By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 7, 2007
BAGHDAD -- Rusty Barber was sitting at his desk in a comfortable if spartan office inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone when the first explosion sounded, close enough to rattle the building and his nerves. He got up from his chair, directly in front of a window, and hurried to the building's more protected central corridor. Then the second mortar shell struck.
The round decapitated a palm tree just outside Barber's office, spraying shrapnel across the side of the building, splintering Barber's window and peppering the room with bullet-size pieces of razor-sharp metal. One traveled through a wooden closet and destroyed a porcelain sink; one embedded itself in the small refrigerator; one ricocheted off his desk; another struck his computer monitor.
"It was a sobering event," said Barber, 42, head of the local office of the U.S. Institute of Peace. In all, about 10 mortar rounds struck different parts of the Green Zone that day in mid-May, killing two Iraqis and wounding 10 people. Ten cars were damaged or destroyed in the barrage at Barber's complex, a short walk from the U.S. Embassy.
"You accept a level of risk when you come over here, but no one expects a direct encounter with shrapnel like this," Barber said, carefully fingering a jagged, inch-long piece of metal retrieved from the refrigerator.
Mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone are nothing new, but people who live and work in the complex -- a walled compound of about five square miles on the banks of the Tigris River that is headquarters to the Iraqi government and U.S. forces -- say that the strikes are becoming more frequent, accurate and deadly.
Despite the rising casualty toll from the attacks -- eight people have been killed, including two U.S. soldiers, and about 25 have been injured since late March -- the bigger problem is the psychological impact of insurgents striking the symbolic heart of the United States here, Iraqis and Americans say. That view is strengthened by the sense -- correct or not -- that the Green Zone was a relatively secure oasis where the war didn't seep in.
"It's amazing to people in the red zone, who think that if it can happen in the Green Zone, it can happen anywhere, and what's going to happen next?" said a 27-year-old Iraqi computer technician, who spoke on condition his name not be used, fearing that he and his family could be targeted. Like many Iraqis, he works in the Green Zone but lives outside it, an area some now call the red zone.
Anti-government satellite television channels broadcast insurgent statements claiming that they can strike the Green Zone with impunity, he said, which scares Iraqis because "the mortars are coming from the same place every day, and no one is doing anything about it. Stuff like that gets to people" more than fear of the bombs themselves, the technician said. "For Iraqis, we're used to it. For Americans, they're a little afraid because they haven't seen it before."
U.S. officials say they place a premium on "force protection," but they refuse to detail how they are combating the mortar and rocket problem, saying such information could help the attackers. But an indication of the measures being taken came late Saturday when U.S. Apache helicopters fired on insurgents preparing to fire rockets at the Green Zone from the east, near the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. Four insurgents were killed, and 10 rockets and a van were destroyed in the attack, the U.S. military said in a statement. It said six insurgents were tracked back to a residence in Sadr City, where they were apprehended.
U.S. military officials say the Green Zone attacks also come from Sunni areas in southern Baghdad.
"It's more of a psychological terror weapon because they're firing at the seat of government, the U.S. headquarters and various embassies," said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly about the attacks. The actual danger was slight, he asserted. "Compared to being in the Green Zone, driving in Beltway traffic scares the hell out of me."
Nonetheless, dozens of mortar shells have landed in and around the Green Zone since March. The Washington Post reported Sunday that U.S. officials said at least three Iranian-made 240mm rockets recently were fired at the Green Zone by Shiite extremists.
In response to the attacks, the U.S. Embassy advised its personnel on March 28 that body armor and helmets were required for all "outdoor activities" within the embassy's grounds. A May 3 directive told Green Zone residents to "remain within a hardened structure to the maximum extent possible and strictly avoid congregating outdoors." A May 19 notice went further, saying that "congregating outdoors is strictly prohibited until further notice," and ordered the closing of "the palace pool area" because of "the threat of indirect fire" -- the term used for rockets and mortars.
The embassy is housed in ousted president Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, where amenities include a kidney-shaped outdoor pool.
The war is penetrating the Green Zone in other ways, too. On April 12, a suicide bomber attacked a cafeteria in the Iraqi parliament building, killing an Iraqi lawmaker and wounding about 20 people. Last week, the embassy confirmed that two of its Iraqi employees -- a husband and wife -- were missing; a statement posted on the Internet by the Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni insurgent umbrella group believed to have been founded by al-Qaeda in Iraq, said it had executed them. The kidnapping of five Britons from an Iraqi Finance Ministry building last week also greatly curtailed U.S. civilian activities outside the Green Zone, officials said.
Inside the enclave, most civilians and diplomats interviewed said they will not let fear rule their lives. Iraqis typically shrugged off the danger as minor.
"I've seen worse than this," said a 24-year-old from Baqubah, a mixed Sunni-Shiite city about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, who has worked with U.S. forces for three years and began working in the Green Zone about eight months ago after five separate attempts on his life.
"When I was born in '82, we were at war, and another one started when I was 8 and it hasn't stopped till now," he said. "Even our kids are used to it. They are not afraid of car bombs. They are sad to see it and to lose family members and friends, but we live in a dangerous society."
Barber, of the Institute of Peace, said, "The daily lives of our local staff are so much more challenging than ours that it provides perspective and inspiration." Citing the threat of kidnappings, market bombings and checkpoint confrontations, he added, "You see their commitment and say how can you do less?"
After a time considering the recent attack outside, Barber studied his office with a closer eye.
"Maybe I should move my desk from in front of the window."