Interviews October 2004

Iraq's Walled City

William Langewiesche, the author of "The Green Zone," on the dangerous and ever-increasing isolation of the American presence in Baghdad
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As the June 28 transition to sovereignty in Iraq recedes farther into the past, it becomes more difficult to remember that before Prime Minister Allawi came calling on Congress, there was an American-led government in power, known as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Staffed with ideologues, eager young graduates, and those looking for a challenge, it was charged with running the country until such time as a handover of power could occur. CPA-run ministries (with Iraqi counterparts) addressed every conceivable social need, from education to irrigation.

The home base for these various government bureaus was a cordoned-off area in the middle of the Baghdad known as the Green Zone. Green grass, public buses, electricity, and American area codes rendered the zone a "little America" in the midst of Iraq. Just over the perimeter wall, on the other hand, was Baghdad, in all its anarchic chaos of lawless highways, car bombs, blackouts, mortar attacks and endless military convoys.

In his new cover story for The Atlantic, William Langewiesche who has lived outside the Green Zone in Baghdad off and on since March, describes the extent of the Americans' isolation in Iraq, and suggests that that isolation may have contributed as much to our failures there as did the well-documented lack of planning for postwar realities. In the beginning, Langewiesche recounts, Westerners ventured out of the Green Zone with some frequency, going to cafés, meeting with Iraqis, and even taking trips into the rest of the country. But as the occupation progressed, engagement with Iraq diminished as a priority, and safety became paramount.

The result, he explains, was a growing sense of division and hostility:

On the outside were the Arab Iraqis, who after decades of totalitarian rule were overwhelmingly insecure, distrustful, and opportunistic. On the inside were the Americans, who if anything were too secure—spoiled by wealth and national power, self-convinced, and softened by the promise and possibility of safe lives.

As Baghdad became increasingly dangerous for Americans, restrictions on movement outside the Green Zone grew. By spring, leaving the Green Zone was difficult, even if one had the desire to do so:

You were supposed to have a reason for going into Baghdad or beyond, and to travel only in multi-vehicle armored convoys with armed guards. In other words, you were supposed to mount an expedition. And why bother? A more prudent choice was to stay in the zone and require the Iraqis to come to you if for some rare reason you needed to deal with them face-to-face.

Having spent time with the military in Bosnia, and seen the deleterious effect of our country's commitment to ensuring the safety of its people above any other goal, Langewiesche suggests that there is something distinctly American about our self-defeating decision to so thoroughly isolate ourselves in Iraq. "In practice," he notes, "the CPA was a broad American construct, and for better or worse it functioned as a piece of ourselves."

William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for the Atlantic. His most recent book is The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime.

We spoke on September 24.

Elizabeth Shelburne


The way you live in Baghdad sounds very different from the way people in the Green Zone live. Can you describe what your life is like there—where your house is, how you found it, how you get food, what you do during the days?

Things are changing all the time in Baghdad. So almost anything I say about how things are will not be true in a week. This has been going on since the invasion—things are steadily getting worse, never better. The only non-Iraqi foreigners who are allowed to live in the Green Zone are either American government employees or contractors—the people who work for companies that have big contracts with the U.S. government. Independent businessmen and the press are not allowed to live in the Green zone. So I live the way other people who are not associated with the government live, which is out in the city.

When I first got there I lived in a hotel. But as the situation got worse, it became obvious to me that the security of the hotel was something of a joke. I wasn't much concerned about rocket attacks, because rockets don't make a very big hole. I mean, it has to be your unlucky day if one comes into your room. But I wasn't staying in one of the highly fortified hotels where much of the Western media lives. And it became clear to me that if anyone wanted to waltz into my hotel and mount an attack, they could do it with no problem. So I thought it would be wise to get out. Through connections I found a house in the city, which I rent. It's a fortified house and it's been further fortified by me and by The Atlantic. It's in a nondescript neighborhood that's neither upper class nor a slum. It's a mixed industrial-residential area on the other side of the river from the Green Zone. So far it's been good.

In the spring there were two rockets that fell into my street and blew out the doors and windows. But the house was clearly not targeted. There are rockets and mortars flying every night and the aim is poor. I can often hear firefights at night, sometimes quite close. Sometimes it's just a few shots; other times it's sustained exchanges. There are also mortars and bombs. You learn to distinguish between the various sounds—AK-47s pointed toward you, versus AK-47s pointed away from you, and mortars versus car bombs, which make a much bigger explosion.

I'm fairly low profile in my neighborhood. In the beginning, when I was first there, it was possible to go out a lot, and I did. I went to sidewalk cafés with Iraqis and walked the streets, both during the day and at night. But since May, that's been totally unsafe. You just can't do that. You can't go to restaurants, for example. I mean you can do it, but you have to think about for what reason and whether it's worth the risk. So in a way I live like a captive. I move through the city in the back of a little car, and try to keep as low a profile as possible.

Are there a lot of other Westerners still living in houses right now, or have most people moved into the hotels?

People are fortifying their houses more. There was a stage in the spring when a lot of people were leaving their houses and moving into hotels. But I think it's been fairly stable since then. People are increasingly armed and fortified.

You mentioned the restrictions on what you can do. Does that apply to Iraqis too?

No, not at all. They're concerned about random car blasts and things like that. But still at night, the sidewalk cafés are crowded and there's a strong nightlife. It's actually quite a lively and nice atmosphere—as long as you're not a Westerner. If you're an Iraqi you can mix easily, and it's quite decent. The restaurants are good and cheap, and people can afford to go to them, and they do.

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