FM: John Whitbeck
Transmitted below is a remarkable piece of reporting, focused on
America's treatment of its own mid-level Iraqi collaborators, which has
been published in the NEW YORKER.
This is a long (11 pages of small print) and relatively painful read. It
is not for everyone, but I strongly recommend it.
In my article entitled "An Elegant Exit from Iraq", published in 2004, I
included the following item in my optimum scenario: "More quietly,
asylum in the United States is offered to all members of the
American-appointed Governing Council and interim government and all
other prominent Iraqis who have cooperated with the Americans and are,
therefore, viewed as collaborators by their fellow Iraqis. This is the
decent and honorable thing to do." I note that I limited the hope of
decent and honorable treatment to "prominent" Iraqis. Either I wasn't
myself concerned about the sort of people who are the subject of this
article (in which case, /mea culpa/) or I did not see any hope that the
U.S. government would be concerned about them.
Collaboration with foreign invaders and occupiers has always been an
ultra-high-risk choice. (Tens of thousands of French men and women who
cooperated with the Germans received terminal "summary justice" at the
hands of their compatriots at the end of World War II.) However, having
read this article, I believe that these mid-level collaborators are far
more deserving of decent and honorable treatment from the United States
than prominent "name" collaborators, who have no doubt been banking much
of what they have been stealing in foreign bank accounts to assure
themselves of a comfortable retirement whenever it's "game over", their
compatriots can get at them and they have to leave.
/New Yorke/r, 26 March 2007
The Iraqis who trusted America the most.
by George Packer
On a cold, wet night in January, I met two young Iraqi men in the lobby
of the Palestine Hotel, in central Baghdad. A few Arabic television
studios had rooms on the upper floors of the building, but the hotel was
otherwise vacant. In the lobby, a bucket collected drips of rainwater;
at the gift shop, which was closed, a shelf displayed film, batteries,
and sheathed daggers covered in dust. A sign from another era read, "We
have great pleasure in announcing the opening of the Internet café 24
hour a day. At the business center on the first floor. The management."
The management consisted of a desk clerk and a few men in black leather
jackets slouched in armchairs and holding two-way radios.
The two Iraqis, Othman and Laith, had asked to meet me at the Palestine
because it was the only place left in Baghdad where they were willing to
be seen with an American. They lived in violent neighborhoods that were
surrounded by militia checkpoints. Entering and leaving the Green Zone,
the fortified heart of the American presence, had become too risky. But
even the Palestine made them nervous. In October, 2005, a suicide bomber
driving a cement mixer had triggered an explosion that nearly brought
down the hotel's eighteen-story tower. An American tank unit that was
guarding the hotel eventually pulled out, leaving security in the hands
of Iraqi civilians. It would now be relatively easy for insurgents to
get inside. The one comforting thought for Othman and Laith was that,
four years into the war, the Palestine was no longer worth attacking.
the window while Laith sat on one of the twin beds. (The names of most
of the Iraqis in this story have been changed for their protection.)
Othman was a heavyset doctor, twenty-nine years old, with a gentle voice
and an unflappable ironic manner. Laith, an engineer with rimless
eyeglasses, was younger and taller, and given to bursts of enthusiasm
and displeasure. Othman was Sunni, Laith was Shiite.
It had taken Othman three days to get to the hotel from his house, in
western Baghdad. On the way, he was trapped for two nights at his
sister's house, which was in an ethnically mixed neighborhood: gun
battles had broken out between Sunni and Shiite militiamen. Othman
watched the home of his sister's neighbor, a Sunni, burn to the ground.
Shiite militiamen scrawled the words "Leave or else" on the doors of
Sunni houses. Othman was able to leave the house only because his
sister's husband-a Shiite, who was known to the local Shia
militias-escorted him out. Othman took a taxi to the house of Laith's
grandfather; from there, he and Laith went to the Palestine, where they
enjoyed their first hot water in several weeks.
They had a strong friendship, based on a shared desire. Before the war,
they had both longed for the arrival of the Americans, expecting them to
change their lives. They had told each other that they would try to work
with the foreigners. Othman and Laith were both secular, and despised
the extremist militias on each side of Iraq's civil war, but the ethnic
conflict had led them increasingly to quarrel, to the point that one of
them-usually Laith-would refuse to speak to the other.
Laith began to describe these strains. "It started when the Americans
came with Shia leaders and wanted to give the Shia leadership-"
"And kick out the Sunnis," Othman interrupted. "You admit this? You were
not admitting it before."
"The Americans don't want to kick out the Sunnis," Laith said. "They
want to give Shia the power because most Iraqis are Shia."
"And you believe the Sunnis did not want to participate, right?" Othman
said. "The Americans didn't give them the chance to participate." He
turned to me: "You know I'm not just saying this because I'm a Sunni-"
Laith rolled his eyes. "Whatever."
"But I think the Shia made the Sunnis feel that they're against them."
"This is not the point, who started it," Laith said heatedly. "Everybody
is getting killed, the Shia and the Sunnis." He paused. "But if we think
who started it, I think the Sunnis started it!"
"I think the Shia," Othman repeated, with calm knowingness. He said to
me, "When I feel that I'm pushing too much and he starts to become so
angry, I pull the brake."
Laith had a job with an American organization, affiliated with the
National Endowment for Democracy, that encouraged private enterprise in
developing countries. Othman had worked with a German group called
Architects for People in Need, and then as a translator for foreign
journalists. These were coveted jobs, but over time they had become so
dangerous that Othman and Laith could talk candidly about their lives
with no one except each other.
"I trust him," Othman said of his friend. "We've shared our experiences
with foreigners-the good and the bad. We don't have a secret life when
we are together. But when we go out we have to lie."
Othman's cell phone rang: a friend was calling from Jordan. "I had a
vision that you'll be killed by the end of the month," he told Othman.
"Get out now, please. You can stay here with me. We'll live on pasta."
Othman said something reassuring and hung up, but his phone kept
ringing, the friend calling back; his vision had made him hysterical.
A string of bad events had given Othman the sense that time was running
out for him in Iraq. In November, members of the Mahdi Army-the Shia
militia commanded by the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr-rounded up
Othman's older brother and several other Sunnis who worked in a shop in
a mixed neighborhood. The Sunnis were taken to a local Shia mosque and
shot. Othman's brother was only grazed in the head, but a Shiite soldier
noticed that he was still alive and shot him in the eye. Somehow, he
survived this, too. Othman found his brother and took him to a hospital
for surgery. The hospital-like the entire Iraqi health system-was under
the Mahdi Army's control, and Othman decided that his brother would be
safer at their parents' house. The brother was now blind, deranged, and
vengeful, making life unbearable for Othman's family. A few days later,
Othman's elderly maternal aunts, who were Shia and lived in a
majority-Sunni area, were told by Sunni insurgents that they had three
days to leave. Othman's father, a retired Sunni officer, went to their
neighborhood and convinced the insurgents that his wife's sisters were,
in fact, Sunnis. And then, one day in January, Othman's two teen-age
brothers, Muhammad and Salim, on whom he doted, failed to come home from
school. Othman called the cell phone of Muhammad, who was fifteen. "Is
this Muhammad?" he said.
A stranger's voice answered: "No, I'm not Muhammad."
"Where is Muhammad?"
"Muhammad is right here," the stranger said. "I'm looking at him now. We
have both of them."
"Are you joking?"
"No, I'm not. Are you Sunni or Shia?"
Thinking of what had happened to his older brother, Othman lied: "We're
Shia." The stranger told him to prove it. The boys had left their
identity cards at home, for their own safety.
Othman's mother took the phone, sobbing and begging the kidnapper not to
hurt her boys. "We're going to behead them," the kidnapper told her.
"Choose where you want us to throw the bodies. Or do you prefer us to
cut them to pieces for you? We enjoy cutting young boys to pieces." The
man hung up.
After several more phone conversations, Othman realized his mistake: the
kidnappers were Sunnis, with Al Qaeda. Shiites are not Muslims, the
kidnappers told him-they deserve to be killed. Then they stopped
answering the phone. Othman called a friend who belonged to a Sunni
political party with ties to insurgents; over the course of the
afternoon, the friend got the kidnappers back on the phone and convinced
them that the boys were Sunnis. They were released with apologies, along
with their money and their phones.
It was the worst day of Othman's life. He said he would never forget the
sound of the stranger's voice.
