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Inside the Green Zone, Iraq Is More Midwest Than Mideast

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; Page C01

In Baghdad's Green Zone, mortar shells come flying in so regularly that the Americans working there run office betting pools on when the next will arrive.

Other than that, life in the Green Zone is a lot like life in an American small town, William Langewiesche reports in "Welcome to the Green Zone," a long, fascinating article in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Outside the former headquarters of the Revolutionary Command Council, basketball courts hint at who now occupies the Baghdad offices. (Chris Helgren - Reuters)

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For more than a year, Americans have heard countless references to the Green Zone, aka the International Zone, where American officials and the new Iraqi government are headquartered, without learning much about what life is like there. But Langewiesche, a National Magazine Award-winning reporter, has a gift for conveying the feel of a place.

"After standing in a long, tense line and undergoing two body searches and identity checks," he writes, "you pass through the pedestrian gate and find yourself suddenly among green lawns, where office workers in combat boots stroll to lunch or simply wait at one of the shaded bus stops, chatting about NFL football, a General Motors recall, or some sitcom they saw on television last night. When the bus arrives, it is driven by an aging, affable Texan and he's got Alanis Morissette wailing psychobabble on Armed Forces Radio with the air conditioning cranked up really high."

Before the Americans invaded, this was the headquarters of Saddam Hussein's government -- "villas, palaces and monuments set in a parklike expanse that spreads for four square miles inside a meander of the Tigris River," Langewiesche writes.

When the Americans took Baghdad in April 2003, they set up headquarters in those palaces and villas, including the villa where Hussein's son Uday kept his pet lions.

In another part of the Green Zone, about 5,000 Iraqi squatters moved into buildings, and they're still there, living in a district that Langewiesche calls "the Green Zone's slum."

For the first few weeks in the Zone, life in the bomb-damaged buildings was primitive, with sporadic electricity, no air conditioning and precious little booze, except what was found in Uday's villa. But soon, American know-how made the place pretty comfortable for the roughly 5,000 Americans who live there.

"They live in large, sandbagged compounds or prefabricated, factory-furnished housing modules, which are actually modified shipping containers," Langewiesche writes. "They eat standard American food, almost all of it brought in from abroad. . . . They also have satellite TV, computers, DVDs and telephones with U.S. area codes, which function as if they were in New York or Virginia, and thus require people to make long-distance overseas calls, even to the city just next door."

In the early days, the Americans frequently left the Green Zone and ventured into Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. But since the anti-American insurgency escalated last spring, such trips have become exceedingly dangerous and most Americans seldom leave the Zone.

"Why bother?" Langewiesche writes with acid sarcasm. "A more prudent choice was to stay in the zone and require the Iraqis to come to you if for some rare reason you really needed to deal with them face-to-face."

The last scene in the article is a dry but devastating portrait of this year's Fourth of July party in the Green Zone, held about a week after the turnover of power to the new Iraqi government. There were patriotic songs, horseplay in the pool and lots of drinking.

"I saw no Iraqis there at all," Langewiesche writes. "I walked through the crowd looking at the characters, wondering as I had before what this enterprise was all about."

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