Taste of Home Runs Low in Iraq

Marine Cpl. Chilet Paul patrols outside the temporary U.S. Embassy, where workers are advised to wear flak jackets.
Marine Cpl. Chilet Paul patrols outside the temporary U.S. Embassy, where workers are advised to wear flak jackets. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)

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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007

Congress and the White House may be sparring over funds for the U.S. effort in Iraq, but the mint chocolate chip is still flowing at the embassy in Baghdad. At least for now.

Life in the Green Zone -- a Foreign Service hardship post -- has long been mitigated by the culinary comforts of home. Virtually every bite and sip consumed there is imported from the United States, entering Iraq via Kuwait in huge truck convoys that bring fresh and processed food, including a full range of Baskin-Robbins ice cream flavors, every seven to 10 days.

But mouths turned dry Monday when an internal embassy e-mail announced a "Theater-Wide Delay in Food Deliveries." Due to an unspecified convoy problem, it said, "it may not be possible to offer the dishes you are used to seeing at each meal. Fresh fruits or salad bar items will also be severely limited or unavailable."

If the delays continue, the message said, "DFACs [dining facilities] will be required to serve MREs for at least one meal out of the day."

Instead of rice pilaf with turkey or fish -- Monday night's main entree, according to embassy spokesman Dan Sreebny, who said he topped it off with two cookies -- the staff would have to make do with military Meals Ready to Eat, freeze-dried concoctions with prescribed amounts of starch and protein, capable of withstanding parachute drops and remaining edible for three years after packaging.

"We've run out of some things," Sreebny said. "I miss my yogurt in the morning and my fresh-cut melon."

In April 2003, the U.S. occupation administration established its headquarters in Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace and its surrounding grounds -- seven square miles on the west bank of the Tigris River. The fortified area became known as the Green Zone, an island of tranquility and safety in chaotic Baghdad where Americans could live and work and eat in a semblance of home.

Over the years the area was renamed -- it's now officially known as the "International Zone" -- the fortifications were expanded and U.S. tanks were parked at the gates. As the security situation in Baghdad worsened, others with the right connections or titles moved in. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government lives and works in the zone, which also houses the Iraqi parliament. Thousands of foreign contractors live there. U.S. civilian officials live there along with their military and contractor protectors. Meanwhile, a massive U.S. Embassy compound -- 24 buildings on 104 acres inside the zone, the biggest and most expensive embassy in the world -- is under construction and due for completion in August.

Although the State Department has not budged from an original embassy price tag of $592 million, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) complained two weeks ago to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of a "growing size in costs" and a staffing increase of more than 30 percent since Congress approved the State Department's plans two years ago. Leahy chairs the appropriations subcommittee in charge of the foreign operations budget.

"We have 1,000 Americans at the embassy in Baghdad," Leahy told Rice at a hearing. "You add the contractors and the local staff, it comes to 4,000 . . . a deviation from the plan that we'd agreed to." According to Senate staffers, operating costs now total $1.2 billon a year.

Recently, the zone's tranquility has been shattered by a rash of mortar attacks over the walls. This month, embassy staffers were ordered to wear helmets and flak jackets while outdoors or in unprotected buildings. On Saturday, the "palace pool area . . . chairs and lounges, outside dining area, ping-pong tables, etc." were all placed off-limits until further notice "due to the threat of indirect fire (IDF) against the Embassy compound," according to a security notice sent to all embassy personnel.

As if security threats and overcrowding weren't enough, now the food is under threat. Asked about the convoy problems, Col. Steven A. Boylan, spokesman for Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, cited bad weather in Kuwait and along the routes north. "Visibility was very poor and [it] would not have been safe to drive," Boylan said in an e-mail.

The embassy food is supplied under a U.S. government contract with Houston-based KBR, which separately provides similar services to the military.

Sreebny, who said on Tuesday that the last supply trucks arrived in Baghdad two weeks prior, attributed the delays to paperwork problems on the border, traffic jams and "security issues." He said the embassy stocks three weeks of non-perishable food for use in the event of emergency, so no one was yet in danger of MREs.

The Bush administration's Iraq strategy includes an effort to boost the economy and create jobs in Iraq, and Iraqi factories hope to begin shipping manufactured products to U.S. retailers later this year. But security concerns bar any purchase of Iraqi food, and even Iraqi prisoners held by the U.S. military are fed with imports. In addition, Sreebny said, "if we're buying [local] food in large quantities it means that less is available for the citizens of Iraq. It's not fair to them."

In any case, American personnel assigned to the embassy are promised American food -- although Kuwaiti bottled water is acceptable.

"This has happened before, in terms of convoys," Sreebny said, although "this one may be a little bit longer than in the past. Then the food comes and we all gorge ourselves on apples and oranges and bananas again."

In an e-mail update last night, Sreebny reported that the looming crisis was at least partially averted. "Some trucks have arrived at our embassy and are being unloaded even as I write."


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