Iraq’s Green Zone Turns Redder by the Day

It was supposed to be the safest patch of land in Iraq, but instead is slowly succumbing to the creeping dangers stalking the rest of the country.

Baghdad’s Green Zone, home to thousands of U.S., British and other coalition officials, as well as the headquarters of the U.S. military and the interim Iraqi government, was set up as an impregnable fortress against the mayhem outside.

In the beginning, the “Green” stood for healthy, protected, ready-to-go. Everything outside was dubbed the “Red Zone” — unhealthy, dangerous, best not to go.

Ringed by 12-foot-high concrete blast walls and defended by U.S. tanks and machineguns, off-duty U.S. soldiers and others on the inside could once happily jog along palm-lined avenues, past grandiose palaces, safe in their bubble. Although insurgents occasionally lobbed mortars into the four-square-mile complex, once Saddam Hussein’s presidential compound, on the west bank of the Tigris river, they did little damage and life was largely unaffected.

But over the past year, and especially in recent weeks, life in the Green Zone has grown steadily more precarious.

“It’s definitely getting riskier,” said one British official who lives and works in the zone but declined to be named.

“Sometimes it feels like you’re living on a firing range, or on a really well-defended but dangerous housing estate.”

One of the first signs of trouble came in October 2003, when insurgents rocketed the zone’s Rashid Hotel while U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying there.

The attack, in which a U.S. colonel was killed, indicated the growing intelligence capability of the guerrillas.

Kidnap Plot Foiled

In the last six months U.S. troops have carried out dozens of raids inside the Green Zone, targeting the estimated 10,000 Iraqis who live within its fortifications. Scores of arrests were made and some families moved out.

Last month it emerged that Iraqi police had arrested four people on charges of plotting to kidnap two U.S. officials inside the zone, which houses U.S., British and other diplomats.

It was the first known plot to kidnap U.S. staff inside the zone, according to USA Today, which first reported the story.

The plan was hatched by an Iraqi translator who worked with one of the targets, security officials said. Two of the other suspects worked for a Western firm based inside the zone.

Since the plot was foiled, the U.S. and British embassies have put out a kidnap warning to all staff, and urged people not to travel alone within the compound, by day or night.

“You’re supposed to be safe in here, but you’re always looking over your shoulder. The Green Zone is huge, people can get in, it’s not impossible to be kidnapped in here,” said a British executive who works for the Iraqi government.

Last week, a bomb was defused outside one of the complex’s more popular restaurants, a ramshackle joint called the Green Zone Cafe, frequented by scores of soldiers, contractors, embassy and security staff.

It was believed to be the first live bomb defused in the area, although there have been car bomb scares in the past.

Crowds no longer gather at the Green Zone’s other popular haunts — two Chinese restaurants and a pizza parlor.

The threat partly stems from the thousands of Iraqi families who live in the area, some of whom, security experts say, are clearly bent on hitting at foreign interlopers if they can. The Iraqi government is considering moving all the families out.

But there is also a threat from the thousands of Iraqi translators and sub-contractors who enter the zone every day for work. Checks are carried out on all of them, but it is impossible to stop security badges being passed around.

Some residents of the Green Zone say it is only matter of time before someone is abducted or a bomb goes off.

“We’re steadily looking like the rest of Iraq,” said a British embassy official.

© Reuters 2004. All Rights Reserved.