The Lost Year in Iraq [home page]
  • Home
  • Interviews
  • Timeline
  • Site Map
  • Discussion

inside the green zone

This seven-square-mile area in Baghdad -- also known as the "Emerald City," "the bubble," and "Oz" -- was the walled-off, heavily guarded headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American-led occupation government. CPA staff both worked and lived here. Here's anecdotes and observations about what it was like, drawn from FRONTLINE's extended interviews.

rajiv

Author, Imperial Life in the Emerald City

read the full interview

Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Life in the Green Zone is thoroughly disconnected from the reality around. Outside, Iraq was in a fair degree of postwar chaos. There wasn't much electricity. There was rampant crime on the streets, traffic jams. Nobody was working. It was just kind of anarchy.

Inside the Green Zone, it was like a different planet inside those 17-foot-high walls. We're in the middle of a Muslim country, right? Muslims don't eat pork. What do they serve at the CPA dining hall for breakfast? Pork bacon. Hotdogs for lunch. They had six or seven bars in the Green Zone where you could get cold beer and wine. There was a disco at the al-Rashid Hotel where girls -- and I kid you not -- would pack hot pants and four-inch heels when they came to Baghdad so they could be out dancing atop an illuminated Baath Party star.

Halliburton brought in dozens of brand-new GMC Suburbans, which people drove around past the 35-mile-an-hour speed limit. Every two weeks, Halliburton would wash your car for you. They have dry-cleaning service. They had their own radio station, 107.7 FM, Freedom Radio. They played classic rock and rah-rah messages.

If you didn't have a car, there was a shuttle bus that would loop around in regular intervals to pick you up from wooden bus shelters. It felt a little like Disneyland when you walked in. You take the little tram in, and all of a sudden, you're in this whole different world.

When you got inside that palace -- unlike any other building in Iraq, it was chilled to a crisp 68 degrees -- you had earnest young Americans who were determined to come fix Iraq. Now mind you, they didn't get out and about that much, but they knew what Iraq needed.

The Iraqis they interfaced with were Iraqis who were either their translators or Iraqis who felt comfortable enough to go through three separate security checks to come into the palace to talk to them. Oftentimes it was Iraqis who wanted to get a contract, who wanted some favorable treatment, who knew that ultimately the Americans were going to devolve some power to the Iraqis, so told their American counterparts what they wanted to hear so they would be seen as trusted partners. And many of the Americans sort of naively said, "This policy must be just fine, because my Iraqis working for me seem to think it's OK."

I would sometimes go into the Green Zone after a particularly rough day outside, because it was a place you could go in and sort of feel happy. You'd come out after an hour or two feeling like: "Wow, this is going to work. These guys have a plan. It's great." It was sort of like taking a happy pill. And then you'd go out, and the real Iraq would confront you.

Problem was, a lot of those people never got out and confronted the real Iraq. They began to come to believe all of their prescriptions for the country were the right medicine.

When you talk about the life in the Green Zone, one of the things that interested me was your phrase, the "brat pack." What did you mean?

It was a bunch of young kids -- had no experience managing finances -- who were given the task of running Iraq's budget. It turned out that this group of kids who had come over together couldn't quite figure out why they'd been chosen. They finally discovered that what had tied them together was that they had all applied for jobs at the Heritage Foundation, this conservative think tank in Washington.

What happened was that the hiring was done by the White House liaison to the Pentagon, an office of the Pentagon political appointee. This office served as the gatekeeper. Instead of casting out widely for people with knowledge of Arabic, knowledge of the Middle East, knowledge of post-conflict reconstruction, they went after the political loyalists and canvassed the offices of Republic congressmen, conservative think tanks and other places where they knew they would find people who would be unfailingly loyal to the president and to the president's mission in Iraq. …

The hiring process involved questions that would have landed a private-sector employer in jail. They asked people what their views on Roe v. Wade were, whether they believed in capital punishment. A man of Middle Eastern descent was asked whether he was Muslim or Christian. People were asked who they voted for for president. …

Bremer, after some months in Iraq, realized he needed more people to help, and as a former guy from the private sector, he had a pragmatic streak in him, and he dispatched one of his deputies back to Washington to scour the country and get some of the best people sent over to Baghdad.

