Progress in Iraq? U.S. Embassy workers describe their lives

The Washington Post obtains a "sensitive" memo that underscores the problems in Baghdad.

Published June 19, 2006 5:29PM (EDT)

The secrecy surrounding George W. Bush's surprise trip to Baghdad last week ought to tell Americans everything they need to know about conditions in Iraq. If the president has to keep his travel plans secret from Iraq's prime minister and from his own attorney general, then it's probably safe to say that the corner -- whatever it is -- still hasn't been turned.

But if anyone needs a more detailed picture of conditions on the ground in Iraq, the Washington Post has it. The Post's Al Kamen has obtained a "sensitive" memo from the public affairs office of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that offers "snapshots" of what life is like for its Iraqi employees who live outside the Green Zone.

The entire memo is available here. Among the highlights, such as they are:

Women's rights: Female employees report increasing "harassment" over what they wear and how they act; they say they have been told to stop wearing Western clothes, to cover their heads and faces in public, and to stop using cellphones.

Electricity and gasoline: With temperatures in Baghdad reaching 115 degrees, many embassy employees report that their homes have electricity for only four to eight hours each day. One central Baghdad neighborhood has had no government-supplied electricity for a month, and embassy employees report waiting in line for as long as 12 hours to fill their cars with gasoline.

Threats against embassy employees: Some embassy employees fear that sectarian militia members now control the entrances to the Green Zone. Of nine Iraqis who worked in the public affairs office in March, five kept their employment secret from their own families out of fear for their safety. For the same reason, the embassy often cannot contact its employees at home during off-duty hours and cannot use them to help translate events when cameras might be present.

Risks from informants: Embassy employees report that they "daily assess how to move safely in public." Sometimes that requires adopting the clothes and "lingo" of a particular neighborhood in order to avoid attention from "alasas," or informants. "The Alasa mentality is becoming entrenched as Iraqi security forces fail to gain public confidence," the memo's authors write.

In sum, the memo's authors say that the conditions outside the Green Zone continue to make their work inside it extremely difficult: "Although our staff retain a professional demeanor, strains are apparent," they say. "We see that their personal fears are reinforcing divisive sectarian or ethnic challenges, despite talk of reconciliation by officials. Employees are apprehensive enough that we fear they may exaggerate developments or steer us towards news that comports with their own worldview. Objectivity, civility, and logic that make for a functional workplace may falter if social pressures outside the Green Zone don't abate."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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