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Green Zone Colors View of Occupation

Times Staff Writer

Here in the Green Zone, off-duty soldiers laze away their afternoons sunbathing at the luxurious palace swimming pool.

Residents use telephones with an upstate New York area code, even to call someone across the hall.

The parking lot is so clogged with identical new sport utility vehicles that drivers have to punch the alarm buttons on their key chains to draw a bead on where theirs are located. And there’s American chow, lots of it, shipped in from the United States. Think chipped beef on toast.

Welcome to the Bubble. Behind the massive concrete blocks, razor wire, sandbags and maze of checkpoints where visitors are searched and searched again is the heart of U.S. military and civilian operations in Iraq.

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Save for the routine mortar attacks that have yet to do much damage to this sprawling 4-square-mile zone, there is a surreal sense of calm about the compound, especially when juxtaposed with the snarled, noisy streets of Baghdad -- which many people inside the zone seldom, if ever, see.

It is a place where soldiers and civilians work long hours, party hard when they can and look for the little things that make life bearable in this hostile land.

But for Iraqis, the Green Zone represents a foreign power hunkering down for a long stay -- in Saddam Hussein’s old digs, no less -- while shutting itself off from the country it conquered. Rubbing salt in the wound, speculation has it that the zone, which encompasses some of Baghdad’s prime real estate, will eventually become the site of the mammoth U.S. Embassy.

“Americans should behave in a normal, civilized way, like they do elsewhere in the world,” said Dauvaod Mohammed, owner of the Kitchen Furniture store in Baghdad. “They hide away behind big walls.”

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On a more mundane note, Iraqis complain bitterly that Baghdad’s streets wouldn’t be clogged if the Americans pulled up stakes and moved somewhere else. And the restricted access is a source of irritation for Iraqis who will never get in.

Saad Abbas, deputy editor of the politically moderate Az Zamman newspaper, said seeing well-heeled Iraqis and foreigners with their suits and cellphones entering the zone only reminds the working class of opportunities unavailable to them.

“It is natural when a poor person sees someone coming out of the Green Zone with all these things, he will not like that,” Abbas said. “He will feel angry at the sight of him.”

There are reasons for the compound, of course, security chief among them. The 15-foot blast-resistant concrete walls that surround the compound protect it from attacks such as the car bomb that killed seven people Wednesday at a Baghdad hotel. The military is not about to make the same mistake it did in Beirut in 1983, when a suicide bomber plowed through a lightly reinforced security gate and killed 241 American service members as they slept in their barracks.

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At the beginning of the Baghdad occupation, the construction of the Green Zone was a source of friction between the United States and the United Nations, which felt that the foreigners should mingle with the population. But after two devastating attacks on its headquarters, the U.N. has relocated to neighboring countries. Some foreign companies doing contract work, meanwhile, tried to operate in Baghdad neighborhoods only to take refuge in the Green Zone after hearing persistent rumors that they were in imminent danger.

Just getting into the compound is a challenge to one’s patience as well as a source of jitters, given that a car bomb detonated at one of its gates in January. At least 20 people were killed and 120 wounded.

On any given day, the lines to enter the Green Zone can stretch so long that soldiers spend much of their time trying to stop impatient visitors from jumping the queue. Of these, hundreds are men who hope to become police trainees and receive the $120-a-month salary that goes with it. Even when the line is short, getting in involves two full-body searches and two identity checks.

Inside, the scene changes dramatically. The Green Zone includes the cavernous convention center, Hussein’s ornate Republican Palace and the Rashid Hotel, once the city’s premier hostelry. It was once wired by Hussein’s minions for eavesdropping on visiting VIPs, but under coalition control, it has been abandoned as living quarters because of rocket attacks. Still, it remains the mess hall of choice for 5,000 Americans living inside the zone plus a prime source of pirated DVDs and tacky paintings in the first-floor gift shops.

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The palace is the nerve center of the zone, where soldiers and civilians work around the clock. Eighteen-hour days are common and 12-hour shifts are routine.

“I’m finding that sometimes I forget what day it is,” said Pepper Bryars, a civilian communications specialist from Alabama.

Four huge, helmeted busts of Hussein have been removed from atop the palace, and his throne has been put in storage. The foyer of the palace’s main entrance has been turned into a dining room, where food is dished out cafeteria-style. Rooms inside the palace have been chopped up by dividers, and offices are identified by paper taped to doors. On the walls are Valentine’s Day cards from grade-school children, including one depicting an assault rifle in the middle of a heart.

“Cupid’s New Arrow,” reads the inscription.

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Marble floors are lined with red carpet, and one large ballroom is used as a dormitory. On one wall is a Hussein-era fresco of Scud missiles rocketing skyward, as they did during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when they hit targets in Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem. On the other is a fresco of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites. In between, the floor is scattered with bunk beds and cots, with gear strewn about.

But mostly, the palace has the look of slightly disheveled office building where workers go about their business.

“The days are long but the weeks are short,” said Col. Emmett DuBose of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a Texan who is responsible for restoring Iraq’s oilfields. “When you’re busy working day in and day out, you don’t even realize you’re in a bubble.”

A souk, or market, has sprung up inside the compound near the palace, where merchants sell souvenirs that include Saddam Hussein wristwatches and other knickknacks.

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The Green Zone Cafe, a converted gas station, is a favorite eating spot and welcome diversion from the regular fare. The Iraqi proprietor serves hamburgers and chicken kebabs along with sodas and beer. He’s been so successful that construction workers are expanding the eatery, which is particularly busy in the evenings. Among other things, the cafe has a large cache of what the label describes as “The Love of God Wine,” widely believed to be of the Communion variety. Two Chinese restaurants vie for the Asian palate, their major difference being that one serves beer and the other doesn’t.

Around the compound, trailer park communities have sprung up to accommodate the thousands of American workers who have made the Green Zone their home. The guidelines are two people to a room, two rooms to a trailer.

The neighborhoods have such names as Embassy Estates, Poolside, Riverside and the Palms (not the best place to live when mushy dates are falling from the trees).

There is a laundry and a post exchange roughly the size of a convenience store.

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When Bryars arrived in the Green Zone, he was billeted in a large tent with dozens of other people, many of them serious snorers. “I thought I’d never get to sleep,” he said.

In another part of the compound is the parade route where Hussein would review his troops as they marched under four massive crossed swords. The hands holding the blades are exact replicas of the ex-dictator’s. Along the path are metal bumps -- Iranian army helmets, cemented in during the Iran-Iraq war so Hussein’s troops could crush the enemy underfoot.

Finally, there is the Baghdad Convention Center, which houses media facilities as well as dozens of civilian operations ranging from Royal Jordanian Airways (flying to Amman only) to the giant Bechtel construction company, whose offices are in the sub-subbasement. The Iraqi National Symphony rehearses in the center; on a recent afternoon, the conductor grew impatient with the horn section, which was having trouble hitting its notes.

And yes, there is green in the Green Zone -- grassy, flower-filled areas around the convention center that are tended by Iraqi gardeners.

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But the green ends at a guard shack manned by American soldiers, replaced by more sandbags and concertina wire marking the way back to dusty Baghdad.


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