May 03, 2005

The Green Zone is for conquering and unconquering only

Insurgent mortars hit LSA Anaconda on a daily basis. (Don't worry, it's an enormous base, the chance of actually getting hit by one is astronomically small.) The other night a barrage of about half a dozen hit maybe half a mile away from me, waking me up even though they weren't loud - there's something about that crrrrump that kicks you into wakefulness. I went back to sleep, was rewoken by the red alert siren, and went back to sleep again, as did almost everyone else in the tent; you're supposed to find a hardened bunker for the duration of the red alert, if you're on active duty, but nobody here takes the siren seriously. It's the boy that cried Mortar. Here it goes again, as I type.

Word is that one shell smacked into a shower trailer in which a soldier was showering. Fortunately for him it a) missed his stall and b) failed to explode. No word on whether the hot water was interrupted, or on whether he dried and dressed before leaving.

Last night a strong dusty wind turned into a full-on storm. It rained mud; the wind had kicked the dust up into the air, and the raindrops brought it back down. The storm grew so strong that main billeting tent (not where you sleep, but where you check in / watch TV / eat / get books / make phone calls / read Internet) half-collapsed and had to be rebuilt this morning. The walls of my tent whipped back and forth, the wooden doors slammed open and shut, and outside the wind howled and the mud spattered down.

The Green Zone is a very weird place. It's a vast patch of prime Baghdad real estate, a collection of palaces, embassies, stadia, huge decorated archways, hotels and government buildings, all tucked into an arm of the Tigris River. Not that you can see the river much. The huge, continuous wall of twelve-foot high concrete topped by an endless cylinder of DNA-like concertina wire sees to that. This entire city district has been sealed off, interrupted only by a dozen or so checkpoints.

Within is the downtown of a poor-but-not-too-poor city - wide streets, uneven cobblestoned sidewalks, and vast tyrant-ego-stroking architecture - turned into a paranoid armed camp. Especially in the district where I arrived. All the roads here are lined by more concrete-barrier walls. Another wall surrounds the helipad. The streets, parking lots, helipad, PX entrance, and compound entrances are watched by heavily armed Gurkha sentries, and believe me, a tougher-looking bunch of hombres you never did see. Smaller concrete barriers, sandbagged, block traffic. Lines of armoured Humvees with machine-gun turrets are parked on the street. Concertina wire is everywhere; in places you have to watch where you're going just walking down the road, to avoid a dangling strand. And the piece de paranoid resistance is the US Embassy, once Saddam's presidential palace, now guarded by Gurkhas, Marines, walls, cameras, and presumably every other form of defence known to mankind. I tried but failed to gain access; you need an active-duty DoD badge or a yellow embassy badge.

Lots of people wear yellow embassy badges. Almost all of them are white, American, thirtysomething, trickling in and out of the embassy to the nearby minibus stop (like Balad, the Green Zone is serviced by KBR-operated shuttle buses with Filipino or Iraqi drivers), the PX, or the Chinese restaurant. Yes, there is a Chinese restaurant, reopened after a bombing last year. Past a huge half-bombed-out palace that is now a military base, along a sidewalk demarcated by barriers and concertina wire, past a checkpoint and a shuttle bus stop and Gurkha-guarded compound entrances, then to your left, at the CHINESE RESTAURANT sign that looks like graffiti, through the cloud of Iraqi kids trying to sell you bootleg CDs, along a very narrow path with another huge concrete barrier to your right and property walls to your left - and that's even more surreal, backyards leading to moderate-sized houses in the midst of all this military security - and about a hundred feet in, in the shell of what was once a nice house, a nice Chinese family serves you food on wooden chairs and tables, indoor and out. The hot and sour soup was surprisingly very good. The vegetable fried rice was, not surprisingly, not.

I mentioned compounds: there are several, each of which have their own walls and wire and security. The embassy is the ne compound ultra, then there's a PCO (contracting office) compound, another for the State Department, another for the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party?), plus the military minibases in the Zone if they count, and the biggest compounds of all, Kellogg Brown and Root, a division of Halliburton, who run the actual infrastructure of the Zone just as they do at Balad. There are 6,000 KBR employees in Balad and probably a comparable number in the Zone. The running joke is "KBR invaded Iraq; America just came along for the ride."

There are very few Iraqis in this 'downtown' embassy-compounds-helipad area. The ratio of military to civilian is something like 1:1. Some of the civilians look like civil servants anywhere. Some of them carry weapons and wear armour. Mercenary groups such as Blackwater have a significant presence here in Iraq, employed by private companies or sometimes, I think, by the US government directly. I'm not sure if the Gurkhas are mercenaries or part of the 'Multi-National Force'.

The parking lot outside the PX is like an SUV dealership - an armoured SUV dealership, with a sideline in Humvees. It seems that only Iraqis drive sedans. Past the embassy-compounds-helipad area, the Green Zone opens up a little and starts looking like a city again, one with wide two-lane roads and apartment buildings, although it's still mostly given over to government buildings and hotels - I was denied access to the Al-Rasheem, to my dismay. Note that in a five-hour visit I only managed to visit the places the buses take you, which is maybe half the Zone.

Some of the old walls are bullet-scarred. A huge archway covered by a massive golden dome spans the road at one point. Highways lead off into unexplored parts of the Zone. The roads are busy but the sidewalks nearly deserted. A couple of sidewalk stands sell Coke, cigarettes, DVDs, grilled kebab meat. I traded a dollar for a thousand dinars at one, and was offered whiskey in a hushed voice. I rode in a bus empty except for the driver, and later, in a bus where I was the only non-Iraqi; I'm embarrassed to say that both experiences were slightly nervous-making. The Iraqis were friendly, and laughed and joked with one another. Mostly men, a few women, two middle-aged with dyed hair, one young, very pretty, and heavily made up, dressed all in black with a hijab.

A friendly Scotsman I rode with explained that there are still 12,000 Iraqis who live within the Zone, and as a result only the compounds, whose denizens live and work inside, are truly secure; the Zone itself is only quasi-secure. Being ex-British military, who fought in Gulf War I, he also had harsh words about the unprofessional military incompetence of the insurgents. "I'm from John O'Groats," he said. "Isn't that the end of the world?" I asked. (John O'Groats is the northernmost habitation on the British mainland.) "No, sonny," he said without missing a beat, "this is."


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