Baghdad's Green Zone under Fire: Americans Caught in Crossfire between Radicals and Iraqi Government

By Dieter Bednarz in Baghdad

With its swimming pools, manicured gardens and friendly Iraqis, Baghdad's Green Zone was long seen as a luxurious, high-security enclave for Americans and their friends in a country rocked by violence. Now the oasis of security is under siege.

Smoke rises from the US- protected Green Zone in central Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, March 23, 2008, after it was targeted by a series of rockets or mortars.
AP

Smoke rises from the US- protected Green Zone in central Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, March 23, 2008, after it was targeted by a series of rockets or mortars.

Sarah is not the type of woman who loses her cool very easily. As an employee of the US State Department, she's seen too much for that. Her superiors in Washington have repeatedly sent her to the world's hot spots. Now Sarah works as a "special agent" in the personal protection unit of the US State Department in Baghdad, where she is responsible for the security of high-ranking guests.

Since Tuesday, it's been Sarah's job to look after German politician Elke Hoff. And, since Wednesday afternoon, Sarah has occasionally had to address her charge -- "Sorry about that, ma'am!" -- more forcefully than usual: "Hurry up! We have to duck and cover."

Sarah already has helmets and bulletproof vests at the ready when she and her security team urge a small delegation of members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, to board an armored personnel carrier. The sound of incoming rockets and grenades isn't long in coming.

The security team doesn't tell the German delegation where exactly the missiles have landed. Having to admit that attacks are taking place in the "Green Zone," the best-secured district in the Iraqi capital, is already embarrassing enough. And because the attacks continue into the afternoon, long-scheduled meetings between parliamentarian Elke Hoff, a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), and high-ranking Iraqi politicians, including former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, have to be cancelled "for security reasons."

A Neighborhood Gone Bad

The attacks on the "IZ," or "International Zone," as the US military has dubbed the former Karkh neighborhood, represent one of the biggest challenges to the American forces in Iraq to date. The enclave covers less than seven square kilometers (2.7 square miles) and houses the headquarters of the US armed forces and their allies. Until the beginning of the week, the enclave was considered the safest place in a country plagued by violence and terror.

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein chose the area, which is strategically located along a bend in the Tigris River, as the site for his palaces. The hangers-on of the regime lived there, and only the despot's most loyal henchmen were allowed in.

The country is still ruled from this neighborhood today, and access hasn't become much easier. Tens of thousands of soldiers and diplomats live and work behind roof-high concrete walls. An estimated 4,000 people, most of them soldiers and security personnel, live on the grounds of the American Embassy in a former Saddam palace.

The huge area is like a "Little America" in the midst of this hostile country. Even though the number of attacks has declined by about half compared with what it was like during the height of terrorist activity three years ago, Western news agencies still counted 455 attacks throughout Iraq last week. Foreigners -- and especially Americans -- can only feel safe in their IZ.

The unrest in the Green Zone continued Thursday. The news agency Reuters reported that a giant column of black smoke could be seen near the US Embassy after what was believed to be a mortar strike on a former palace of Saddam Hussein which is being used as a headquarters for American civilian and military personnel. However an embassy spokeswoman said there had been no serious injuries or deaths as a result of the attack. Four people, including two US civilians, were wounded by mortar attacks in the Green Zone Wednesday.

'Targeted Provocation'

The special zone also has room for some privileged Iraqis. The Green Zone is home to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has his office here, and to the most important ministries. The parliament has taken up temporary quarters here, in a former conference center Saddam had built in the early 1980s. It is also home to influential Iraqis, such as Sunni member of parliament Mithal Al-Alusi. Al-Alusi is one of the most popular politicians in postwar Iraq and hence one of the people the Hoff delegation has arranged to meet.

Al-Alusi has gotten used to the fact that his life is in danger. It used to be threatened by Saddam and his intelligence services, and today it is threatened by insurgents such as the militia headed by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Alusi also blames the Badr Brigades for the rocket and mortar attacks of the last few days. The attacks, says an outraged Al-Alusi, are a "targeted provocation."

Al-Alusi is also one of the few to hazard an explanation: America's two highest-ranking representatives in Iraq -- Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker -- are scheduled to deliver their reports on the situation in Iraq in one week. According to Al-Alusi, the security analyses destined for Washington will not conclude that "the Americans have the situation under control," at least not if "Sadr and his backers in Iran have their way."

The Iran Connection

No one doubts that the fanatical cleric hates the Americans more than anyone and wants to drive them out of the country as quickly as possible. It is also considered likely that Sadr is in league with his fellow Shiites in Tehran. According to Western security experts, the most recent proof of Al-Sadr's Tehran connection is the fact that the projectiles landing in and around the Green Zone are Iranian-made.

The attacks on the high-security zone are also intended to strike the Iraqi government of Prime Minister al-Maliki, a Shiite. Some political observers in Baghdad are even convinced that the mortars and rockets are aimed more at the prime minister than at the Americans. The secular al-Maliki declared war on religious fanatic al-Sadr a few days ago.

Since last weekend, government troops have started energetically pursuing "terrorists, bandits and a few foreign elements," as government spokesman Ali al-Dabagh cautiously puts it. Al-Dabagh, an experienced diplomat, falls short of saying that the true target of the government's attack is al-Sadr's militia, which has apparently developed its bastion in the south and has received reinforcements in the form of Iranian fighters.

Nevertheless, al-Dagagh is quick to emphasize the successes of the Iraqi government troops. In the capital there are increasing reports that the government's enemies are retreating across the border into another country. No one mentions that the country in question is Iran, probably out of consideration for Baghdad's new partnership with the regime in Tehran.

Old Enemies, New Friends

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Baghdad early this month was still a "historic event" for the Iraqi government, especially in light of the fact that former dictator Saddam Hussein plunged both countries into an eight-year war that claimed millions of lives. Now, though, Baghdad and Tehran are planning economic cooperation programs worth billions -- much to the chagrin of US President George W. Bush.

Washington also appears to be doomed to impotence when it comes to the attacks on its only true stronghold in Iraq. The attacks are said to come from the city's eastern part, which is controlled by al-Sadr and his militia. The insurgents apparently launch their rockets and mortars from moveable ramps and then immediately disappear into the densely populated neighborhoods.

Officials on the grounds of the US Embassy say that the insurgents are trying to draw the Americans into a trap that would force them to launch "aerial attacks with many dead and wounded." Besides, the Americans can hardly afford grueling house-to-house combat in the al-Sadr-controlled neighborhood, especially after the US Armed Forces reported this week their 4,000th death in Iraq.

As a result, the Americans have limited themselves to ducking, at least for the time being, even in front of political visitors like German parliamentarian Hoff, to whom it had hoped to present a picture of progress in Iraq.

On Tuesday evening, the "esteemed guest" from Berlin, whose safety the US Embassy had assumed responsibility for, was moved to new quarters -- from the Al-Rashid Hotel on the edge of the security zone, where government guests stayed in the days of Saddam Hussein, to the US Embassy. The small German delegation will be flown out Thursday -- ahead of schedule.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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