Correction to This Article
This article about Baghdad's protected Green Zone gave the wrong location for the 14th of July monument. It is at al- Kindi and 14th of July avenues.

A Darker Shade Of Green Zone

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 5, 2008

BAGHDAD -- Several dozen soldiers and embassy staff members relaxed on the patio around Saddam Hussein's old swimming pool, shivering in the desert chill, as a boombox blared Latin rhythms over the racket of low-flying helicopters. It was Salsa Night in the Green Zone, but on a Friday evening in late November, only a few bundled-up couples shuffled awkwardly to the beat.

Suddenly, a 30-something woman and a 20-something man, both in Air Force uniform, took the dance floor, their camouflage jackets and holstered sidearms swinging with each smooth, expert turn. The bored patio denizens perked up, transfixed by a rare moment of magic.

The moment was a fleeting reminder of the good times in the war's early days, when the pool patio was the Green Zone's social hub and young conservative staffers, eager to remake Iraq, danced away the cares of nation-building. Those times and people are long gone, replaced by sober diplomats and soldiers with lower expectations, slogging diligently through their duties, collecting combat pay, and envisioning an Iraq where the electricity works and where a trip to the market does not court death.

When the music stopped, Tech Sgt. Heather Warr of Miami smiled and left the floor. She had been here three months, and the best thing about the Green Zone, she said, is that she has a "wet trailer" -- one with an inside bathroom.

Her dance partner, Capt. Jaime Bastidas of Albuquerque, had arrived three days earlier, and he said the best thing so far had been finding someone else who could dance. The next day, they would return to work -- Warr assisting Iraq's Air Force, Bastidas working with the Defense Ministry, and both counting the days until their tours end.

Always more MASH than Malibu, today's Green Zone is "not nearly as social as it used to be," said Richard H. Houghton III, a three-year resident. "It's now our own isolated little jail cell."

Good Intentions

Shortly after triumphant U.S. forces arrived in Baghdad in April 2003, they took over Hussein's Presidential Palace along the Tigris River, enclosed the surrounding 5.9 square miles with concrete walls and concertina wire, and declared it the seat of their occupation government. In those days, soldiers thought they would return home within months. Many U.S. civilian staff members who arrived in the military's wake were young conservatives working up the Republican Party ladder. They saw Iraq as a place to transfer their ideals to a grateful nation, fight terrorism and have an exciting time.

They set up no fewer than six bars, a disco, a cafe, two Chinese restaurants and an outdoor shopping arcade. Personnel stationed inside the zone would jog on the sidewalks and relax in the garden behind the Republican Palace.

But before the first year ended, violence exploded in the Red Zone -- the 437,000 square miles that make up the rest of Iraq -- and the soldiers settled in for a long fight against a growing insurgency. As the attacks against U.S. forces escalated, Iraqis proved resistant to American ideas of how to organize their government and lives, and they began to fight among themselves.

Inside the Green Zone, fear replaced enthusiasm as mortar shells rained from the sky during 2006 and 2007, and many hours were spent inside concrete bunkers. Over the past several months, the attacks have largely stopped, except for a burst of two dozen shells on Thanksgiving, but the walls grew higher and civilian trips outside the wire became infrequent.

"When I got here, it was just getting to the end of the time when you could go out in the city. You could hop into a cab or walk across the bridge," said Houghton. "The watershed was the bombing of Samarra" in February 2006, when the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq destroyed the historic Askariya Shiite shrine in that city north of Baghdad, sparking all-out sectarian war.

With the muscled bulk and haircut of a Marine, Houghton, 48, came here in early 2005 with the nongovernmental International Republican Institute. He quit after a close colleague was killed last January in a Baghdad ambush, but he stayed on with the State Department. Houghton now advises Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker on U.S. legislative affairs and serves as organizer and guide for congressional delegations -- in 2007, a record 57, bringing 208 lawmakers -- passing through Iraq.

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