This deputy, who was a former Goldman Sachs banker, did what anybody in the private sector might do. He contacted a couple of his friends who work for large executive headhunting firms, and he asked them to come to the Pentagon and help identify promising candidates to go to Baghdad.

When the White House [liaison] office to the Pentagon found out about this, they freaked, and they ordered those guys to pack up and leave that same day. Bremer's deputy interceded and managed to keep the headhunters around, but their jobs were relegated to sort of vetting people's résumés. The actual decisions of who's going to be brought in, that all rested with the White House and the White House's people at the Pentagon, and with people like Paul Wolfowitz and Don Rumsfeld. They were able to tap people.

So you wind up getting people like John Agresto to go run Iraq's higher education system instead of getting somebody who had, let's say, run a very large public university system. He was a former president of a small college in Santa Fe, N.M., with 500 students. But he had connections. He served on the National Endowment for the Humanities with Lynne Cheney; Joyce Rumsfeld sat on his board of directors at St. John's College.

For [Iraq's] primary and secondary education, [they] brought in a guy from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a very conservative think tank, who had written extensively on the need for school vouchers. This is not a guy who has any experience in rebuilding school systems in the Middle East.

We've talked about Jim Haveman, the guy from Michigan who had very little experience in public health, being brought over to rebuild Iraq's health care system. And the list goes on -- a bunch of political appointees with very little practical experience.

And the ratio of girls to boys, men to women?

Overwhelmingly skewed toward men -- something like 10-1 men to women. … The environment in the Green Zone really did verge, in many cases, on rampant sexual harassment. …

What about the civil/military working relationship?

Civil/military relationships were a disaster. Iraq was supposed to be the case where they got it right. After the Balkans, after Somalia, after Haiti, they were supposed to sort of work it out in Iraq. It couldn't have been worse than Iraq -- everything from the top on down.

Bremer and [Commander of U.S. forces in Iraq] Gen. [Ricardo] Sanchez hated each other. They barely talked. Their interactions were stiff, awkward, and that sort of filtered all the way down.

The civilians at the CPA, including many of these young 20-something Republican loyalists who came, regarded the soldiers as their errand boys -- their drivers, their couriers, their coffee fetchers. We're talking people who were soldiers in their 40s and people who were majors and colonels being forced to work for these young kids and being very disrespected.

And the soldiers -- and I don't mean to cast this as very black and white -- a lot of the folks in the military, they were out and about. They saw what things were like on the ground, and they skewed more toward pragmatic solutions. They didn't believe in the neoconservative pie-in-the-sky approach to things, and as a result, they were branded as defeatists, as unwilling to work on the president's experiment or the president's mission to democratize Iraq. It was just real schism there. …

On Jan. 18, 2004, there is a massive explosion at the gate of the Green Zone. We've had the August bombing; we've had October, the al-Rashid. Now it actually is at the gate of the "Emerald City." Tell me what it means.

You have an explosion there that winds up killing a number of people -- Iraqis who work for the CPA. There are translators, drivers, other support personnel. All of a sudden it puts a very human perspective on the violence. Prior to that, a lot of the Iraqis getting killed were sort of nameless, faceless Iraqis for people inside the Emerald City. Now Iraqis that the Americans knew were dead, and it hit home in a way that the other violence hadn't.

And they already know they are lame ducks. They've got to go. Their grand plan isn't working. Six months and they are gone. This must have been --

It was very demoralizing. You've got a lot of people who showed up there who took great risks. They put their lives on hold for six or nine months. They left their jobs. They came out to Iraq because some of them believed naively in this broader mission to remake Iraq.

Then we get there, and it all comes crashing down around them. Incredibly depressing. We had a lot people that just wound up starting to drink heavily or stopped working the same long hours they had been accustomed to, loitering by the pool and the al-Rashid disco, because it was just too depressing to be at work, and they felt like they weren't really accomplishing anything.

ricks

Author, Fiasco

read the full interview

Thomas E. Ricks

At first the Green Zone was pretty tough. Initially people who came with Garner were sleeping under logs because there was no air conditioning, and it was 110 degrees at night. I actually think it would have been good to keep it like that. One of the best commands I've seen in Iraq, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, on its second tour, in the headquarters that they had downtown, when the town's electricity went off, their electricity went off. It's going to focus your mind, if you're a commander, on the electricity.

