In Baghdad's Green Zone, Echoes of U.S. Occupation

"It is like seeing ghosts of the Americans"

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Iraqi soldiers parade in the Green Zone for the Iraqi Army Day 88th anniversary celebration / Reuters

BAGHDAD--When the U.S. transferred control of Baghdad's fortified Green Zone to the Iraqi government in January 2009, it was heralded as a turning point in Iraq's halting recovery from years of war and occupation.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said Iraq would commemorate the handover with a new national holiday, Sovereignty Day. Iraqi officials outlined ambitious plans to build new hotels, office towers, and high-end apartment complexes in the walled complex. Marriott International, they said, had already signed an agreement to build a luxury hotel there. A U.S. military report at the time even spoke of building a "Tigris Woods Golf Course and Resort," with views of the Tigris River.

Most notably, the Maliki government promised the Green Zone would open to the Iraqi public. They'd been barred from the compound by a menacing set of concrete barriers and U.S. and Iraqi military checkpoints.

Nearly three years later, ordinary Iraqis have less access to the Iraqi-controlled Green Zone than during the U.S. occupation, a troubling reminder of the vast gulf separating the Iraqi public from the rulers ostensibly elected to serve them.

Several former entrances are entirely walled off, sharply limiting the number of access points to the 5-square-mile compound. Marriott never came, and no new hotel was ever constructed. Iraqi and American journalists and government workers can make their way into the Green Zone by flashing the proper IDs and passing through an extensive series of checkpoints. Ordinary Iraqi citizens with business inside must get clearance beforehand and have an escort.

"I said, in 2009, that within one month we would open it," Tahsin al-Shaikhly, a senior Maliki advisor, said in an interview in his office in the Green Zone. "We are working on it. It takes a long time."

Shaikhly, who lived in Virginia for years and speaks fluent English, said the Maliki government had removed half of the concrete walls dotting the city, reopened 190 streets that had been closed off for security reasons, and cut the number of checkpoints throughout the city by 25 percent. But he admitted he wasn't sure when--or how much of--the Green Zone would be reopened to the Iraqi public.

"Maybe in the future it will be opened, but now, no," he said. 

The Baghdad of late 2011, just months before the last American troops are slated to return home, remains a city of gray concrete walls. Many of the barriers that hastily went up across the city over the years remain, leaving hidden hundreds of banks, offices, restaurants, and businesses, as well as private homes. Armed checkpoints are a common sight in many areas of the city, though the young Iraqi soldiers who man them are often found talking or texting on their cell phones rather than searching cars.

A grim sense of loss hangs over the city. Framed photos of the thousands of Iraqi police officers and soldiers killed in recent years hang from the city's lampposts, while hand-painted pictures of Shia militants killed battling the American military cover many of the walls in Sadr City, a vast Shia slum here.

American forces, meanwhile, have entirely disappeared from view, with the 46,000 troops who remain in the country relocating to a handful of large bases far from Baghdad in preparation for returning home later this year.

Presented by

Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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