Rajiv Chandrasekaran / The Guardian – 2007-02-19 00:10:50
(February 19, 2007) — Unlike almost anywhere else in Baghdad, you could dine at the cafeteria in the Republican Palace in the heart of the Green Zone for six months and never eat hummus, flatbread, or a lamb kebab. The palace was the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American occupation administration in Iraq, and the food was always American, often with a Southern flavour.
A buffet featured grits, cornbread and a bottomless barrel of pork: sausage for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, pork chops for dinner. The cafeteria was all about meeting American needs for high-calorie, high-fat comfort food.
None of the succulent tomatoes or crisp cucumbers grown in Iraq made it into the salad bar. US government regulations dictated that everything, even the water in which hot dogs were boiled, be shipped in from approved suppliers in other nations. Milk and bread were trucked in from Kuwait, as were tinned peas and carrots. The breakfast cereal was flown in from the US.
When the Americans arrived, the engineers assigned to transform Saddam’s palace into the seat of the American occupation chose a marble-floored conference room the size of a gymnasium to serve as the mess hall.
Halliburton Runs the Palace
Halliburton, the defence contractor hired to run the palace, brought in dozens of tables, hundreds of stacking chairs and a score of glass-covered buffets. Seven days a week, the Americans ate under Saddam’s crystal chandeliers.
A mural of the World Trade Centre adorned one of the entrances. The twin towers were framed within the outstretched wings of a bald eagle. Each branch of the US military – the army, air force, marines and navy – had its seal on a different corner of the mural. In the middle were the logos of the New York City police and fire departments, and on top of the towers were the words, “Thank God for the coalition forces & freedom fighters at home and abroad.”
At another of the three entrances was a bulletin board with posted notices, including those that read:
• Bible study: Wednesdays at 7pm.
• Go running with the hash house harriers!
• Feeling stressed? Come visit us at the combat stress clinic.
• For sale: like-new hunting knife.
• Lost camera. Reward offered.
The seating was as tribal as that at a high-school cafeteria. The Iraqi support staffers kept to themselves. They loaded their lunch trays with enough calories for three meals. Soldiers, private contractors and mercenaries also segregated themselves. So did the representatives of the “coalition of the willing” – the Brits, the Aussies, the Poles, the Spaniards, and the Italians.
The Cliques of the Occupiers
The American civilians who worked for the occupation government had their own cliques: the big-shot political appointees, the twentysomethings fresh out of college, the old hands who had arrived in Baghdad in the first weeks of occupation.
In conversation at their tables, they observed an unspoken protocol. It was always appropriate to praise “the mission” – the Bush administration’s campaign to transform Iraq into a peaceful, modern, secular democracy where everyone, regardless of sect or ethnicity, would get along.
Tirades about how Saddam had ruined the country and descriptions of how you were going to resuscitate it were also fine. But unless you knew someone really, really well, you didn’t question American policy over a meal.
If you had a complaint about the cafeteria, Michael Cole was the man to see. He was Halliburton’s “customer-service liaison”, and he could explain why the salad bar didn’t have Iraqi produce or why pork kept appearing on the menu. Cole was a rail-thin 22-year-old whose forehead was dotted with pimples.
He had been out of college for less than a year and was working as a junior aide to a Republican congressman from Virginia when a Halliburton vice-president overheard him talking to friends in an Arlington bar about his dealings with irate constituents. She was so impressed that she introduced herself. If she needed someone to work as a valet in Baghdad, he joked, he’d be happy to volunteer.
Three weeks later, Halliburton offered him a job. Then they asked for his CV.
Cole’s mission was to keep the air in the bubble, to ensure that the Americans who had left home to work for the occupation administration felt comfortable. Food was part of it. But so were movies, mattresses and laundry service. If he was asked for something, Cole tried to get it, whether he thought it important or not.
Americans in Charge
From April 2003 until June 2004, the CPA ran Iraq’s government – it enacted laws, printed currency, collected taxes, deployed police and spent oil revenue. At its height, the CPA had more than 1,500 employees in Baghdad, most of them American. It was headed by America’s viceroy in Iraq, Lewis Paul Bremer III, who always wore a blue suit and tan combat boots, even on those summer days when Iraqis drooped in the heat.