The Green Zone instead became the Emerald City, walled off from the rest of Iraq. In the rest of Iraq, electricity is intermittent at best, sewage problems, dusty, dirty, potholes. Inside the Green Zone it's calm; it's quiet. Occasionally there's a mortar shell coming in, but it's a big place, and mortars are relatively small weapons. Life gets pretty good inside the Green Zone. It gets better and better, you know. The complaints you hear in the Green Zone are the cable TV channels aren't very good; somebody is showing German chess matches at night on one of the cable channels.

A bunch of bars open up. The CIA has its own bar. The al-Rashid Hotel becomes a kind of weird scene. A lot of alcohol is flowing. People are living pretty good. People have maid service and stuff. Guys who wouldn't have maids back here suddenly [have] got cooks, and all the menial labor is taken care of, all the cleaning. They're making pretty good money. They're getting danger pay and things like that. U.S. soldiers would come in from these dusty, dirty bases elsewhere, and they come into the Green Zone for some sort of meeting, and their jaws would drop. They feel like, "Wow, this is Sodom and Gomorrah, man." They haven't seen a woman in months. They certainly aren't drinking alcohol out there, those commanders. They come in here, and it's Friday night at the al-Rashid; it's the disco scene. It was sort of "Wow, this is a whole other world." …

I heard military commanders -- some called it the Emerald City, and others called it Oz. There was a real cautiousness that the civilian occupation authority was a kind of façade, and there really was nothing behind the curtain. That's why military commanders also called it the CPA; they joked that it stood for "Can't Provide Anything."

dobbins

Director, RAND Corporation's International Security and Defense Policy Center

read the full interview

James Dobbins

The CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] operation became an exercise in heroic amateurism, in which hundreds of dedicated, courageous Americans went and filled positions for which they had not the slightest preparation. People didn't know where their home office was. They didn't know who the person at the next desk was. They weren't sure exactly what they were supposed to be doing, who they were supposed to be working for. They didn't have an office in Washington they could call and say: "How did we do this last time? Remind me, how do I fill out this form? How do we train a police department? What are the mechanisms that we have for building political parties? What are the options for getting electricity back on?" … Everything was improvised, and the results were rather chaotic. It's amazing that they accomplished as much as they did.

It was also very difficult to keep the place adequately staffed. Probably never more than half of the positions in the CPA were filled at any one time. The average length of stay was about three months, so a third of the people who were there had just arrived and didn't know what they were doing. A third of the people who were there were just about to leave and were focused on getting home. You only had, in effect, one job in six actually filled with somebody who had been there long enough to know what he was doing and wasn't just about to leave.

It was extremely difficult to get things done in that environment, and I think it's a credit to Bremer and the small team of professionals that he brought with him and surrounded himself with that they were able to get as much done. …

[Who were the people who worked under Bremer at the CPA?]

There were several categories of people there. The people who were closest to Bremer tended to be people with whom he had worked in the past. They tended, for the most part, to be foreign service officers. …

A second category of people were professional, seconded from a variety of different agencies, including from the State Department; people who spoke Arabic, who understood the country.

Then the third category were the, effectively, political appointees, people who had been recruited through the White House political appointment process. …

Once he asked CIA and State and Defense to send people, none of them sent him enough people, and he began calling friends. He called me and said, "Can you send me some people?" So I sent him half a dozen quite, I think, good people. And I'm sure I wasn't the only person he called. The White House ginned up their process by which they fill junior political-level positions in the government, staff aides to Cabinet secretaries, and used that roster of people to see whether they would be willing to [go to] Iraq, and many of them were. These tended to be well-meaning, idealistic, young, to some degree not only idealistic, but possibly ideological, obviously courageous, and willing to go into a difficult environment.

