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No Smoking in the Green Zone

No smoking sign
Lukasz Witczak

There have been a bunch of books about the mistakes made after the American invasion of Baghdad, George Packer's Assassin's Gate and Thomas Ricks' Fiasco being the two best in my opinion.

Yesterday, the Washington Post published an excerpt from Rajiv Chandrasekaran's effort. He was their bureau chief there for a few years and his book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, will be released tomorrow.

I haven't read the book, but the excerpt is as damning as anything could be. It outlines how people were recruited to serve in the Coalition Provisional Authority, the group that ran Iraq right after the invasion. Instead of qualifications in Arabic or post-conflict experience or anything, Chandrasekaran reports that the key item on anyone's resume was ties to the Republican Party.

One little bit in the piece explains something that baffled me at the time. Here's the quote about James K. Haveman Jr., who was put in charge of Iraq's health care system:

Haveman arrived in Iraq with his own priorities. He liked to talk about the number of hospitals that had reopened since the war and the pay raises that had been given to doctors instead of the still-decrepit conditions inside the hospitals or the fact that many physicians were leaving for safer, better paying jobs outside Iraq. He approached problems the way a health care administrator in America would: He focused on preventive measures to reduce the need for hospital treatment.
He urged the Health Ministry to mount an anti-smoking campaign, and he assigned an American from the CPA team — who turned out to be a closet smoker himself — to lead the public education effort. Several members of Haveman's staff noted wryly that Iraqis faced far greater dangers in their daily lives than tobacco. The CPA's limited resources, they argued, would be better used raising awareness about how to prevent childhood diarrhea and other fatal maladies.

Iraqis smoke. I have no idea what the percentage is countrywide, but the idea of a no-smoking area hasn't really penetrated. The convention center in the Green Zone (where the new Iraqi parliament meets) is one of the ugliest buildings I've ever seen, a massive concrete structure that looks like a fortress. For years after the invasion, the building was a no-smoking zone. Uptight Americans would reprimand everyone who lit up, including Iraqi political leaders. A group of Iraqi politicians and aides would gather and look guiltily around until they hit a crucial number — maybe 15 or so — then everyone would light up at once. It was a weird sight. And then some American would tell them to put it out. Now, this is in the building that is the center of the new Iraqi government and the politicians were told by low-level hacks to not smoke. And, of course, the smoking area outside occasionally got hit by mortars.

I am happy to report though, that the new government has now installed ashtrays in the convention center and parliamentarians can now smoke in peace, and maybe try to grapple with some real issues.