Americans in Green Zone under siege

Fighting between militants and the Iraqi government has threatened what was once the best-secured district in Baghdad.

Published March 28, 2008 3:00PM (EDT)

Sarah is not the type of woman who loses her cool very easily. As an employee of the U.S. State Department, she has 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 U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where she is responsible for the security of high-ranking guests.

Since Tuesday, it has 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 Hoff, a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party, and high-ranking Iraqi politicians, including former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, have to be canceled "for security reasons."

The attacks on the "I.Z.," or "International Zone," as the U.S. military has dubbed the former Karkh neighborhood, represent one of the biggest challenges to the American forces in Iraq to date. The enclave covers fewer than seven square kilometers (2.7 square miles) and houses the headquarters of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 insurgent 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 I.Z.

The unrest in the Green Zone continued Thursday. Reuters reported that a giant column of black smoke could be seen near the U.S. Embassy after what was believed to be a mortar strike on a former palace of Saddam that 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 U.S. civilians, were wounded by mortar attacks in the Green Zone Wednesday.

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 there, and to the most important ministries. The Iraqi 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 had 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 past 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 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."

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-Dabbagh cautiously puts it. Al-Dabbagh, 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-Dabbagh 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.

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 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 of dollars -- much to the chagrin of 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 movable ramps and then immediately disappear into the densely populated neighborhoods.

Officials on the grounds of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, to the U.S. Embassy. The small German delegation will be flown out Thursday -- ahead of schedule.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.

By Dieter Bednarz

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George W. Bush Iran Iraq Iraq War Middle East Terrorism