But many of them were wholly unsuited for what they were doing, had no relevant experience. Most of them weren't going to stay there long enough to make a difference. And most of them, since they weren't in the career of bureaucratic structure, had no real discipline. There were no consequences for failure to perform, and there were no particular rewards for performing spectacularly. As a result, it tended to be an environment in which a few people were contributing critically and importantly, and others were kind of floating around the edges, not sure of what they were supposed to be doing and not making much of a contribution. A difficult way to run things. …

bremer

Administrator, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)

read the full interview

L. Paul Bremer III

One of the things that you'll read in Rajiv's book is that the hiring process that you had was dysfunctional, that jobs went not to the best and the brightest, but to the loyal and the willing.

We had a lot of trouble with personnel, and there were two aspects. One, and the most important, was I never got enough people. Even as late as March of 2004, the Inspector General reported that only 56 percent of our billets had been filled. So, we always had that problem right to the end.

I had very little control over the actual assignment of people there, other than my own staff. Frankly, I didn't have very much time, anyway. What would I have done if I'd have more control? Maybe I would have paid more attention, maybe I would have gotten better people. But that was basically taken care of by offices in Washington. … I might see a biography, or one of my staff might, and we'd say yes or no, but we really didn't have, frankly, very much time to vet all of the people coming out there. That's true.

He talks about a group he calls the "brat pack." Does this sound familiar to you?

No. … I don't know who they're referring to. I had 3,000 people working for me. …

A lot of pundits, and outside observers, and even some inside observers have said … that the Green Zone became very insular, that as it became harder and harder to travel around, to get out and about. …

There's no question that we had to pay a lot of attention to security, particularly after the rocket attack on the Rashid. And, indeed, it was because my security people said they can't move back in that I said to the staff, "We're not moving back in there."

And it's true that as the insurgency picked up, it became more difficult for people to move around outside of the Green Zone. There's no question. It became more difficult. It became more dangerous for me to travel, but I continued to travel, and I traveled to all the provinces throughout the 14 months, and I continued to travel. … But I had a lot of protection, and for my staff, it was more difficult. There's no question it became harder.

On the other hand, it was also at this time in the fall of 2003 that we finally got out provincial offices established in 15 different cities outside of Baghdad where we had a very substantial number of American and other coalition diplomats, most of them Arabic speaking, who were able to stay in touch.

People, particularly the journalists who were based in Baghdad, tended to think that the only information we had was the people in the Green Zone, because they're the only people they saw, because the journalists didn't travel out to the provinces. But we had regular people reporting from Basra, Diwaniyah, from Qadisiyyah province, from Nineveh, from all over the country, really starting in the fall of 2003. Certainly, it was harder for the people in Baghdad, no question. And it was dangerous for the people in the province.

… In Ricks' book, maybe even in Gordon's book, there are stories about military guys coming into meetings at the Green Zone, and finding it like an oasis, with discos and bars, and pools, and young people. There's a brothel in one book. They kept saying, "There's this weird civilian disconnect." … What about that?

Well, look, I traveled and visited military units all over the country, and they were living in very difficult and dangerous circumstances. It was hot. They didn't have running water. They were sleeping on cots, many times under canvas. It was tough. And I suppose there's never been a war fought anywhere in history where the guys out in the field didn't look askance at the guys back at headquarters who are living it up and having a nice life.

I mean, I think some of this, one must simply say, "Well, tell me something new." It is certainly the case that guys who are out there on the pointy end of the stick, putting their lives at risk every day in a very difficult circumstance are going to see the headquarters through different eyes. And I understand that.

It's not the Emerald City, though?

No. Well, I don't know where the term "Emerald City" comes from. … Just to be clear, we also had daily -- or usually nightly -- rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone. It was not a picnic there, either. It certainly wasn't as dangerous as being out at a forward operating base someplace, but we spent a lot of times in the bomb shelter in the Green Zone, too. …

home | introduction | interviews | timeline | analysis | documents
other FRONTLINE reports on iraq | producer's chat | readings & links | teacher's guide | dvds & transcript
site map | press reaction | credits | privacy policy | journalistic guidelines
FRONTLINE series home | wgbh | pbs

posted oct. 17, 2006

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
background photo copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Prison StateApril 29th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS