Change of Guard in Baghdad's Green Zone
A Haven for Westerners Transforms as Iraqis Take Over the Reins From U.S. Forces
Thursday, August 6, 2009
BAGHDAD -- Baghdad's storied Green Zone, for six years a bunkered refuge for Westerners in this beleaguered capital, is America's turf no more.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently ordered that U.S. troops stop manning the area's entry points; they are now controlled solely by Iraqis.
Iraqi soldiers have set up roving checkpoints inside, and U.S. Embassy and military badges no longer exempt holders from inspection. Iraqi authorities have threatened to seize U.S. vehicles that do not have Iraqi license plates, sending hundreds of American government employees and contractors scrambling to Baghdad's equivalent of the DMV.
In two months, the Iraqis will start issuing badges granting varying levels of access to the Green Zone, a process that until now had been the purview of the U.S. military and for years subjected Iraqis to second-class status in their own capital.
Citing a higher threat of kidnappings and other dangers, the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. military and private defense contractors have imposed strict rules and, in some cases, curfews to restrict nonessential travel outside the mammoth new embassy compound and other fortified compounds within the Green Zone.
As rules have tightened and the line between the Green Zone and the Red Zone -- all the areas outside the fortified refuge -- has blurred, diplomats and contractors who have been here for years are mourning the demise of a surreal and often-wild haven that became among the most enduring symbols of this war.
"The Green Zone used to be fun," a veteran U.S. diplomat lamented. "Now we can't walk across the street."
A Lengthy Wait
The Iraqi government has long wanted to assert more control over the Green Zone, which until recently was informally governed by a U.S. military task force called the Joint Area Support Group. But the Iraqis assumed complete control over security of the perimeter after the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities -- one of several steps the government took to curb American power and visibility.
"The Americans now stay in their bases," Iraqi soldier Haider Abas said, as he stood guard outside the Green Zone palace that served as the U.S. Embassy until Jan. 1. The departure of American soldiers from the checkpoints in the zone is a welcome development for Iraqis, he added. "When you see someone from your own government, it's better than being governed by foreign forces."
The Green Zone, a four-square-mile area in central Baghdad along the Tigris River, became the hub for the interim government the Americans set up shortly after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
It got its name from the green, or unloaded, status of weapons inside. Outside, in the Red Zone, weapons were always in red, or loaded, status.
Shortly after the U.S. military bombed palaces and government buildings in central Baghdad during the "shock and awe" campaign in 2003, American officials moved into one of the few unscathed ones, Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, which became the U.S. Embassy.