Baghdad is still a tale of two cities: the Green Zone, where most public-affairs officers and many military and State Department staff spend their entire time in Iraq, and the rest of Baghdad, where the Iraqi and Western reporters live. A mid-level officer who had been deployed in the Green Zone for the better part of a year recently wondered to me how it was that Iraqis fill their cars with gas since she had never seen a gas station (and presumably the long lines that go with them). Another embassy person admonished guests invited to a reception not to come too early, seemingly unaware that it’s impossible to determine how long it will take to get through the multiple checkpoints from what U.S. officials still call “the red zone.”
The elaborate system of controls keeping U.S. forces, embassy staff, and contractors well inside the protected zones where the U.S. military and embassy are based also helps keep journalists out. In the broad-brush view of the military rules, all reporters and their local staff are considered potential suicide bombers. At a parking lot where journalists are dropped off to be escorted into Camp Victory, the military takes away cell phones—essential for coordinating pick-ups.
American reporters since last year have been denied the access badges that are given to any U.S. contractor. The badges prevent them from having to wait in areas most vulnerable to suicide bombers in order to enter the Green Zone. That is one reason most Western reporters have boycotted the new press center inside the Green Zone. That and the several intensive body searches required before you get in. I am glad to be able to report some progress here: a letter from the Baghdad-based media hand-delivered to General Raymond Odierno in June resulted in a promise that a limited number of the badges would be issued to the Western media.
The basic U.S. message here is that Iraq is safe again. That is debatable. The twenty-minute ride from the airport to the Green Zone, on what has become one of the safest roads in Baghdad, is nonetheless considered too dangerous for U.S. officials, who fly in instead. The heavily armored shuttle used for the ride to the Green Zone by embassy staff members who can’t get a helicopter flight still requires body armor
and a helmet.
One of the ironies is that as coverage of the U.S. military has waned, the military has taken on more complex tasks. Many of the U.S. troops appear light years ahead of where they started. The first troops I covered in the spring of 2003 jumped out of planes into northern Iraq and were so badly prepared that they spent the night huddled together to keep from freezing, after being told they were landing in desert. Among the standouts I met was the sergeant who told me, “This is my interpreter,” patting his rifle when I asked how they got by without someone to translate for them. And the non-commissioned officer who told me earnestly when I’d asked why he’d volunteered to fight in Tallulah: “I like explosions.”
One benefit of closer proximity to the military—so much harder to come by now—is that after spending time with soldiers, you realize that for every comment like that one there’s a sergeant who knows more history than you do. Two years after Fallujah, during one of those interminable waits for a convoy, I listened in admiration to two noncommissioned officers explain to a third the definition of “wasta”— the
concept of using influence to get things done that is essential to understanding how things work in the Middle East.
But if the sophistication of the troops has increased, it’s not always mirrored among military public-affair officers, who tend to have far less contact with Iraqis. At a press event earlier this year at Saddam Hussein’s former palace at Camp Victory, a buffet laid out for the mostly Iraqi reporters prompted the usual question about what meat they were being served.
“It’s ham,” said the press officer. “How do you say ‘ham’ in Arabic?” The Iraqis politely demurred, backing away from the table.