BAGHDAD -- They call it the "Green Zone" but I prefer to think of it as the Kremlin.
The nine-square-mile "International Zone" -- mostly Saddam's former playground -- is supposed to be our "secure" portion of Baghdad. In a way it is. You can obtain boxes of dry cereal, take a hot shower and go to sleep without worrying that the bad guys will do anything more than drop a few mortars in now and then. "Those guys can't aim," says one sergeant dismissively.
But that's about it. Otherwise, paranoia rules. Doing anything more ambitious than walking down the hall to the men's room requires elaborate security measures. I'm in the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) -- one of Saddam's former villas -- and nobody ventures far without an armed escort.
Richard Houghton III and Patrick McDonald, two former military men, have published an informal "Visitor's Guide to Baghdad's International Zone" (the "Green Zone" is only a nickname), which has become a popular download. It offers advice like this:
Many of the places mentioned in this booklet are off-limits to the casual traveler....As with many facilities in Iraq, entering any compound or guarded building must be done with extreme caution. Guards, whether military or civilian, can shoot first then ask questions....While traveling you should at all times observe the force protection posture of the facility or base you are entering and be aware of ingress and egress routes, shelters, and safe areas wherever you go. The biggest threat in the IZ is indirect fire and missile and mortar attacks. You should plan accordingly before venturing out.
And remember, this is the safe part of Baghdad. The rest of the city -- the "Red Zone" -- is completely off-limits to anyone except armored vehicles and military patrols. "You'd be out of your mind to go out there," says one press employee.
Of course, all this is subject to exceptions and eccentricities. I got here at 2 a.m. Saturday morning, for example, and woke up at 7 a.m. to find a gaggle of reporters heading for the international conference at the Iraq Foreign Ministry, just outside the IZ. Iran and the U.S. were sitting down for the first time in four years, so I decided to tag along.
We crossed the street to pick up a few other reporters at the Ramadi Hotel when somebody said, "Hey, you don't have your press badge. They won't let you in without one." Where do I get a press badge? "Back at CPIC but they don't open until 9. Do you have your passport?" Whoops, I left that in my other shirt pocket as well. "They may not even let you back into CPIC without it."
We march back across the street and are met by the Peruvian guards who -- bizarrely -- only speak Spanish. They look at my homemade Spectator ID and wave me off -- sorry, no admittance. "Passport?" -- the only English they seem to know. "That's back in my room," I gesture. Of course it's no use.
Fortunately, one of the reporters knows Spanish and starts to negotiate. Do I have any other form of picture ID? Well, I have my New York State driver's license. He compares the pictures, shakes his head again. Sorry, no good.
The other reporters are getting restless. If they don't get to the foreign ministry by 7:30, they won't get in. I imagine myself standing outside the press building all day waiting for someone to let me in. The reporter tries again. Do I have any other form of picture ID?
Well, come to think of it, I have a Prospect Park YMCA membership card that also has a color photo. I show it to the guard. He waves me in. They don't even notice it's expired. I have to send the Y a check when I get back.
Actually, I'm glad it happened. The reporters weren't allowed in the conference and spent all day doing nothing. The only newsworthy event came when the bad guys took the opportunity to lob fire a rocket into the foreign ministry. We felt the impact half a mile away.
THE AMERICAN PRESENCE IN IRAQ feels like a military occupation, pure and simple. All the fine rhetoric about "establishing freedom and democracy" is now long forgotten. Safety and security are the only issues, and people who've been around a long time say it's going from bad to worse.
"I was out with an infantry patrol last week," says one reporter. "One day they fought the Sunnis, the next day it was the Shi'ites, and on the third day they had to fight the Army of God, a Shi'ite splinter group that had stockpiled huge stores of ammunition. They called in an air strike and blew them all away, women included. The question in my mind is, if we have to fight all these different groups, who are our friends here?"
The patrolling in Sadr City has gone well the first few days, but it's only a matter of time before some incident sets things off. It's unavoidable when you're trying to establish security and win the "hearts and minds of the people" at the same time.
