nonetheless, for two years that narrative supported policies that sent the flood of troops, supplies and money to Iraq. While leaders at long last conceded the truth, chemical engineers angrily mopped marble floors at Saddam’s palace.

 


 

One afternoon, we returned from the day’s meetings and saw that our backpacks and other belongings were piled in the hallway. The cots were gone; now desks were in their places, our dorm had become an office. Jim and I grabbed our stuff and went searching for another place to stay. We found a small room in a distant part of the palace with six cots, two of them empty, so we staked our claim. The room was crowded, but the shower delivered a thin stream of water, so this was a five star accommodation.

 

A day later, men in the other bunks vanished and never came back; some never picked up their backpacks. For the next few weeks, Jim and I bunked in that room and got to know each other a bit better. He was a Republican and a political appointee; I was neither a Republican nor a political appointee. He went to bed late and got up late. I went to bed early and got up early. I worked out in the predawn hours; he couldn’t bear the thought of it. But we both liked technology. That was our connection.

 

As head of the Global Technology Corps, Jim brought along several electronic gadgets that kept us busy during down times and on sandstorm days. One was a portable satellite dish and controller that we could connect to a computer for the Internet. The equipment was finicky, but figuring it out was fun. Jim tried to interest other people in these devices with plans to bring over more of them on his next trip. (I believe the military soon brought in large satellite gear and supplied Wi-Fi throughout the palace, obviating the need for boutique link-ups.)

 

Jim also brought along some high quality audiovisual (A/V) equipment. He planned to run movies in the evening for the troops, contractors, anyone who worked all day and wanted to unwind in the evening. There were few other entertainment options, so Jim’s movie nights would be a big draw.

 

We found a good-sized room at the far reaches of a distant wing in the palace. No one else seemed to know about it, although we knew that wouldn’t last. When our meetings in Baghdad were over, and we got back to the palace, we would spend the evenings setting up the equipment and organizing the theater.

 

I wish the story about movies in the palace had a Hollywood ending, but it does not. When the A/V gear was set up and ready to test, Jim plugged in an amplifier that he thought was 110V/220V. It wasn’t. Voltage can be unforgiving, and in a brief second, the 110V equipment was fried by the 220V current. I felt really bad about this outcome, because I saw how much it hurt Jim that his well-meaning plans hadn’t worked out. He really wanted to provide this activity for people who put a lot of time into their work and would benefit from a video break. I don’t recall what happened to the rest of the A/V equipment. After the amp fried, we didn’t talk about movie night.

 


 

We got word about a meeting taking place in Babylon, an ancient city on the Euphrates River going back to the Akkadian Empire in 2300 BC. Jim and I signed up for the meeting and for the convoy that traveled the 55 miles south on Highway 1.

 

Before the meeting started, we had a chance to examine the ancient ruins that summoned up names like Sargon of Akkad, Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar. Sadly, many of the ruins were buried under a reconstructed city built by Saddam; nonetheless Babylon offered a breathtaking look back 4,000 years.

 

For better or worse, we could stroll the grounds unhampered by restrictions, so Jim and I explored the ruins of the North Palace; we examined the Lion of Babylon and took photos of the ancient stamped bricks of Nebuchadnezzar. At one point, while standing in a stone matrix of the ruins, Jim asked me to take his picture. Teasing him, I asked for one good reason why I would want to take his picture and risk ruining my camera. Provoked, he shouted an expletive, which I shouted back, then took the photo. We finished the tour, the meetings and the long day in Babylon and headed back to Baghdad in a slow convoy, arriving at the palace just before dark.

 


Jim Mollen

A year and a half later, I was working in Pristina, Kosovo, when I got an email from Pen Agnew, WiRED’s State Department contact. Pen told me there had been an ambush just outside the Green Zone, and Jim was killed. He had no additional information, but he wondered if I might have a photo of Jim that I could send him. I looked through the files on my laptop and found that snapshot of Jim at the ruins in Babylon, the only snapshot of him I had. I attached a copy to my email and sent it to Pen. Jim was one of two State Department officials who died in Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a statement that “Jim dedicated his life to a noble cause: improving the quality of education for thousands of Iraqis.”

