"It is like seeing ghosts of the Americans"
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.
Yet quirky reminders of the lengthy American presence here abound. Many Iraqi soldiers copy U.S. troops; they sport Oakley sunglasses, CamelBak water canteens, and black wristbands. Iraqi politicians, meanwhile, race through Baghdad's streets in convoys of armored Toyota Land Cruisers, using hand signals and loudspeakers to warn Iraqi drivers to keep their distance and fire warning shots if the drivers come too close. American military Humvees once drove through Baghdad in exactly the same manner.
"We learned that from you," my former translator, Jabbar Yassin, says when I call him to ask about the practice. "It is like seeing ghosts of the Americans."
The contrast between the dreams of an open Baghdad and the reality of the walled city is particularly striking on the city's famed Abu Nuwas Street, a broad promenade directly across the Tigris River from the walls of the Green Zone. It is lined with what Iraqis call, in English, "casinos": riverside cafes where men gather to play backgammon and dominoes, smoke shishas, and eat mazgouf, a local delicacy made of carp cooked around a charcoal pit.
Three of Iraq's biggest and best-known hotels--the Palestine, the Ishtar Sheraton (no connection to the Sheraton company), and the Baghdad Hotel--lie on Abu Nuwas. During the formal U.S. occupation of the country, American contractors, journalists, and civilian government officials occupied the hotels. They'd slid into disrepair, with chipped brown exterior walls and worn down lobbies.
All of that is different today, courtesy of a roughly $50 million Iraqi-government-funded overhaul of the three buildings. The hotel exteriors have been freshly painted, and their lobbies have modern check-in areas, flat-screen televisions, and furniture. The rooms have new beds and dressers, outside windows completely replaced.
The Maliki government rehabbed the buildings as part of a $195 million plan to beautify Baghdad for an Arab League summit supposed to have taken place here in May. But it was cancelled at the last minute under pressure from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, whose Sunni rulers consider Maliki a hostile Shiite sectarian with close ties to Iran.
Today, while the three buildings sit empty, Abu Nuwas itself has made a comeback. A ghost town during the worst years of Iraq's civil war, ordinary Iraqis have returned in droves thanks to a steep decline in the city's violence. When the heat breaks each day, Iraqi families and young men stream to Abu Nuwas to eat at its waterside restaurants, stroll through its parks, or take their children play in a new mini-amusement park complete with a large pool, a child-sized train set, and large, bouncy slides topped with an image of Mickey Mouse. On a recent evening, the sounds of children's laughter echoed through the playground, a cheerful counterpoint to Baghdad's pervasive gloom. The hotels, by contrast, appeared largely deserted, with lights on in only a handful of rooms.
A few blocks away, a jaunty, if misspelled, sign says "Well Come to the Baghdad Hotel." If you found the right angle, its new windows and balconies could just about be seen over the large concrete blast walls that continue to ring the property, sealing the hotel off from the city it is meant to serve.