A Journey Inside Iraq's Green Zone Baghdad's Green Zone is the heavily guarded city-within-a-city where Iraq's transitional government, the U.S. embassy and thousands of foreign contractors are based.

A Journey Inside Iraq's Green Zone

A Journey Inside Iraq's Green Zone

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Baghdad's Green Zone is the heavily guarded city-within-a-city where Iraq's transitional government, the U.S. embassy and thousands of foreign contractors are based.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Now a trip inside Baghdad's Green Zone. The fortified compound occupies four square miles of prime real estate in the center of town. It's a tightly sealed city within a city where the US Embassy and the Iraqi government are based, along with thousands of American troops and contractors. The US government has refused to give official tours to journalists, so NPR's Anne Garrels took an unofficial one.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

It's a Thursday night, the beginning of Iraq's weekend when the denizens of the Green Zone are said to party. A friend, who must remain anonymous lest she lose her job, has the necessary credentials and escorted me into what can only be described as the ultimate gated community.

Unidentified Woman: On the left, we got the CIA compound. On the right, we have the BearingPoint compound. And then on the left, we have Bechtel, Bechtel, the engineering company.

GARRELS: Companies doing reconstruction and companies hired to protect them; companies which provide supplies and those who protect them. And then there are the bureaucrats who oversee the tens of thousands of contracts all of this generates; forts within forts, dozens of them, surrounded by 14-foot concrete blast walls.

Unidentified Woman: I bet you they have enough concrete right here in these T barriers to supply half the building construction in Iraq.

GARRELS: Though attacks here are down from a year ago, security is tighter than ever. There are regular checkpoints.

Unidentified Woman: How's it going?

Unidentified Man #1: Good. Yourselves?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, I'm all right. Just going to the (unintelligible).

GARRELS: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #1: All right. You have a good night.

Unidentified Woman: All right. Take care.

GARRELS: With the exception of a few key spots manned by the Marines, security is in the hands of private contractors. The guards come from all over: Fiji, Sri Lanka and now Iraqi forces are taking over some areas, though US officials are concerned about infiltration by insurgents.

Unidentified Woman: Another checkpoint. This time it's the Gurkhas. Watch this. (Nepalese spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Nepalese spoken) Thank you, ma'am. Thanks.

GARRELS: Whether it's her rudimentary Nepalese, her smile or the green stripe on her badge, we get waved through without adieu.

Unidentified Woman: And this is kind of the general shopping area.

GARRELS: A PX catering to basic needs, plus a Burger King, a Subway and an espresso bar, our ill-fated destination.

Unidentified Woman: Hi.

(Soundbite of music)

CLAUDIA: No water.

Unidentified Woman: No coffee? No coffee?

CLAUDIA: No coffee. No water. I'm sorry.

GARRELS: Hired as a waitress by some contractor, 20-year-old Claudia(ph) is a blonde from Romania. Given the shortage of women, it's fair to assume she has a pretty active social life here.

(Soundbite of compound activity)

GARRELS: Next stop, the Blue Star Cafe(ph). Business is far from bustling because the Department of Defense has put the few private restaurants here off bounds for their direct employees citing unspecified threats. Thirty-five-year-old Steve Wallace(ph) and 53-year-old Eric Dinehart(ph), both self-confessed geeks, work for a contractor providing computer services for the Iraqi police and military.

Mr. STEVE WALLACE: It's interesting. And you know, we're happy to be able to create a better Iraq and, you know, there's the money. It pays well.

GARRELS: Steve Wallace kind of slurred the part about `It pays well.' In the 16 or so months he and Eric have been here, they've never left the Green Zone.

Mr. ERIC DINEHART: It's dangerous out there. There's no doubt about that. It's more dangerous out there than it is in here.

GARRELS: They are weighted down by security badges.

Mr. WALLACE: I got one, two, three, four, five, six, and my other one that I don't carry with me, seven.

GARRELS: You have to go to different badging offices for each badge.

Mr. WALLACE: At least one badging office for each badge. Some require up to three.

GARRELS: Traveling to the next destination, it becomes obvious the necessary security measures can drive you a little nutty.

Unidentified Woman: You know, I'm just going to drive fast over these speed bumps because I can't take this slow stuff anymore. Let's see what happens to the car.

(Soundbite of car hitting speed bump)

Unidentified Woman: That was painful.

GARRELS: The Liberty Pool complex is the most recent addition to the Green Zone, and it's pretty luxurious: covered pool, water slides, exercise rooms. Sitting on the patio, Marine Chief Warrant Officer Maurice Honeywood is counting the months till he can go home. Meanwhile, he enjoys a round of spades.

Chief Warrant Officer MAURICE HONEYWOOD (US Marines): You know, it's been a real stressful week, you know. It's been interesting. Any day I'm here's a good day.

GARRELS: Any day you're in Iraq?

CWO HONEYWOOD: No, breathing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CWO HONEYWOOD: Any day I'm breathing's a good day, yeah.

GARRELS: As we head for a watering hole called the Bunker Bar, my friend stashes her weapons.

(Soundbite of woman hiding weapons)

GARRELS: Have you ever used your gun?

Unidentified Woman: Never. The goal here is to get the convoy from point A to point B, to get the drivers there alive, get the cargo there with integrity. It is not to engage in fights.

(Soundbite of woman hiding weapons)

GARRELS: But the shooting of Iraqi civilians allegedly involving a legion of US and other foreign security contractors operating here has created problems for the US military who say they have no authority over them. There's a big divide between the military and security contractors whose heavy presence stems in large part from the Pentagon's attempts to keep troop numbers down by privatizing jobs that would once have been performed by American troops. Partly, it's because of the difference in pay; partly, because contractors can drink.

(Soundbite of bar activity)

GARRELS: The Bunker Bar was set up by a contractor which works with bombs and bomb dogs. There are no troops here.

Mr. T.J. McLAREN: The soldiers who are not allowed under General Order No. 1 to drink shouldn't know about this place and typically, we don't brag about it. So we don't want to insult our fellow soldiers, so we don't talk about it. We keep it exclusive.

GARRELS: T.J. McLaren supervises contracts for a company helping to train and supply the new Iraqi army, a booming business these days. The Bunker's walls are covered with deadly devices and weapons; the ceiling draped with parachutes. The clientele includes Australians, Brits, Americans and Eastern Europeans; several resembled beefed-up Yul Brynners. Steroids are said to be this war's drug of choice. There's a no-photo policy because many drinking here work undercover.

Mr. McLAREN: Every one of these men here are--on the average make between 15,000 and 20,000 a month, and they've came here to earn a living that they probably will never be able to have ever again in their life.

GARRELS: The one thing missing is women.

Mr. McLAREN: It's a difficult lifestyle and, yes, there is a lot of testosterone flowing around.

GARRELS: McLaren has been here for two years.

Mr. McLAREN: I believe in the cause and I always have. And, you know...

GARRELS: Do you think that it's been done well?

Mr. McLAREN: No, I've been part of the mess and know that it's not been done that well. It's an unprecedented kind of thing that we're doing right now so, yes, we'll make mistakes. The colossal mistakes that we made under the Jerry Bremer days caused a lot of heartache and we'll still undoing some of that. But by and large, I mean, we--I've seen improvements from one year to the next, so we're incrementally getting better.

GARRELS: McLaren makes no predictions on how long they'll be here. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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