Thursday, March 26, 2009

Trade and Development Mission to Iraq Days 1-3

Commissioner Staples left Texas on Sunday, March 22 for a trade and development mission to Iraq as an invitee of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M. This trip is hosted by the Task Force to Improve Business and Stability Operations in Iraq. The trip serves many purposes: to establish a trade relationship that will foster bi-national commerce between Texas and Iraq; to assist Iraqi farmers and ranchers by sharing ideas that can improve their agriculture industry; and to share the benefits of freedom and democracy. Below is a day-by-day account of Commissioner Staples’ visit to Iraq.

Watch a slideshow of his trip here:

Day 3 (afternoon)
Still no luggage. Yet, hope springs eternal.

Our convoy headed south today toward Iskandariyah in the northern part of the Babil province. We had a slight delay as U.S. troops investigated a possible improvised explosive device, or IED, which apparently turned out to be a false alarm. I didn't complain about the delay.

We received a briefing from Sabah al Khafaji, the general director of the State Company of Mechanical Industries.

The Iskandariyah Industrial Complex once employed about 30,000 workers and is now only marginally utilized. Touring the buildings reminded me of the old Glass Containers manufacturing facility in my hometown of Palestine that was closed and partially torn down in the mid 1980s.

While the buildings and equipment are dated and in need of much repair, Khafaji and his team, with the assistance of the Task Force to Improve Business and Stability Operations – Iraq (TFBSO), were busy churning out Case New Holland tractors, greenhouse frames, irrigation systems, farm trailers and implements. Team Borlaug members are working to get this equipment in the field and have good working relationships with the managers.

Commissioner Staples tours Case-New Holland asembly plant located in the Iskandariah Industrial Complex, northern Babil Province, Iraq. Photo by: Cody McGregor

Team Borlaug is seeking private companies to invest resources and newer technology to improve efficiency and output. The successful rebuilding of Iraq and continued stability in the region is in large part dependent on the success of these operations as the jobs are badly needed for the high number of unemployed and underemployed Iraqis.

Understanding the need for a skilled and trained workforce, the Iskandariyah Vocational Technical School is located beside the industrial complex.

Naseer Abdul Jabar leads this versatile vocational training center that was stripped to the bare walls during the massive looting that occurred several years earlier.

We observed class sizes that ranged from about eight to 30 students. Courses were numerous and included computer training, welding, generator repair and various metal shops. Hands-on learning was available for many of the vocations as a result of modern equipment made possible by the efforts of TFBSO. They have a long way to go, but they certainly have overcome much.

A one-hour meeting with Dr. Hussein Jabir, Agricultural Advisor in the Prime Minister's office, turned out to be two.

Dr. Jabir and his team of experts had many questions about Texas and our powerful agricultural economy.

His priorities centered around needing assistance with the administration and efficient management of water resources, animal genetics and overall animal health issues; scholarships for agriculture students needing undergraduate and graduate degrees; and the development of water usage associations/policies to ensure the efficient use of water.

While the country has enormous agriculture potential being influenced by the historic Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and was once serving as a major agricultural exporting country, it now is a very stressed country with severe water shortages, limited recharge of aquifers, and salinity problems. There doesn't seem to be an overall water strategy, which gave me the opportunity to introduce them to Texas Statewide Water Plan and how it was developed and is continuously revised.

Animal health (Foot and Mouth disease, Avian Influenza and Brucellosis are all concerns), food safety/food processing conditions, the lack of genetics and modern feeding operations are all major limitations.

Fortunately, I was able to share with them the story of how Texas producers, agribusinesses, universities and state/federal governments partner together for success.

They anxiously seek partners, the latest technology and proven know-how. I conveyed how America and Texas both have a deep investment in Iraq, and how we are committed to seeing them prosper. Once travel becomes more conducive, there is no doubt more Texans will follow.

Day 2
Did I also mention my assistant, Cody, was the one who actually checked our luggage at the same time, yet his made it here and mine still hasn’t?

Our first meeting was at the New Embassy Compound (NEC) where we received detailed briefings from representatives with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Foreign Ag Service and a Brigadier General and Lt. Colonel with Multi-National Force – Iraq. Stability for Iraq has definitely come a long way as compared to a few years ago. This has allowed for agricultural teams from across the world to work directly with this country’s people. Production is limited because of older farming methods and lack of quality seeds. A badly damaged irrigation system also hinders yields. Iraq imports about 70 percent of its agricultural needs and I'm told they spend about $3 billion in food imports annually.

In 2008, Iraq imported about $893 million of agricultural products from the U.S. with more than $400 million worth coming through Texas ports– it was a banner year. I will be certain to let the Iraqi officials know we appreciate their business, particularly when it was recently announced Iraq reached a major agreement with Australia for wheat.

General Ray Odierno, the Commander of Multi-National Force – Iraq, has an indescribable job as he follows Gen. David Petraeus’ efforts to bring stability to the region and bring our troops home. I first met with Gen. Odierno in Ft. Hood when the Texas Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense and Texas A&M University partnered together to develop a Recovery Credit System to address endangered species habitats.

Commissioner Staples meets with General Ray Odierno, Commander, Multi-National Force - Iraq. Photo by: Cody McGregor

It was good to visit with Gen. Odierno again – this time at the Al Faw Palace inside Camp Victory – and now with a fourth star on his shirt.

Gen. Odierno and the lead entity for our trip, Task Force to Improve Business and Stability Operations in Iraq, understand the complexities of establishing a stable economy in Iraq. Gen. Odierno said he was pleased to see us in Iraq and knows a successful agricultural sector is a critical part of Iraq’s development. I look forward to following up with him and sharing my observations after we wrap up this trip. Each time I meet with Gen. Odierno I am impressed by his sincerity, knowledge and leadership. I have great confidence in a successful outcome as he leads our troops.

Lunch was at DFAC in Camp Victory. While DFAC sounds impressive, it simply designates the dining facility for all us non-military folks.

Commissioner Staples pictured with mle marker sign erected by American military troops. It is located on the balcony of the Al Faw Palace, Camp Victory, Iraq. Photo by: Cody McGregor

I know the food choices have to be limited while out in the field, but there is no reason our troops should go hungry while in Camp Victory. The Department of Defense has succeeded in ensuring a variety of choices are available for our military personnel, including ice-cream sundaes for dessert. Only
Blue Bell would have made it better!

Day 1:
An uneventful flight from DFW to Dulles to Kuwait to Sather AFB in Baghdad is a good thing. The only mishap involved my luggage, which still hasn’t arrived.

We left Camp Victory upon arrival (after stopping by the PX for some needed essentials lost along with my luggage) and headed to where we are staying in the International Zone (formerly known as the Green Zone). Security was tight, as was expected, but no threats of any kind observed.

Our group met for a briefing with Team Borlaug of Texas A&M University and staff of Paul Brinkley, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Business Transformation, in the common room and then each headed to our own rooms. My bed looked good as it was the first one I’d seen since I left Texas 32 hours earlier. Did I mention my luggage was left at Dulles?

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