Green Zone changing with the times
BAGHDAD - A tale of two Green Zones can be found on a street in this 5-square-mile patch of central Baghdad, an enclave that has provided the closest thing to security during the most brutal points of this six-year war.
On one side of this trash-strewn street, in a rundown hut, lives Um Hayam, her husband and seven children. Across the street, not 50 feet away in a walled compound, lives a member of Iraq’s Commission on Public Integrity and his family.
U.S. forces in the Green Zone have regularly visited Hayam for years, bringing water, Gatorade, candy and toys. The kids light up when the troops arrive.
Her view of the changing Green Zone, gradually being handed back to the Iraqis, is ambivalent. On one hand, she said through a translator, security outside in her native city of Baghdad has improved. But she also expresses concern about the Iraqis taking over after the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement that went into effect Jan. 1 and is to culminate in a pullout of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities by June 30.
She wonders about Green Zone barriers coming down at the Iraqi government’s discretion, possibly exposing her meager existence to outside realities she largely escaped since moving here in 2004.
"It was very easy for us because the Americans helped us," she said of her time in the Green Zone. "We were happy there were so many checkpoints."
She’s not sure how ready she is to put her faith in the city’s progress.
"I get concerned," Hayam said. "Because if (U.S. forces) go, the security goes away, the explosions come back and my children are not safe." Across the street, the Commission on Public Integrity member shuffles inside without comment, but his private security guards view the Green Zone changes differently than Hayam.
One guard points out the 14th of July Bridge and 14th of July Street, both essential traffic arteries for residents through Baghdad that are off limits because of the Green Zone.
"Baghdad’s security has stabilized, and this central area should be opened to normalize the city and better serve Baghdadis," said Thair Mohammad Hassan, one of the security guards.
Hassan said the war was a mixed blessing, but he’s ready for U.S. forces to leave because, "in the streets, they always delay us whenever we go to work."
Despite these differing views, there is one thing both sides agree on: change is coming to the Green Zone. The security handover is beginning to manifest itself.
But it will not immediately morph into the manicured haven of the elite that it was in Saddam Hussein’s day, or even an all-Iraqi zone. U.S. forces, contractors and the State Department will remain in some areas, albeit in smaller numbers.
The fate of many checkpoints and the myriad labyrinth of blast walls and sandbags will be left to the Iraqis. The presidential palace that once housed the U.S. Embassy is already back in Iraqi hands and off limits to U.S. forces. A small media center in the northern zone is being handed back to the Iraqis next month as the soldiers move to Forward Operating Base Prosperity.
While the Green Zone was technically handed over to the Iraqi government on Jan. 1, it is still being determined just how long the U.S. will remain in the Green Zone. The U.S. will continue "limited and temporary support to the Iraqi authorities in the mission of security in the Green Zone," according to Keith Kluwe, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy.
"Such support will continue until it is jointly determined that United States Forces are not needed to assist security in the IZ (International Zone)," Kluwe said in an e-mail. "Those deliberations are an ongoing process and are occurring at the joint subcommittee level. When there are changes to be made, the appropriate public announcements will be made."
Eating breakfast at the Al Rashid Hotel just inside the Green Zone’s north-central wall, Dr. Farhan Bakir, a physician who said he treated Saddam and fled the country in 1981, was unsure what he thought of the hotel if the walls come down.
"It’s not perfect outside," he said. "It’s perfect here."
At a news conference inside the Green Zone earlier this month, Army Brig. Gen. Frederick Rudesheim declined to provide specifics on the zone’s handover to Iraqi forces. The Green Zone’s international flavor makes a handover more complex than in other areas of Baghdad, said Rudesheim, the deputy commander of Multi-National Division—Baghdad.
"There’s a lot more players in this," he said.
"The IZ is an entity that was created for a purpose,""Rudesheim said. "And we’re working diligently to shrink it to the point where it also is handed over to the Iraqis."
Different culture, different rules
Since late last year, Air Force Maj. John Northon has commanded a detachment of about 50 security forces airmen who police what the military refers to as the International Zone, or IZ. His airmen respond to everything from drunken driving calls to fights and other incidents involving the mosaic of nationalities inside these walls.
While the excitement varies day to day, Northon recalled a January incident involving an argument between two British citizens.
One of the men involved threatened the other, Northon said. The man who made the threats was a wannabe security contractor who had lived in the Green Zone for three years with no job as he looked for work.
Upon searching the man’s trailer, Northon recalled, airmen found about 20 weapons.
After the British Embassy wanted nothing to do with the man, only one option remained.
"We seized his credentials, seized his weapons and kicked him out of the Green Zone," Northon said.
Despite the continued international presence here, the geography of the IZ started to change"in January, he said. Certain areas are being opened up, there are more Iraqi-only zones, and the mammoth new U.S. Embassy, what Northon dubs "a concrete college campus," has opened.
The IZ police were based at the palace until it was handed back over and are now located at FOB Blackhawk, which is scheduled to close at some point, he said.
In the end, FOB’s Union and Prosperity, along with the new embassy, should be the only remaining U.S. presence in the Green Zone, Northon said.
Iraqi police are out in greater numbers here, but some days they cannot spare an officer to do a ride-along with Northon’s guys, and their resources are stretched thin.
The Iraqi police are still very reactive, he said, waiting for calls to come in instead of conducting more proactive community policing.
"Different culture, different set of rules," Northon said. "They’re still honing basic skills."
These days, Green Zone policing is about 80 percent U.S. forces, 20 percent Iraqi.
"As we go through June, July, August, it’s going to be 50-50," Northon said. "And as we press on, it’s going to be 80-20 the other way."
For now, the IZ police remain the ultimate arbiter of authority here, he said.
Earlier this year, there was a vehicle collision involving an Iraqi and three British nationals from the embassy.
The Iraqi authorities wanted to question the Brits, but the embassy refused to hand them over, said Airman 1st class Daniel Araiza.
There was a suspicious substance in one Brit’s bag, he recalled. It was suspected to be drugs but turned out to be tobacco.
An Iraqi police lieutenant confiscated it anyway, claiming it was evidence.
Araiza just stood by and watched.