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St. Petersburg Times June 21, 2006

Baghdad observations: fear, danger, suffering

A memo sent by the U.S. ambassador to Condoleezza Rice tells of deteriorating conditions, including in the Green Zone.

By Susan Taylor Martin

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq three years ago, Baghdad’s Green Zone has been an island of relative tranquility — a 4-square-mile area where U.S. officials and their Iraqi colleagues work in something close to normalcy as violence rages outside.

But even this massively fortified complex appears at risk from the militias that control ever larger swaths of the country.

In a chilling memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad reports that Iraqi guards in the Green Zone are growing “more militia-like, in some cases seemingly taunting.”

As one Iraqi employee of the U.S. Embassy entered the zone, guards held up her badge and loudly proclaimed “Embassy” to passers-by. “Such information is a death sentence if overheard by the wrong people,” the memo notes.

Titled Snapshots from the Office and reprinted Sunday in the Washington Post, the memo outlines the everyday perils and hardships faced by the nine Iraqis who work in public affairs for the embassy. Though they are just part of the staff, they aren’t the only ones suffering in a city where life outside the Green Zone has “visibly deteriorated” and become ''emotionally draining,” the memo suggests.

The memo is dated June 6, two days before a U.S. missile strike killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida in Iraq leader responsible for thousands of killings. That the insurgency remains alive and well despite his death was underscored by Tuesday’s discovery of two American soldiers reportedly tortured and murdered by Zarqawi’s successor.

Although Iraq has 265,000 trained security forces who — at least in theory — provide important backup for coalition troops, Iraqis are turning to heavily armed militias for protection. But the militias — loyal only to various Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions — are themselves threatening the country’s stability.

“Personal safety depends on good relations with the 'neighborhood’ governments, who barricade streets and ward off outsiders,” the ambassador’s memo says. “The central government is not relevant; even local (clerics) have been displaced or co-opted by militias. People no longer trust most neighbors,” fearing they might be alasas, as informants are known.

U.S. media are constantly criticized for not reporting the “good news” in Iraq. But judging from the bleak memo, even Iraqis find little to be positive about:

- “One woman in the embassy’s public affairs office said the taxi driver who takes her to work every day told her he couldn’t let her ride unless she wore a head cover. Another staffer said some groups are pushing women to cover their faces, “a step not taken in Iran even at its most conservative.”

Still other employees report that it is now dangerous for men and children to wear shorts in public. People clad in jeans reportedly have been attacked by members of the ultraconservative Wahhabi sect and supporters of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

- An embassy staff member said one of her neighbors, a Kurd, was evicted from her home of 30 years in apparent retaliation for Kurds evicting Arabs in other parts of Iraq.

“An Arab newspaper editor told us he is preparing an extensive survey of ethnic cleansing, which he said is now taking place in almost every Iraqi province, as political parties and their militias are seemingly engaged in tit-for-tat reprisals all over Iraq.”

- Sectarian tension is great even within families. “One Shiite employee told us she can no longer watch TV news with her mother, who is Sunni, because her mother blamed all government failings on the fact that Shiites are now in charge.” Many of her relatives have left Iraq, convinced that “the future here is too bleak.”

- As the temperature in Baghdad soared to 115 last month, the embassy’s public affairs employees had just four hours of power a day. All nine employees said they were forced to augment city power with electricity purchased at steep cost from privately owned generators.

One staffer, though, recounted the good fortune of a friend who lives in a building that houses a new Iraqi minister: Within 24 hours of his appointment, the building had round-the-clock power. But another staff member said he feels “defeated,” unable to help his asthmatic 2-year-old son who can’t sleep in the stifling heat.

- Although Iraq has the world’s fourth-richest oil reserves, gas is in such short supply that one employee had to wait 12 hours to fill up his car.

- Embassy employees are scared to let anyone — even relatives — know they work for Americans. “We cannot call employees on weekends or holidays without blowing their 'cover,’” the memo says. Some staffers are afraid to take their American cell phones home because it makes them a target. Others communicate only in Arabic, using code names.

So paranoid have Iraqi staffers become that the U.S. Embassy has been unable to use any of them as translators at on-camera press events in the last six months.

“Although our staff retain a professional demeanor, strains are apparent,” the memo concludes. “We see that their personal fears are reinforcing divisive sectarian or ethnic channels, despite talk of reconciliation by officials.

”Paradoxically, the more conditions worsen, the more Americans seem to tune out. Even last week’s congressional debate on Iraq — in which the Republican-dominated House refused to set a timetable for U.S.-withdrawal — failed to stir much interest.“

People would pay attention if they thought something was going to change, if they thought there were real policy options,” says John Pike, head of GlobalSecurity.org, a military think tank.

“But the administration’s policy is to stay the course and the alternative is 'out now,’ and out now is not seriously in play. The big debate Congress had didn’t get a rise out of anybody; it was a one-day wonder.”


Copyright 2006, St. Petersburg Times.