On the inside, Iraqi police and military forces have raided the offices of private security companies, prompting the firms and commercial companies that rely on them to relocate.
“They have hit a point where it’s virtually impossible to stay,” said Doug Brooks, president of the International Stability Operations Association, a trade group that represents foreign firms and nonprofit organizations in Iraq.
The result: The International Zone has become the Iraqi Zone, and an increasingly isolated one at that.
“What we see now, in some ways, is they are fortifying it,” said Iraqi parliament member Mahmoud Othman.
The zone, on the banks of the Tigris River, covers an area of about five square miles. It is more gray than green, with a mix of government buildings, homes and villas — crisscrossed by wide streets, skinny alleys and dusty palm trees.
In early 2009, the United States began transferring control over the zone to the Iraqi government as the country was becoming safer. Starting last spring, Iraqi officers began searching the security firms, and they later began cracking down on who gets coveted badges to get in and out of the zone, according to Brooks and businesses that have operated there. Now, the Iraqi government dominates the place.
Key parts of the Iraqi government are based there, including the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliament. Many top Iraqi officials also live inside the zone — getting to and from their walled-in homes via armed convoys. By 4 p.m., the roads are empty — save for police and soldiers posted at corners. Stand too long in one spot and they will approach with questions. Snap a photograph and they will arrive with their bosses.
Even a high-adventure tour group company that travels to Iraq said it can no longer get into the zone. And that means having to forgo sites such as the gigantic crossed sabers held by a pair of hands modeled after those of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
“It drives me crazy because people, especially the Americans, ask, ‘Where are Saddam’s swords?’ ” said Geoff Hann, owner of British-based Hinterland Travel, who said he has repeatedly asked Iraqi officials to allow his groups inside.
Security concerns cited
The Iraqi government has reason for security concerns. On Nov. 28, an assassin drove his bomb-laden SUV through one of the zone’s heavily guarded entrances in what officials said was an attempt to kill the prime minister. A terrorist group that asserted responsibility, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, said the sport-utility vehicle exploded before it got to Maliki’s offices, blowing up just outside the parliament building, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a monitoring service. Three weeks later, the U.S. Embassy, which is based in the International Zone, warned American citizens of a “severe kidnapping” threat inside the zone and throughout Iraq.