Welcome to the Green Zone

The American bubble in Baghdad

The Green Zone is a little America embedded in the heart of Baghdad. It is the former preserve of Saddam Hussein and his favored associates—an uncrowded district of villas, palaces, and monuments set in a parklike expanse that spreads for four square miles inside a meander of the Tigris River at the center of the ruined city. During the thirty-five years of Baath Party dictatorship it was neither gated nor strictly delineated, and it did not need to be, since the public's survival instincts were well honed, and people just naturally understood that special unwritten rules applied there. The Green Zone was the seat of Saddam's power. You could cross it along the three or four grand boulevards that were open to traffic, and you could reflect on the glory of the regime, but you could not safely linger or gawk. If you had a car and happened to blow a tire, you kept driving on the rims, and made a good show of it too. I know of one young man, the son of a high official in the former regime, who made a U-turn there, and was arrested for the indiscretion; he was held and questioned until his father intervened, and explained that he was innocent and just a bit feckless. Ah, youth.

Since then much has changed. In April of 2003, as the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division fought its way into the Green Zone with heavy loss of Iraqi life, the once privileged residents fled in haste, emptying compounds and palaces—and indeed an entire district—that therefore seemed ready-made for American use. Later it became obvious that the decision to install the occupation government in the center of the city and to base it in the very same buildings that had been used by the recent dictatorship was a serious blunder—one of several such blunders rooted in the arrogance of Yankee know-how, and in the strange failure to anticipate the end of the honeymoon, and the hostility that even enlightened invaders would soon elicit. At the time, however, basing in the Green Zone seemed like an act of engagement with the Iraqi people, and though the boulevards were now blocked, snarling traffic on the outside and forcing Iraqis who wished to enter to wait in exposed lines at the gates for body searches and identity checks, this was seen as a temporary expediency that surely the natives would understand: Baghdad was not quite yet secure, but soon it would be, as democracy and capitalism took hold. Moreover, life inside the zone was thought to be nearly as hard as life on the outside. It was dusty and uncomfortable, with inadequate electricity and air-conditioning, and little alcohol available at first beyond the stocks that Saddam's son Uday had collected. The grounds were scattered with shell casings and occasional live rounds. Some of the buildings had been bombed or pierced by Tomahawk cruise missiles, and all were littered with detritus and rubble. A cleanup was under way, but much remained to be done. The Republican Palace, which served as the center of operations, was crammed with American and allied officials sleeping on cots, working furiously, and making do as best they could without an adequate computer network. Fifty-four of the Iraqi dead were buried under a dirt parking lot across the way, but that, too, was a temporary thing. The fleets of shiny new SUVs parked on top of them were much in use, sailing forth daily to offices and reconstruction projects throughout the city and the nation that lay beyond it. Coalition soldiers were somehow not quite able to bring the fighting to an end, but it was an optimistic time nonetheless.

What happened next seems to have been inevitable, and not a function of who was on top in distant America—the variations of Republicans or Democrats—so much as an organic effect of forcing two radically different peoples to live so close together, cheek by jowl in Baghdad. 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. These were not soldiers primarily, but they answered to the Pentagon, and had no choice politically but to borrow its concept of "force protection" and to make it their highest ideal. Consequently, with every pinprick of Iraqi resistance—with every killing of a collaborator, and every wildly aimed rocket or mortar round that arched in from the city and exploded harmlessly in the Green Zone's interior—controls at the gates grew stricter, and the boundary hardened into a heavily guarded perimeter of high concrete blast walls, about eight miles around. The reaction was noticed by the Iraqi insurgents, who had plenty of experienced mujahideen to explain the dynamics to them and to encourage further attacks, even with no grand plan in mind. Little popular support was necessary for such attacks, though popular support was growing. Slowly the American engagement diminished, and with it the effectiveness of American initiatives. The Americans knew it, too. Even within the Green Zone they derided their home as "The Bubble." But they could not stop themselves from their retreat to its insides. Much has been made of the lack of planning that preceded the invasion, but it was this isolation afterward that turned out to be as great a problem. It is a famous paradox that walls that protect you also hem you in.

Inside those walls, in Baghdad, is a place that physically resembles nowhere in the United States. In one district along the Tigris private villas nestle in the shade of a luxuriant oasis. It is a perfectly Middle Eastern paradise, a fantasy of gardens and ponds, where footpaths cross ornamental bridges over artificial streams. A few villas have been reclaimed by their original Iraqi owners, exiles who have returned, but most of the properties have been expropriated by fast-moving American agencies and contractors—clear winners in the scramble for Green Zone quarters that followed Baghdad's fall. In every war there are people who manage to live well. Sitting in the villa district over drinks and cigars on a balmy evening, you might almost forget where you are. But of course you don't. The villa district is small, and the sounds of explosions intrude.

Elsewhere in the Green Zone live squatters of a different kind. They are the Baghdad poor who, long accustomed to survival on the streets, took advantage of the confusion of Saddam's defeat to scurry into a less leafy residential area that just hours before had been abandoned by the Baath Party elite. The first of them were true urban pioneers. In the midst of falling bombs and bursting shells, they staked their claims on empty houses, and very quickly called in family and friends. Since they were neither combatants nor allies of the old regime, the Americans could not decide how to get them out, and later gave up even trying. No one knows how many of these Iraqis live in the Green Zone now, though estimates range around 5,000. They live a dozen or two in houses made for five, and through poverty and crowding have turned their district into the Green Zone's slum. Some of the men do manual labor, or sell soft drinks and trinkets from streetside stands, and all have learned to pass through the Green Zone's gates by staying abreast of the ever changing requirements. They are the source of concern about enemies on the inside, but the children are appealing, and the adults are quiet and unobtrusive, and so a cautious coexistence prevails.

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William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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