About this blog

Blogging Baghdad aims to provide a dynamic look at the story behind the story of covering the news in Iraq. Online entries – from text to video blogs – will detail the realities of daily life for ordinary Iraqis, American troops and the media living and working in a 24 hour war zone.

Regular contributors include NBC News correspondents, producers and staff on assignment in Iraq.

Click here to read more about the journalists behind Blogging Baghdad.

Nerve center of Iraqi reconstruction

For a while we’ve been hearing that somewhere in the center of the International Zone, sometimes referred to as the Green Zone, there is a high-tech nerve center using the latest satellite and computer technology to track people and convoys throughout Iraq. Worth looking into we thought….

"The reconstruction effort in Iraq is bigger than the Katrina recovery, but we’re in a distant country, with different customs, a different language and people are shooting at us," said Lt. Col Matt Dillon of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gulf Region Division (GRD), and Deputy Director of the Regional Operations Center (ROC).

Here the Army Corps is known as the GRD. And its mission is to get the reconstruction of Iraq off the ground using the $18.4 billion allocated by Congress. That’s just kick-off money because there are estimates it will take $90 billion to completely rebuild this country.

Much of that $18 billion is flowing into the Iraqi economy through 785 reconstruction projects now under way. Small ones like a single water pump in a remote village, and large projects like a power plant that can light 200,000 Iraqi homes.

Iraqi companies have the contracts to do the actual construction work. But it’s GRD inspectors, U.S. military and civilians, who travel throughout the country to make sure the work gets done, and done correctly. The mission of the Regional Operations Center is to keep track of each inspector, monitoring where they go to make sure they get there safely.

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Retina on record and ready to see Saddam

It didn't hurt. It didn't sting. I didn't even see a flash of light. I expected more of my first retina scan, but in fact the moment passed with very little ado. An American wielding a small black device clicked his machine twice in front of each eye. The scan was over in seconds. My retina patterns are recorded for posterity.

For security reasons, a retina scan is required for anyone planning to attend Saddam Hussein's trial.

Fingerprinting is time-consuming, messy, and as it turns out, not the best means of authenticating identify. I am happy to report that I have a very special retina, but then, so do you. The retina consists of a layer of blood vessels with unique patterns, ten times more unique than fingerprints. No two are ever the same.

The technology is not complicated. The scanner directs low-intensity infrared light, measures 400 points of reference, and stores the information. The process is extremely efficient and accurate, but also quite expensive, and executing the scan can be tricky. The device can only read the retina if it is held within a half-inch of the eye, and the subject's head must remain perfectly still.

I had never even heard of retina scans except in the world of films. You may remember in the movie "Minority Report," that Tom Cruise managed to circumvent the retina scan system by replacing his eyeballs. I felt very much at the cutting-edge of technology.

Other than my colleagues here in Baghdad, I never met anyone else whose retina had been scanned. It seems, however, that my experience is not that extraordinary. Farmers in New Zealand are using retina scans on cows to identify their livestock.

At least my retina is on record, and I am ready along with other members of the press to be herded into the courtroom when Saddam's trial reconvenes at the end of the month.

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New images could create a 'perfect storm'

I am not a dinosaur. I only play one on TV; or at least that's what my wife tells me. She is a blogger and I am not. Guess who won. I am now a blogger. This is my first. Bear with me. I need your help and understanding!

Don't get me wrong. I love new technology. One June 1, 1980, I did the first live shot for CNN. A simple thing we take for granted now was considered cutting edge back then.

In the following years I tried to embrace every new form of technology. During subsequent wars, for example, I worked as a one man band. I shot videotape, edited the footage with Final Cut Pro and transmitted my stories with store and forward technology.

Words, however, have always been the most potent form of communication. Blogs harness that power and it can become a fearsome weapon. Actually, I realize, it already is. So now I take aim at today's issue - new photographs of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib prison.

I stood with our Iraqi staff in our master control room as we saw them transmitted to our bureau. Nobody said a word. What could be said? Frankly, the reaction from my friends in the Arab world mirrored that of my friends in the U.S. military, but it will be soldiers and Marines on the front lines who must live with the consequences.

In the course of a few days, a one, two, three punch has been delivered.

First the Danish cartoon controversy. Next, the release of video allegedly showing British soldiers beating four Iraq's youths in Basra. Now, new Abu Ghraib pictures. If an American is left speechless by these images, imagine how Iraqi's feel.

U.S. military officials, with whom I have spoken, fear that these three events could combine to become a "perfect storm" producing catastrophic winds of Islamic discontent that will heighten the danger to Coalition troops in Iraq and draw the world nearer to the often talked about "War of Civilizations."

I said earlier that words were the most potent form of communication. I just changed my mind. It's pictures.

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A glimpse at Saddam’s defense

The defense phase of Saddam’s trial could be months away, but today the former Iraqi leader and his chief co-defendant (and half brother) Barzan al-Tikriti, gave a taste of what kind of rebuttal they will put forth.

Saddam and his seven co-defendants are accused of the killings of 143 people, mostly Shiites, in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt against the former Iraqi leader in the town of Dujail in 1982.

Chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman was surprisingly tolerant of the misbehaving half-brother's ramblings today. That’s where the defense clues came.

Brandishing a yellow washcloth and, like Monday, wearing his pajamas, Barzan was allowed to question an anonymous witness. Later, Saddam, better dressed in a solid charcoal suit, also jumped in.

They both maintained that the work of the chief of Saddam’s intelligence service, a post held by Barzan, was limited to "foreign intelligence." Any domestic threat to the president would be handled by domestic security. Barzan’s defense? You’ve got the wrong man.

"The mukhabarat (intelligence services) are completely forbidden from looking into an Iraqi unless the Iraqi is affiliated with a foreign party," Saddam told the court. He frequently used the present tense when referring to his former regime.

So what was Saddam doing during the alleged executions? Managing a vast bureaucracy that kept him far away from the daily workings of his state, according to the former president.

"I never picked up the phone and requested that somebody do something," Saddam said, describing his daily routine. A fear of foreign eavesdroppers listening in to his conversation appears to be forming the basis of his defense.

But what about written communication?

There was lots of it. Barzan said he sent his half-brother-boss up to 10 letters or communiqués a day. The court has presented four documents so far, some alleged to connect regime members to execution orders - thought no witness or defendant was ready to state unequivocally whether the signatures were Saddam’s or Barzan’s.

The witnesses are working in the defendants’ favor. So far, none appears to have provided useful testimony, and they repeatedly contradicted sworn statements made before they appeared in court.

Journalists quizzed the chief investigative judge on this today. Why take up the court’s time with a weak witness? In a legal twist unique to Iraq’s high tribunal, he said the witnesses had the right to change their statements - under oath.

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The disheveled dictator

Saddam Hussein shot a fierce look at the press gallery when court marshals led him in on Monday. Gone was the dark pinstriped suit made by his Turkish tailor. Dressed in a traditional Arab robe and wearing black bedroom slippers with no socks, Saddam may have been playing to the media.

Saddam’s half-brother Barzam al-Tikriti, once one of the most feared men in Iraq, also looked like he had been dragged from bed. Probably in his pajamas, he was wearing a white long-sleeved t-shirt and pantaloons, held in place by a drawstring.

The disheveled dictator look is in (though the rest of the co-defendants, six of them, were well turned out) and Saddam wanted the world to know he was "forced" to attend what he calls an "illegitimate" trial.

There was plenty of screaming today.

Saddam to the court: "Long live Iraq! Long live the Arab nations! Down with the Apostle! Down with Bush!"

The chief judge to Saddam: "Sit down! Keep silent! Enough rhetoric!"

Despite the usual outburst and tirades, the trial took a big leap forward. The complainant phase, which saw hours of gruesome testimony by Saddam’s alleged victims, has been replaced by the witness phase. While it ain’t Law & Order, the pace of the proceedings has quickened.

CONTINUED »

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Slide Show

  • Life beyond the violence
    Suicide attacks and murders due to sectarian conflict continue around Iraq. See how residents live their lives amid the attacks.

More Conflict in Iraq coverage

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