He was surrounded by burly, sub-machine gun-toting bodyguards everywhere he went, even to the bathroom in the palace. The palace was Saddam’s Versailles on the Tigris. Constructed of sandstone and marble, it had wide hallways, soaring columns and spiral staircases.
Massive bronze busts of Saddam in an Arab warrior’s headdress looked down from the four corners of the roof. The cafeteria was on the south side, next to a chapel with a billboard-size mural of a Scud missile arcing into the sky.
Whatever could be outsourced, was. The job of setting up town and city councils was performed by a North Carolina firm for $236m [£121m]. The job of guarding the viceroy was assigned to private guards, each of whom made more than $1,000 [£513] a day. For running the palace – cooking the food, changing the lightbulbs, doing the laundry, watering the plants – Halliburton had been handed hundreds of millions of dollars.
Baghdad’s Little America
The Green Zone was Baghdad’s Little America. Everyone who worked in the palace lived there, either in white metal trailers or in the towering al-Rasheed hotel. Hundreds of private contractors working for firms including Bechtel, General Electric and Halliburton set up trailer parks there, as did legions of private security guards hired to protect the contractors.
The only Iraqis allowed inside the Green Zone were those who worked for the Americans or those who could prove that they had resided there before the war. Saddam had surrounded the area with a tall brick wall. There were only three points of entry. All the military had to do was park tanks at the gates.
Americans drove around in new GMC Suburbans, dutifully obeying the 35mph speed limit signs posted by the CPA on the flat, wide streets. When they cruised around, they kept the air-conditioning on high and the radio tuned to 107.7 FM – Freedom Radio, an American-run station that played classic rock and rah-rah messages. Every two weeks, the vehicles were cleaned at a Halliburton car wash.
Shuttle buses looped around the Green Zone at 20-minute intervals, stopping at wooden shelters to transport those who didn’t have cars and didn’t want to walk. There was daily mail delivery. Generators ensured that the lights were always on. If you didn’t like what was being served in the cafeteria – or you were feeling peckish between meals — you could get a takeaway from one of the Green Zone’s Chinese restaurants. Halliburton’s dry-cleaning service would get the dust and sweat stains out of your khakis in three days. A sign warned patrons to remove ammunition from pockets before submitting clothes.
Iraqi laws and customs didn’t apply inside the Green Zone. Women jogged on the pavement in shorts and T-shirts. A liquor store sold imported beer, wine and spirits. One of the Chinese restaurants offered massages as well as noodles. The young boys selling DVDs near the palace parking lot had a secret stash. “Mister, you want porno?” they whispered to me.
Most of the CPA’s staff had never worked outside the United States. More than half, according to one estimate, had got their first passport in order to travel to Iraq. If they were going to survive in Baghdad, they needed the same sort of bubble that American oil companies had built for their workers in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Indonesia.
“It feels like a little America,” Mark Schroeder said as we sat by the pool on a scorching afternoon, sipping water bottled in the United Arab Emirates. Schroeder, who was 24 at the time, had been working for a Republican congressman in Washington when he heard that the CPA needed more staff. He sent his résumé to the Pentagon. A few months later, he was in the Republican Palace.
He was an essential-services analyst. He compiled a weekly report for Bremer with bar graphs and charts that showed the CPA’s progress in key sectors. Schroeder lived in a trailer with three roommates and ate all his meals in the mess hall.
On Thursdays, he’d hitch a ride with a friend to the al-Rasheed’s disco or another bar. In the two and a half months since he had arrived in Baghdad, he had left the Green Zone only once – and that was to travel to Camp Victory, the US headquarters near the airport.
When he needed to buy something, he went to the PX, the military-run convenience store next to the palace. There he could pick up Fritos, Cheetos, Dr Pepper, protein powder, Operation Iraqi Freedom T-shirts and pop CDs. If the PX didn’t have what he wanted, he’d go to the Green Zone Bazaar, a small pedestrian mall with 70 shops operated by Iraqis who lived in the Green Zone.
The Green Zone Bazaar
The bazaar had been built so that Americans wouldn’t have to leave the Green Zone to purchase trinkets and sundries. Several shops sold mobile phones and bootlegged DVDs. Others hawked only-in-Iraq items: old army uniforms, banknotes with Saddam’s face,
Iraqi flags with the words “God is great” in Saddam’s handwriting. My favourite was the JJ Store for Arab Photos, the Iraqi version of a wild-west photo booth at Disneyland: you could get a picture of yourself in Arab robes and a headdress.
The Green Zone also provided its own good time. The CPA had a “morale officer” who organised salsa dancing lessons, yoga classes and movie screenings in the palace theatre. There was a gym with the same treadmills and exercise machines you would find in any high-end health club in America.
Even in the first months after the fall of Saddam’s government, Schroeder was incredulous when I told him that I lived in what he and others called the Red Zone, that I drove around without a security detail, that I ate at local restaurants, that I visited Iraqis in their homes. “What’s it like out there?” he asked.
I described the pleasure of walking through al-Shorja market, and of having tea in cafes in the old quarter. I spoke about discussions of Iraqi culture and history that occurred when I went to the homes of my Iraqi friends for lunch. The more I talked, the more I felt like an extraterrestrial describing life on another planet.
From inside the Green Zone, the real Baghdad — the checkpoints, the bombed-out buildings, the paralysing traffic jams — could have been a world away. The horns, the gunshots, the muezzin’s call to prayer, never drifted over the walls. The fear on the faces of US troops was rarely seen by the denizens of the palace. The acrid smoke of a detonated car bomb didn’t fill the air.
The sub-Saharan privation and wild-west lawlessness that gripped one of the world’s most ancient cities swirled around the walls, but on the inside, the calm sterility of a US subdivision prevailed.
Bombings Fail to Disturb the Coccooned Americans
One morning, as a throng of Shia pilgrims jostled their way inside the Imam Kadhim shrine in northern Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt. A second bomber waited round the corner and set off his belt when survivors ran away from the first blast. Then a third bomber blew himself up.
And a fourth. The courtyard of the shrine filled with smoke and the screams of the dying. Blood pooled on the concrete floor. Dazed young men staggered about seeking help. Other survivors stacked the maimed on to wooden carts and pushed them toward wailing ambulances.
When I arrived at the scene an hour later, I saw corpses covered with white sheets. Arms and fingers had been blown onto third-story balconies. Piles of shoes belonging to the dead dotted the floor. Later, I saw dozens of bodies piled outside the morgue, covered with blue sheets, rotting under the sun.
That evening, I met a group of CPA staffers for dinner in the palace. Nobody mentioned the bombings. The shrine was just a few miles north of the Green Zone, no more than a 10-minute drive away. Had they heard about what had happened? Did they know dozens had died?
“Yeah, I saw something about it on the office television,” said the man to my right. “But I didn’t watch the full report. I was too busy working on my democracy project”
Party on the tigris: sports bars, disco balls and sexual tension
General Order 1 prohibited military personnel from consuming alcohol in Iraq, but it did not apply to CPA staffers. Drinking quickly became the most popular after-work activity.
A Bar for Becthel, a Saloon for the CIA
The Green Zone had no fewer than seven watering holes: the Halliburton-run sports bar in the basement of the al-Rasheed hotel, which had a big-screen television along with its Foosball table; the CIA’s rattan-furnished bar – by invitation only – which had a mirrored disco ball and a games room; the pub in the British housing complex where the beer was served warm and graffiti mocked the Americans; the rooftop bar for General Electric contractors; a trailer tavern operated by Bechtel, the engineering firm; the Green Zone cafe, where you could smoke a water pipe and listen to a live Arab drummer as you drank; and the al-Rasheed’s disco, which was the place to be seen on Thursday nights.
A sign at the door requested patrons not to bring firearms inside. Scores of CPA staffers, including women who had had the foresight to pack hot pants and four-inch heels, danced on an illuminated Ba’ath party star embedded in the floor.
The atmosphere was thick with sexual tension. At the bar, there were usually 10 men to every woman. With tours of duty that sometimes stretched to six months without a home leave, some with wedding rings began to refer to themselves as “operationally single.”
This is an edited extract from Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, published next month by Bloomsbury. To order the book for £11.99 (rrp £12.99) with free uk p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.