"I was with a platoon in Sadr City last week," recounts one British reporter. "We did the usual things -- banged down doors, tore the place apart looking for weapons, and generally terrorized the occupants. Then the commanding officer arrived. He made a very big deal of standing at the door and wiping his shoes before entering. Then he turns to the translator and says, 'Tell them, "Thank you for your hospitality."'"
Sure it was worth knocking out Saddam and there have been big benefits from the initial invasion -- convincing Libya to give up terrorism and revealing the nuclear cabal in Pakistan. The problem seems to have come with what historians call "imperial overreach." It wasn't enough to depose Saddam and hand the country back to the Iraqis -- we had to first remake it in our own image.
I just finished Imperial Life in the Emerald City, the account of four years in the Green Zone by Washington Post bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Like everyone else, Chandrasekaran believes the intentions were good but the execution has been terrible. He offers the example of our efforts to remake the Baghdad Stock Exchange.
The Iraqis had an age-old system, built mostly around hand-written transactions and people's word. It had worked for decades. The Coalition Provisional Authority was eager to get it back up after the invasion but decided to remake it in the process. Somehow the job ended up in the hands of a 24-year-old honcho who had applied for a White House job and convinced someone he knew all about stock exchanges. The 24-year-old spent almost a year trying to build a completely electronic system -- "the most transparent stock exchange in the world" -- before finally settling for what was essentially the same old system. The heroic effort delayed the reopening a year, and meanwhile most of the businesses drifted away.
That mistake has been repeated over and over. The most catastrophic decision, everyone seems to agree, was "de-Baathification" -- the decision to decapitate the police force and disband the army in order to purge the veterans of Saddam's regime. "I did an interview with some former Baath officials a year later and every one of them was now in the insurgency," says one veteran reporter. The decision was Paul Bremer's and Paul Bremer's alone. Everyone in the military, the State Department -- and even President Bush himself -- seems to have disagreed. But the impulse is the same as everyone else's -- wipe out the past and re-create Iraq in our own image.
ON MONDAY MORNING, BRIGADIER GENERAL Dana Pittard, commander of the Iraq Assistance Group, held a press conference at CPIC. Because it was right across the hall, I was able to attend. Pittard is a modest, persuasive African American who reels off the names of assistant Iraqi police captains in Anbar Province like a well-prompted TV anchorman. You couldn't find a better spokesman for our country. Patiently he answered reporters' questions about whether the Iraqi army is performing up to expectations, whether they are sharing intelligence, whether ethnic rivalries still predominate.
Finally, I decide to ask a question. "General Pittard, a lot of people feel the turning point here occurred with de-Baathification. Without commenting on the past, can you tell us if there's anything that might be called 'de-de-Baathification' going on where people are forgetting about the past and allowing members of the former regime to rejoin the ranks."
It turns out there is. "I myself thought de-Baathification was way overdone -- way, way overdone," said General Pittard. "But Prime Minister Maliki met with a group of former Baath officers last week and urged them to rejoin the army. So we may be making some progress in that direction."
In fact, the best strategy right now might be to undo a few more rifts of the past few years. One of the most visible symbols of the unraveling is the Golden Dome of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, which still lies in ruins since Musab al-Zarqawi blew it up a year ago. The Sunnis (who predominate in Samarra) rebelled when Muqtada Al-Sadr's Shi'ite militia showed up announcing they were going to rebuild it. Samarra's Sunni have tended the mosque for centuries and actually cherished it since it brought lots of Shi'ite tourists. But they bridled at the arrival of the Shi'ite militia and feared it would lead to a "Shi'ification" of their city.
If the Iraqi government and America's occupying army wanted to kick off a reconciliation, they could hardly do better than to arrange a deal where Sunni and Shi'ites could work together in rebuilding the shrine without the militia. Instead, the city remains a hotbed of interethnic strife.
Or at least that's what they tell me. I'm headed up there to begin my embedment with the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne.