June 20, 2004
The Emerald City
An eye-opening description of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s “Green Zone” in Baghdad, from the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in the prismatic first part of a series on the U.S. occupation of Iraq:
Life inside the high-security Green Zone — what some CPA staffers jokingly call the Emerald City — bears little resemblance to that in the rest of Baghdad. The power is always on. Shiny shuttle buses zip passengers around. Outdoor cafes stay open late into the night.
There is little effort to comply with Islamic traditions. Beer flows freely at restaurants. Women walk around in shorts. Bacon cheeseburgers are on the CPA’s lunch menu.
“It’s like a different planet,” said an Iraqi American who has a senior position in the CPA and lives in the Green Zone but regularly ventures out to see relatives. “It’s cut off from the real Iraq.”
Because the earth-toned GMC Suburbans used by CPA personnel and foreign contractors have become a favored target of insurgents, traveling outside the Green Zone — into the Red Zone that defines the rest of Iraq — requires armored vehicles and armed escorts, which are limited to senior officials. Lower-ranking employees must either remain within the compound or sneak out without a security detail.
Although the CPA has tried to bring Iraqis into the CPA headquarters for meetings and other events — there has even been an “Iraqi Culture Night” in the Green Zone — the inability to mingle with Iraqis has isolated the Americans. “We don’t know the outside,” the senior adviser to Bremer said. “How many of us have gone out to buy a bottle of milk or a pair of socks?”
What a catch-22: You can’t go outside and get your work done ‘cause it’s so dangerous; it’s so dangerous (in part) ‘cause you can’t go outside and get your work done. For example:
The Daura Power Plant in southern Baghdad was supposed to be a model of the U.S. effort to rebuild Iraq. Bombed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and neglected by Hussein’s government, the station could operate at no more than a quarter of its rated capacity, leading to prolonged blackouts in the capital.
After CPA specialists toured the decrepit facility last summer, they vowed to bring it back to life. German and Russian firms were hired to make repairs, and it was placed atop a list of priority projects intended to achieve a 6,000-megawatt goal for national electricity production. More power, Bremer hoped, would improve the economy and daily life enough to reduce violence and stabilize Iraq.
Today, the Daura plant is indeed a model — of how the U.S. reconstruction effort has failed to meet its goals.
The German contractors fled for their safety in April. The Russians departed in late May, after two of their colleagues were shot to death by insurgents as they approached the plant in a minivan.
Inside the facility, parts are strewn on the floor, awaiting installation. Iraqi technicians in blue coveralls lounge around, smoking cigarettes and waiting for guidance. In the turbine room, graffiti on the wall reads: “Long Live the Resistance.”
The CPA intended for the Daura plant to be producing more than 500 megawatts of power by June 1. But the best it can do at the moment is 100 megawatts — half of its output of last summer.
“We were supposed to have improved,” said Bashir Khallaf, the plant director. “But we have gotten worse.”
I finally got around to reading James Fallows’ “Blind Into Baghdad” from the January Atlantic, which makes it clear that things could have been very different from the beginning.
Also, WTF?: “The job of reorganizing Baghdad’s stock exchange, which has not reopened, was given in September to a 24-year-old who had sought a job at the White House.”