The empty streets of Baghdad's International Zone in Iraq.To the foreigners still living there, the Iraqi capital’s fortified center has a new name: Ghost Town. (Dan Morse/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Green Zone. International Zone. The Bubble. To the foreigners still living there, the Iraqi capital’s fortified center has a new name: Ghost Town.

The Iraqi government has taken full control of the former heart of the American occupation. It decides who gets past the 17-foot-tall concrete blast walls encircling the zone.

On the inside, Iraqi police and military forces have raided the offices of private security companies, prompting the firms and commercial companies that rely on them to relocate.

“They have hit a point where it’s virtually impossible to stay,” said Doug Brooks, president of the International Stability Operations Association, a trade group that represents foreign firms and nonprofit organizations in Iraq.

The result: The International Zone has become the Iraqi Zone, and an increasingly isolated one at that.

“What we see now, in some ways, is they are fortifying it,” said Iraqi parliament member Mahmoud Othman.

The zone, on the banks of the Tigris River, covers an area of about five square miles. It is more gray than green, with a mix of government buildings, homes and villas — crisscrossed by wide streets, skinny alleys and dusty palm trees.

In early 2009, the United States began transferring control over the zone to the Iraqi government as the country was becoming safer. Starting last spring, Iraqi officers began searching the security firms, and they later began cracking down on who gets coveted badges to get in and out of the zone, according to Brooks and businesses that have operated there. Now, the Iraqi government dominates the place.

Key parts of the Iraqi government are based there, including the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliament. Many top Iraqi officials also live inside the zone — getting to and from their walled-in homes via armed convoys. By 4 p.m., the roads are empty — save for police and soldiers posted at corners. Stand too long in one spot and they will approach with questions. Snap a photograph and they will arrive with their bosses.

Even a high-adventure tour group company that travels to Iraq said it can no longer get into the zone. And that means having to forgo sites such as the gigantic crossed sabers held by a pair of hands modeled after those of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

“It drives me crazy because people, especially the Americans, ask, ‘Where are Saddam’s swords?’ ” said Geoff Hann, owner of British-based Hinterland Travel, who said he has repeatedly asked Iraqi officials to allow his groups inside.

Security concerns cited

The Iraqi government has reason for security concerns. On Nov. 28, an assassin drove his bomb-laden SUV through one of the zone’s heavily guarded entrances in what officials said was an attempt to kill the prime minister. A terrorist group that asserted responsibility, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, said the sport-utility vehicle exploded before it got to Maliki’s offices, blowing up just outside the parliament building, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a monitoring service. Three weeks later, the U.S. Embassy, which is based in the International Zone, warned American citizens of a “severe kidnapping” threat inside the zone and throughout Iraq.

“We have to take these security measures,” Ali Hadi al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Maliki, said in an interview, adding that the zone has “definitely” become safer in the past three months.

Moussawi said the Iraqi military controls access to the zone and has curbed the issuance of badges needed to get inside. As for the private security companies, they had developed a bad reputation in Iraq for misuse of firepower, the spokesman said, adding that the zone is safer without them.

Regarding other commercial firms, he said: “If they don’t have any business in the International Zone, they have to leave.”

Moussawi said that evacuated properties are now being used by Iraqis and that the zone has plenty of life. People are “moving and working,” he added.

Drop in commercial activity

Hussein established the area as a protected seat of power. When the Americans invaded in 2003, they expanded the zone by a few blocks, fortified the walls and ran the government from inside.

International firms moved in, enjoying the proximity to decision-makers and private security companies. It was a place where they could cut deals even as areas outside the walls descended into violence.

Part of what made the companies feel safe — living among private security contractors whom they hired as protection — made Iraqi officials nervous. They moved to force the companies out.

At the same time, the Iraqi government began cracking down on visas. Foreigners who worked in the zone said that was only more reason not to venture outside.

The thousands of foreign diplomats and support staff members who live in the zone tend to stay inside their own walled-in compounds. When they leave, they travel in armed convoys. And even their presence could decrease. On Feb. 8, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides told reporters that officials were working to reduce U.S. Embassy staffing to “a more normalized embassy presence.”

Meanwhile, the reduction of commercial activity — so close to the heart of the government — runs the risk of sending the wrong message to international firms deciding whether to come to Iraq or stay there. Firms located outside the zone have trouble getting inside to talk to officials, according to companies and trade groups.

“Businesspeople, when they see these things, they run away,” said Othman, the independent lawmaker.

Businesses not permitted inside the zone can set up just outside it, Moussawi said. And Iraqi citizens don’t see the government center as isolated, he said. They see it as no longer occupied.

“Now,” Moussawi said, “they feel it is for them.”