 


 

Toward the end of this first visit to Baghdad I met with officials at the Iraqi Ministry of Health and administrators at the University of Baghdad’s College of Medicine. As I noted earlier, Saddam, for years, had isolated Iraq’s medical community, keeping doctors and students from current journals, textbooks, conferences and outside contacts. Although Baghdad is known as a birthplace of medicine, physicians in 2003 were practicing medicine more than a decade out of date. To prove the point, students showed me their texts, which were photocopied photocopies of hand-me-down books from the 1980s.

 

WiRED had developed computer-based medical libraries for rapid deployment to isolated and war-affected regions. The CD-ROM libraries, which had proved effective in Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia, would provide the Iraqis quick access to current medical research and practice, at least until we could arrange Internet connections.

 

We call the facilities Medical Information Centers (MICs). They comprise a dozen networked computers outfitted with a large collection of CD-ROMs containing the latest medical books, journals, databases and tutorials. The CD library system could stand alone for a while, and when the Internet became available, the MIC would serve as an access point to wide-ranging online resources, including the World Health Organization’s 2003 HINARI collection of more than 2,500 biomedical journals.2 The Internet would provide physicians and medical students with global information access, and, through email, allow them to break their isolation.

 

We spoke with allied military engineers and contractors who were sketching out plans for a satellite link to connect key Iraqi facilities in Baghdad. I urged a connection for Medical City Center, where the medical school and teaching hospitals were housed. Steve Browning liked the idea of the MIC and encouraged us to move ahead with the program. It would become the first-of-its-kind facility in Iraq. (Within two years, we had constructed 39 such facilities in universities and hospitals throughout Iraq.)

 

After these few weeks of preliminary work, I prepared to leave Baghdad for another project and return with a technician and the medical CDs. Before heading out, though, I needed to take care of one critical matter: obtain computers.

 

Laptops were becoming more available, but they were expensive and underpowered and didn’t work well in a computer-lab setting. Desktops were the only real option, but they, too, were big and heavy and required CRT monitors the size of microwave ovens. We couldn’t bring in a dozen or more desktops and monitors; logistics were all but impossible given that cargo space on U.S. aircraft was reserved for military supplies. That left buying the equipment locally.

 

I got a ride into Baghdad and walked the main streets asking shopkeepers if they knew where I could buy a dozen computers. Surprisingly, Baghdad had a number of electronics stores, although most were locked tight. Some had been looted, but none had computers. It began to look like a local purchase would be impossible, and that would doom the MIC project at least for the next few months. We couldn’t bring computers in, and it looked like we couldn’t buy them locally.

 

Frustrated at not finding a local source, I was preparing to leave, when I heard someone shouting at me to stop. That could be trouble; but there wasn’t much I could do, so I stopped where several people stood to see what the shouter wanted. He said someone told him I was looking for computers.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Why do you want them?”

 

“For doctors. Why are you asking me?”

 

“Because I know someone with computers.”

 

“Who?”

 

“I’ll take you to him.”

 

“Where?”

 

“He’s just down there, only a street or two away.”

 

Oh, boy. A lot could go wrong here. But I decided to go with him as long as we stayed on the crowded street, not that it mattered much, really. We passed a garage where two mechanics were working under a very old truck, then walked to a house across the street. A wall surrounded the place, barbed wire ran across the top, and a heavy iron gate provided the only visible access. We approached the gate; my new guide called into the yard and two guards came over to ask what we wanted. They spoke in Arabic. The guards looked me over and said to come inside, as they unbolted the iron gate from its frame. I didn’t like the idea of leaving the street and would much rather have gone into a public shop than to a walled-in house. My guide left, and I never saw him again. The guards seemed as wary of me as I was of them, and they watched me carefully as they relocked the gate. I went with them into the house.

 

We walked through several narrow rooms filled with electronic equipment on workbenches. After we climbed a steep, tight staircase, the guards asked me to sit in a stuffed chair, and they left. A few minutes later, a middle-aged man with a thick mustache and a big grin walked in, introduced himself as Talal, and we shook hands.

 

“They told me you want computers.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What kind?”

 

“Desktops and monitors.”

 

“What specs?”

 

“Nothing high-end, we just need to run CD-ROMS and access the Internet with a T1.”

 

“How many do you want?”

 

“A dozen now, a few dozen more within several months, maybe more after that.”

 

That got Talal’s attention.

 

“I can get them,” he said.

 

It was hard to see how he could order computers from outside the country and get them into Iraq anytime soon. Transportation and commerce stopped after the invasion and wouldn’t likely free up for a while.

 

I said, “How will you get them?”

 

“Know what I did?”

 

“No.”

 

“When I heard the invasion was coming, I knew there would be big trouble and looting, so I moved my inventory out of Baghdad, out of town to a barn and hired some guys with guns to guard everything. So I have good computers and can get them fast.”

 

Well, that could be true.

 

“What kind of computers?”

 

“We build them and use good Intel parts, all good, high-quality parts. Look around this place, you see my guys working on computers, they’re very good. I’m a university-trained electrical engineer, I know all these things.”

 

As it turns out, Talal did know all those things. He was an electrical engineer with a college degree, had a reliable network of technicians and owned a successful business with offices in Baghdad and Dubai. Talal would figure prominently in our work over the next several years.

 


Prayer posted on the door to a meditation room in the palace. Rev. Frank E. Wismer III Military Chaplain serving in Iraq during 2003.

“I’ll tell you what. I’m coming back in two weeks, and I’ll bring a computer specialist with me. You’ll need to let him strip down a computer, test it, run it through the paces, and if he signs off, we’ll have a deal.”

 

And so we discussed price, shook hands, and set a plan: I would be back soon, he would have a dozen computers waiting; we would randomly select one for testing, and if everything checked out, WiRED would buy Talal’s computers.

 

Iraq had no banking system, so everything was cash on the barrelhead. I would have to carry in a lot of cash, too. Iraq also had no phone or Internet system, so there was no way to check to see if Talal actually had the computers, if he got them out of the barn and into town, or if he changed his mind. The only way to do business in Iraq in those days was face to face, and, in this case, that meant we wouldn’t know the fate of the MIC project until we showed up in two weeks at the iron gate.

 

I’ll pick up this story in the next piece, so stay tuned.

 

 

This is the sixth story in a series about WiRED International. How it evolved; how it went from providing computers and Internet connections for towns and villages in underserved regions to focusing on medical and health education using computer technology. How it expanded its work throughout the Balkans to Africa, Central and South America to the Middle East and Eurasia. How WiRED’s training programs, carried by the Internet, have now become global resources, used by hospitals and clinics, schools, other non-governmental organizations and universities.

 

An element of WiRED’s operation that repeats in every story is that all of WiRED’s programs are run mainly by volunteers who have made it possible for WiRED to provide medical and health training programs cost-free to everyone. WiRED’s administration is volunteer, we have a volunteer board, and our writers and editors are volunteers. A small paid staff builds and shepherds the training modules through the production process, but even their work is augmented by that of volunteers. I’m proud of the people in the United States and abroad who donate their time and lend their talents to this organization’s efforts to provide people in low resource regions with some of the finest public-access, health training material available anywhere.

 

 

1 Steve Browning currently serves on WiRED’s Governing Board.

 

2 The HINARI Program

 

Among the medical education material coming online in those early days was the remarkable HINARI program, organized by WHO, that consolidated material from a host of leading medical journals, books and research monographs. HINARI material was free to the poorest countries, such as Kenya, and so the latest published medical research was instantly available, without cost. WiRED tips its hat to WHO for negotiating these resources with publishers and for making them available online to medical professionals and students in low-resource regions around the world.

 

This is a description of the current HINARI program:

 

Low- and middle-income countries can gain access to one of the world’s largest collections of biomedical and health literature. Up to 14,000 journals (in 30 different languages), up to 53,000 e-books, up to 105 other information resources are now available to health institutions in more than 115 countries, areas and territories benefiting many thousands of health workers and researchers, and, in turn, contributing to improving world health.

 

 

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