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.
Rankled by how little Americans here knew about the fortress in which they lived, Houghton has written a 41-page "Visitor's Guide to Baghdad's Green Zone," complete with color photos of zone landmarks from the Monument to the Unknown Soldier to the Believer's Palace -- actually a fake shell of a building Hussein had constructed to conceal an underground bunker.
"There was no institutional memory," Houghton lamented, adding that he has "been through 12 Air Force rotations, three State Department rotations" and numerous other turnovers.
For example, on a recent driving tour of what is officially known as the International Zone, or the IZ, he stopped inside a traffic circle at the junction of al-Kindi Avenue and the Qadissiyah Expressway, empty boulevards once a part of busy central Baghdad.
"Nobody knows what that statue is," he said, referring to a huge pedestal at the center of the circle showing three bronze soldiers with a dead comrade at their feet. He explained that it commemorates the July 14, 1958, military coup that overthrew the Iraqi Hashemite monarchy. The coup created the Republic of Iraq and paved the way for Hussein's takeover.
Farther down al-Kindi, behind a U.S. military base and surrounded by war litter, stood a small, exquisite building with a blue tiled dome. The tomb of Michel 'Aflaq, who was the ideological founder of Baathism, it was home to a U.S. Marine unit, Houghton said, until he told the Marines they were sleeping on the sarcophagus. They soon vacated, leaving behind four portable toilets.
Thousands of Iraqis live inside the zone, which also contains the offices of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, several ministries and the Iraqi parliament.
A city within a city, the Green Zone encompasses a geographic area that was once the center of Iraqi government power and a residential neighborhood crisscrossed by major highways. It is as if an occupying army had built a wall around federal Washington, including Pennsylvania Avenue, the monuments and a substantial part of the housing on Capitol Hill. The few entrances are heavily guarded by coalition forces from the Republic of Georgia. There are signs in English and Arabic that read "Do Not Enter or You Will Be Shot."
Inside, it is divided into compounds -- one for the embassy, others for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Iraqi government installations, a hospital, and numerous military installations -- each with its own walls, checkpoints and guards. Movement between compounds can take minutes or hours. A recent overcast afternoon found Houghton standing in a parking lot outside a bunker, while Peruvian checkpoint guards searched a car that a bomb-sniffing dog had found suspicious.
Houghton had just seen Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) on his way out of Iraq after a one-day visit. As the sun set and the temperature dropped, he spent his time on a cellphone. Most zone residents carry around two or three phones -- an Iraqi local, a U.S.-listed mobile and a BlackBerry.
The embassy itself, with its huge blue palace dome, was just spitting distance away, but the Peruvians were adamant that no one pass. After a 90-minute wait, Houghton organized a mile-long march to another checkpoint.Looking Diplomatic
The zone feels more gray than green. At the end of Iraq's long dry season, scattered palm trees stand limp under the dust that covers every surface. Head-high walls of sandbags wrapped in gray canvas line the walls and pathways; they are used as protection against mortar attacks. The clusters of metal boxes that provide embassy housing, whimsically signposted with such names as "The Oasis" and "The Palms," are surrounded with stacks of the fat, gray bags, worn with age and dripping sand. The makeshift wooden stairs that reach the high palace back door are painted gray.
When Crocker arrived as ambassador last spring, a goal was to turn the embassy -- established in June 2004 but still permeated with a feeling of catch-as-catch-can impermanence -- into a "normal" diplomatic posting. Khakis and T-shirts were deemed unacceptable, and young women now stumble along the potholed sidewalks in stiletto heels.
The U.S. government has done its best to make Hussein's Presidential Palace, a half-mile-long behemoth at the heart of the zone, look like an embassy. Drab drywall and metal slabs divide its extravagant rooms into cubicles. The furnishings are U.S. government-issue desks and chairs, but pieces of the palace's past remain -- the immense rotunda at its entrance, marble floors and a scattering of gaudy, Hussein-era sofas and chairs, upholstered in heavy fabric. The bathrooms, where sinks and toilets are painted with pink flowers, are bigger than most offices.
A walk through the wide, dim, marble corridors reveals a surreal mix of people. A mid-level Foreign Service officer whispers that the entire Iraq enterprise is "screwed," and that somebody in Washington ought to do something about it. A public diplomacy expert explains the gift of democracy that Iraqis have been given, while a senior diplomat reflects on the difficulties of persuading the Iraqi government to do what Washington wants, saying, "This is really, really hard."
Filipino cleaners sweep through the dust, while a rumpled soldier snores on a black leather couch in the Starbucks-imitation coffee shop. An aide to commanding Gen. David H. Petraeus, working late into the night, eats from a foam box as he proudly clicks through a slide show of the general's visit to a prison that day.
On the poolside patio, Peruvian guards dressed in camel-colored jackets, rifles slung over their chest, stand chatting in the dark, watching Sgt. Warr and Capt. Bastidas salsa-dance.
Alcohol is forbidden in public areas of the zone, but food is free and plentiful, imported to guard against sabotage and to ensure that Americans and foreign workers have their fill of iceberg lettuce and Jell-O mold. No cooking is allowed in the trailers, and the air in the huge, boxlike Dining Facility, known as the D-Fac, is laced with the scent of hamburger grease. Servers try to spice up the menu with entree themes -- "Louisiana night" or Salisbury steak -- but it is easy to imagine the drudgery of eating in the company cafeteria three times a day, every day, all year.
No spouses or families are allowed. After dinner, there is nothing to do but work, sit by the pool or watch U.S. cable television. Status and job classification determine if a trailer is shared. Some fix up their "hooches" -- standard boxes of about 20 feet by 10 feet with linoleum floors, plywood bed frames and huge televisions -- with carpets or cabinetry, but most seem not to try.
Military activity in the Red Zone picks up after dark, and the embassy compound is on the landing path for a constant flow of helicopters carrying battle wounded to the nearby hospital. There are booms and gunfire in the distance, and the occasional loudspeaker yell of "Incoming" jolts one from sleep onto the cold floor to wedge beneath the bed.So Close, So Far
The last stop on Houghton's tour is a stretch of hulking buildings behind high, ocher walls on a broad highway outside the existing embassy compound. The NEC, or New Embassy Compound, is the most expensive U.S. embassy in history, costing more than $600 million. Scheduled for completion last September, it is still unoccupied.
Built to standard State Department specifications, it includes a modern child-care center unlikely to be used any year soon. Originally designed to provide work and living space for 600 people, it must now must accommodate at least 1,000. Like Manhattan efficiencies, its one-bedroom apartments are being divided with drywall to accommodate more. There is no D-Fac, and no one has figured out how hordes of hungry diplomats will commute three times a day, through the Peruvian checkpoint, to the facility in the old compound.