Othman began a campaign of burning. He went into the yard or up on the
roof of his parents' house with a jerrican of kerosene and set fire to
papers, identity badges, books in English, photographs-anything that
might incriminate him as an Iraqi who worked with foreigners. If Othman
had to flee Iraq, he wanted to leave nothing behind that might harm him
or his family. He couldn't bring himself to destroy a few items, though:
his diaries, his weekly notes from the hospital where he had once
worked. "I have this bad habit of keeping everything like memories," he
Most of the people Othman and Laith knew had left Iraq. House by house,
Baghdad was being abandoned. Othman was considering his options: move
his parents from their house (in an insurgent stronghold) to his
sister's house (in the midst of civil war); move his parents and
brothers to Syria (where there was no work) and live with his friend in
Jordan (going crazy with boredom while watching his savings dwindle); go
to London and ask for asylum (and probably be sent back); stay in
Baghdad for six more months until he could begin a scholarship that he'd
won, to study journalism in America (or get killed waiting). Beneath his
calm good humor, Othman was paralyzed-he didn't want to leave Baghdad
and his family, but staying had become impossible. Every day, he changed
From the hotel window, Othman could see the palace domes of the Green
Zone directly across the Tigris River. "It's sad," he told me. "With all
the hopes that we had, and all the dreams, I was totally against the
word 'invasion.' Wherever I go, I was defending the Americans and
strongly saying, 'America was here to make a change.' Now I have my doubts."
Laith was more blunt: "Sometimes, I feel like we're standing in line for
a ticket, waiting to die."
By the time Othman and Laith finished talking, it was almost ten
o'clock. We went downstairs and found the hotel restaurant empty, with
no light or heat. A waiter in a white shirt and black vest emerged out
of the darkness to take our orders. We shivered for an hour until the
There was an old woman at the cash register, with long, dyed-blond hair,
a shapeless gown, and a macramé beret that kept falling off her head. I
recognized her: she had been the cashier in 2003, when I first came to
the Palestine. Her name was Taja, and she had worked at the hotel for
twenty-five years. She had the smile of a mad hag.
I asked if there had been any other customers tonight. "My dear, no
one," Taja said, in English. The sight of me seemed to jar loose a
bundle of memories. Her brother had gone to New Orleans in 1948 and
forgotten all about her. There was music here in the old days, she said,
and she sang a few lines from the Spaniels' "Goodnight, Sweetheart,
Well it's time to go.
I hate to leave you, but I really must say,
Goodnight, sweetheart, goodnight.
When the Americans first came, Taja said, the hotel was full of
customers, including marines. She took the exam to work as a translator
three times, but kept failing, because the questions were so hard: "The
spider is an insect or an animal?" "Water is a beverage or a food?" Who
could answer such questions?
Taja smiled at us. "Now all finished," she said.
MY TIME WILL COME
Millions of Iraqis, spanning the country's religious and ethnic
spectrum, welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But the mostly young
men and women who embraced America's project so enthusiastically that
they were prepared to risk their lives for it may constitute Iraq's
smallest minority. I came across them in every city: the young man in
Mosul who loved Metallica and signed up to be a translator at a U.S.
Army base; the DVD salesman in Najaf whose plans to study medicine were
crushed by Baath Party favoritism, and who offered his services to the
first American Humvee that entered his city. They had learned English
from American movies and music, and from listening secretly to the BBC.
Before the war, their only chance at a normal life was to flee the
country-a nearly impossible feat. Their future in Saddam's Iraq was, as
the Metallica fan in Mosul put it, "a one-way road leading to nothing."
I thought of them as oddballs, like misunderstood high-school students
whose isolation ends when they go off to college. In a similar way, the
four years of the war created intense friendships, but they were forged
through collective disappointment. The arc from hope to betrayal that
traverses the Iraq war is nowhere more vivid than in the lives of these
Iraqis. America's failure to understand, trust, and protect its closest
friends in Iraq is a small drama that contains the larger history of defeat.
An interpreter named Firas-he insisted on using his real name-grew up in
a middle-class Shia family in a prosperous Baghdad neighborhood. He is a
big man in his mid-thirties with a shaved head, and his fierce, heavily
ringed eyes provide a glimpse into the reserves of energy that lie
beneath his phlegmatic surface. As a young man, Firas was shut out of a
government job by his family's religious affiliation and by his lack of
connections. He wasted his twenties in a series of petty occupations:
selling cigarettes wholesale; dealing in spare parts; peddling books on
Mutanabi Street, in old Baghdad. Books, more than anything, shaped
Firas's passionately melancholy character. As a young man, he kept a
credo on his wall in English and Arabic: "Be honest without the thought
of Heaven or Hell." He was particularly impressed by "The Outsider," a
1956 philosophical work by the British existentialist Colin Wilson. "He
wrote about the 'non-belonger,' " Firas explained. Firas felt like an
exile in his own land, but, he recalled, "There was always this sound in
the back of my head: the time will come, the change will come, my time
will come. And when 2003 came, I couldn't believe how right I was."
Overnight, everything was new. Americans, whom he had seen only in
movies, rolled through the streets. Men who had been silent all their
lives cursed Saddam in front of their neighbors. The fall of the regime
revealed traits that Iraqis had kept hidden: the greed that drove some
to loot, the courage that made others stay on the job. Firas felt a
lifelong depression lift. "The first thing I learned about myself was
that I can make things happen," he said. "When you feel that you are an
outcast, you don't really put an effort in anything. But after the war I
would run here and there, I would kill myself, I would focus on one
thing and not stop until I do it."
Thousands of Iraqis converged on the Palestine Hotel and, later, the
Green Zone, in search of work with the Americans. In the chaos of the
early days, a demonstrable ability to speak English-sometimes in a
chance encounter with a street patrol-was enough to get you hired by an
enterprising Marine captain. Firas began working in military
intelligence. Almost all the Iraqis who were hired became interpreters,
and American soldiers called them "terps," often giving them nicknames
for convenience and, later, security (Firas became Phil). But what the
Iraqis had to offer went well beyond linguistic ability: each of them
was, potentially, a cultural adviser, an intelligence officer, a policy
analyst. Firas told the soldiers not to point with their feet, not to
ask to be introduced to someone's sister. Interpreters assumed that
their perspective would be valuable to foreigners who knew little or
nothing of Iraq.
Whenever I asked Iraqis what kind of government they had wanted to
replace Saddam's regime, I got the same answer: they had never given it
any thought. They just assumed that the Americans would bring the right
people, and the country would blossom with freedom, prosperity, consumer
goods, travel opportunities. In this, they mirrored the wishful thinking
of American officials and neoconservative intellectuals who failed to
plan for trouble. Almost no Iraqi claimed to have anticipated videos of
beheadings, or Moqtada al-Sadr, or the terrifying question "Are you
Sunni or Shia?" Least of all did they imagine that America would make so
many mistakes, and persist in those mistakes to the point that even
fair-minded Iraqis wondered about ulterior motives. In retrospect, the
blind faith that many Iraqis displayed in themselves and in America
seems naïve. But, now that Iraq's demise is increasingly regarded as
foreordained, it's worth recalling the optimism among Iraqis four years ago.
A li, an interpreter in Baghdad, spent his childhood in Pennsylvania and
Oklahoma, where his father was completing his graduate studies. In 1987,
when Ali was eleven and his father was shortly to get his green card,
the family returned to Baghdad for a brief visit. But it was during the
war with Iran, and the authorities refused to let them leave again. Ali
had to learn Arabic from scratch. He grew up in Ghazaliya, a Baathist
stronghold in western Baghdad where Shia families like his were rare.
Iraq felt like a prison, and Ali considered his American childhood a
In 2003, soon after the arrival of the Americans, soldiers in his
neighborhood persuaded him to work as an interpreter with the 82nd
Airborne Division. He wore a U.S. Army uniform and a bandanna, and
during interrogations he used broken Arabic in order to make prisoners
think he was American. Although the work was not yet dangerous, an
instinct led him to mask his identity and keep his job to himself around
the neighborhood. Ali found that, although many soldiers were friendly,
they often ignored information and advice from their Iraqi employees.
Interpreters would give them names of insurgents, and nothing would
happen. When Ali suggested that soldiers buy up locals' rocket-propelled
grenade launchers so that they would not fall into the hands of
insurgents, he was disregarded. When interpreters drove onto the base,
their cars were searched, and at the end of their shift they would
sometimes find their car doors unlocked or a mirror broken-the cars had
been searched again. "People came with true faces to the Americans, with
complete loyalty," Ali said. "But, from the beginning, they didn't trust
Ali initially worked the night shift at a base in his neighborhood and
walked home by himself after midnight. In June, 2003, the Americans
mounted a huge floodlight at the front gate of the base, and when Ali
left for home the light projected his shadow hundreds of feet down the
street. "It's dangerous," he told the soldiers at the gate. "Can't you
turn it off when we go out?"
"Don't be scared," the soldiers told him. "There's a sniper protecting
you all the way."
A couple of weeks later, one of Ali's Iraqi friends was hanging out with
the snipers in the tower, and he thanked them. "For what?" the snipers
asked. For looking out for us, Ali's friend said. The snipers didn't
know what he was talking about, and when he told them they started laughing.
"We got freaked out," Ali said. The message was clear: You Iraqis are on
A PERSON IN BETWEEN
The Arabic for "collaborator" is aameel-literally, "agent." Early in the
occupation, the Baathists in Ali's neighborhood, who at first had been
cowed by the Americans' arrival, began a shrewd whispering campaign.
They told their neighbors that the Iraqi interpreters who went along on
raids were feeding the Americans false information, urging the abuse of
Iraqis, stealing houses, and raping women. In the market, a Baathist
would point at an Iraqi riding in the back of a Humvee and say, "He's a
traitor, a thug." Such rumors were repeated often enough that people
began to believe them, especially as the promised benefits of the
American occupation failed to materialize. Before long, Ali told me, the
Baathists "made the reputation of the interpreter very, very low-worse
than the Americans'."
There was no American campaign to counter the word on the street; there
wasn't even a sense that these subversive rumors posed a serious threat.
"Americans are living in another world," Ali said. "There's an Iraqi
saying: 'He's sleeping and his feet are baking in the sun.' " The U.S.
typically provided interpreters with inferior or no body armor, allowing
the Baathists to make a persuasive case that Americans treated all
Iraqis badly, even those who worked for them.
"The Iraqis aren't trusting you, and the Americans don't trust you from
the beginning," Ali said. "You became a person in between."
Firas met the personal interpreter of L. Paul Bremer III, the head of
the Coalition Provisional Authority-which governed Iraq for fourteen
months after the invasion-in the fall of 2003. Soon, Firas had secured a
privileged view of official America, translating documents at the
Republican Palace, in the Green Zone.
He liked most of the American officials who came and went at the palace.
Even when he saw colossal mistakes at high levels-for example, Bremer's
decision to abolish the Iraqi Army-Firas admired his new colleagues, and
believed that they were helping to create institutions that would lead
to a better future. And yet Firas kept being confronted by fresh
ironies: he had less authority than any of the Americans, although he
knew more about Iraq; and the less that Americans knew about Iraq the
less they wanted to hear from him, especially if they occupied high
One day, Firas accompanied one of Bremer's top political advisers to a
meeting with an important Shiite cleric. The cleric's mosque, the
Baratha, is an ancient Shiite bastion, and Firas, whose family came from
the holy city of Najaf, knew a great deal about the mosque and the
cleric. On the way, the adviser asked, "Is this a mosque or a shrine or
what?" Firas said, "It's the Baratha mosque," and he started to explain
its significance, but the adviser cut him short: "O.K., got it." They
went into the meeting with the cleric, who was from a hard-line party
backed by Tehran but who spoke as if he represented the views of all
Iraqis. He didn't represent the views of many people Firas knew, and,
given the chance, Firas could have told the adviser that the mosque and
its Imam had a history of promoting Shia nationalism. "There were a
million comments in my head," Firas recalled. "Why the hell was he
paying so much attention to this Imam?"
Bremer and his advisers-Scott Carpenter, Meghan O'Sullivan, and Roman
Martinez-were creating an interim constitution and negotiating the
transfer of power to Iraqis, but they did not speak Arabic and had no
background in the Middle East. The Iraqis they spent time with were, for
the most part, returned exiles with sectarian agendas. The Americans had
little sense of what ordinary Iraqis were experiencing, and they seemed
oblivious of a readily available source of knowledge: the Iraqi
employees who had lived in Baghdad for years, and who went home to its
neighborhoods every night. "These people would consider themselves too
high to listen to a translator," Firas said. "Maybe they were interested
more in telling D.C. what they want to hear instead of telling them what
the Iraqis are saying."
Later, when the Coalition Provisional Authority was replaced by the U.S.
Embassy, and political appointees gave way to career diplomats, Firas
found himself working for a different kind of American. The Embassy's
political counsellor, Robert Ford, his deputy, Henry Ensher, and a
younger official in the political section, Jeffrey Beals, spoke Arabic,
had worked extensively in the region, and spent most of their time in
Baghdad talking to a range of Iraqis, including extremists. They gave
Firas and other "foreign-service nationals" more authority, encouraging
them to help write reports on Iraqi politics that were sometimes
forwarded to Washington. Beals would be interviewed in Arabic on Al
Jazeera and then endure a thorough critique by an Iraqi colleague-Ahmed,
a tall, handsome Kurdish Shiite who lived just outside Sadr City, and
who was obsessed with Iraqi politics. When Firas, Ali, and Ahmed visited
New York during a training trip, Beals's brother was their escort.
Beals quit the foreign service after almost two years in Iraq and is now
studying history at Columbia University. He said that, with Americans in
Baghdad coming and going every six or twelve months, "the lowest rung on
your ladder ends up being the real institutional memory and repository
of expertise-which is always a tension, because it's totally at odds
with their status." The inversion of the power relationship between
American officials and Iraqi employees became more dramatic as the
dangers increased and American civilians lost almost all mobility around
Baghdad. Beals said, "There aren't many people with pro-American eyes
and the means to get their message across who can go into Sadr City and
tell you what's happening day to day."
On the morning of January 18, 2004, a suicide truck bomber detonated a
massive payload amid a line of vehicles waiting to enter the Green Zone
by the entry point known as the Assassins' Gate. Most Iraqis working in
the Green Zone knew someone who died in the explosion, which incinerated
twenty-five people. Ali was hit by the blowback but was otherwise
uninjured; two months later, he narrowly escaped an assassination
attempt while driving to work. Throughout 2004, the murder of
interpreters and other Iraqi employees became increasingly commonplace.
Seven of Ali's friends who worked with the U.S. military were killed,
which prompted him to leave the Army and take a job at the Embassy.
In Mosul, insurgents circulated a DVD showing the decapitations of two
military interpreters. American soldiers stationed there expressed
sympathy to their Iraqi employees, but, one interpreter told me, there
was "no real reaction": no offer of protection, in the form of a weapons
permit or a place to live on base. He said, "The soldiers I worked with
were friends and they felt sorry for us-they were good people-but they
couldn't help. The people above them didn't care. Or maybe the people
above them didn't care." This story repeated itself across the country:
Iraqi employees of the U.S. military began to be kidnapped and killed in
large numbers, and there was essentially no American response. Titan
Corporation, of Chantilly, Virginia, which until December held the
Pentagon contract for employing interpreters in Iraq, was notorious
among Iraqis for mistreating its foreign staff. I spoke with an
interpreter who was injured in a roadside explosion; Titan refused to
compensate him for the time he spent recovering from second-degree burns
on his hands and feet. An Iraqi woman working at an American base was
recognized by someone she had known in college, who began calling her
with death threats. She told me that when she went to the Titan
representative for help he responded, "You have two choices: move or
quit." She told him that if she quit and stayed home, her life would be
in danger. "That's not my business," the representative said. (A Titan
spokesperson said, "The safety and welfare of all employees, including,
of course, contract workers, is the highest priority.")
A State Department official in Iraq sent a cable to Washington
criticizing the Americans' "lackadaisical" attitude about helping Iraqi
employees relocate. In an e-mail to me, he said, "Most of them have
lived secret lives for so long that they are truly a unique 'homeless'
population in Iraq's war zone-dependent on us for security and not
convinced we will take care of them when we leave." It's as if the
Americans never imagined that the intimidation and murder of
interpreters by other Iraqis would undermine the larger American effort,
by destroying the confidence of Iraqis who wanted to give it support.
The problem was treated as managerial, not moral or political.
One day in January, 2005, Riyadh Hamid, a Sunni father of six from the
Embassy's political section, was shot to death as he left his house for
work. When Firas heard the news at the Embassy, he was deeply shaken:
he, Ali, or Ahmed could be next. But he never thought of quitting. "At
that time, I believed more in my cause, so if I die for it, let it be,"
Americans and Iraqis at the Embassy collected twenty thousand dollars in
private donations for Hamid's widow. At first, the U.S. government
refused to pay workmen's compensation, because Hamid had been travelling
between home and work and was not technically on the job when he was
killed. (Eventually, compensation was approved.) A few days after the
murder, Robert Ford, the political counsellor, arranged a conversation
between Ambassador John Negroponte and the Iraqis from the political
section, whom the Ambassador had never met. The Iraqis were escorted
into a room in a secure wing of the Embassy's second floor.
Negroponte had barely expressed his condolences when Firas, Ahmed, and
their colleagues pressed him with a single request. They wanted
identification that would allow them to enter the Green Zone through the
priority lane that Americans with government clearance used, instead of
having to wait every morning for an hour or two in a very long line with
every other Iraqi who had business in the Green Zone. This line was an
easy target for suicide bombers and insurgent lookouts (known in Iraq as
alaasa-"chewers"). Iraqis at the Embassy had been making this request
for some time, without success. "Our problem is badges," the Iraqis told
Negroponte sent for the Embassy's regional security officer, John Frese.
"Here's the man who is responsible for badges," Negroponte said, and left.
According to the Iraqis, they asked Frese for green badges, which were a
notch below the official blue American badges. These allowed the holder
to enter through the priority lane and then be searched inside the gate.
"I can't give you that," Frese said.
"Because it says 'Weapon permit: yes.' "
"Change the 'yes' to 'no' for us."
Frese's tone was peremptory: "I can't do that."
Ahmed made another suggestion: allow the Iraqis to use their Embassy
passes to get into the priority lane. Frese again refused. Ahmed turned
to one of his colleagues and said, in Arabic, "We're blowing into a
"My top priority is Embassy security, and I won't jeopardize it, no
matter what," Frese told them, and the Iraqis understood that this
security did not extend to them-if anything, they were part of the threat.
After the meeting, a junior American diplomat who had sat through it was
on the verge of tears. "This is what always calmed me down," Firas said.
"I saw Americans who understand me, trust me, believe me, love me. This
is what always kept my rage under control and kept my hope alive.
When I recently asked a senior government official in Washington about
the badges, he insisted, "They are concerns that have been raised,
addressed, and satisfactorily resolved. We acted extremely
expeditiously." In fact, the matter was left unresolved for almost two
years, until late 2006, when verbal instructions were given to soldiers
at the gates of the Green Zone to let Iraqis with Embassy passes into
the priority lane-and even then individual soldiers, among whom there
was rapid turnover, often refused to do so.
Americans and Iraqis recalled the meeting as the moment when the
Embassy's local employees began to be disenchanted. If Negroponte had
taken an interest, he could have pushed Frese to change the badges. But
a diplomat doesn't rise to Negroponte's stature by busying himself with
small-bore details, and without his directive the rest of the
bureaucracy wouldn't budge.
In Baghdad, the regional security officer had unusual power: to
investigate staff members, to revoke clearances, to block diplomats'
trips outside the Green Zone. The word "security" was ubiquitous-a
"magical word," one Iraqi said, that could justify anything. "Saying no
to the regional security officer is a dangerous thing," according to a
second former Embassy official, who occasionally did say no in order to
be able to carry out his job. "You're taking a lot of responsibility on
yourself." Although Iraqi employees had been vetted with background
checks and took regular lie-detector tests, a permanent shadow of
suspicion lay over them because they lived outside the Green Zone. Firas
once attended a briefing at which the regional security officer told
newly arrived Americans that no Iraqi could be trusted.
The reminders were constant. Iraqi staff members were not allowed into
the gym or the food court near the Embassy. Banned from the military PX,
they had to ask an American supervisor to buy them a pair of sunglasses
or underwear. These petty humiliations were compounded by security
officers who easily crossed the line between vigilance and bullying.
One day in late 2004, Laith, who had never given up hope of working for
the American Embassy, did well on an interview in the Green Zone and was
called to undergo a polygraph. After he was hooked up to the machine,
the questions began: Have you ever lied to your family? Do you know any
insurgents? At some point, he thought too hard about his answer; when
the test was over, the technician called in a security officer and
shouted at Laith: "Do you think you can fuck with the United States? Who
sent you here?" Laith was hustled out to the gate, where the technician
promised to tell his employers at the National Endowment for Democracy
to fire him.
"That was the first time I hated the Americans," Laith said.
CORRIDORS OF POWER
In January, 2005, Kirk Johnson, a twenty-four-year-old from Illinois,
arrived in Baghdad as an information officer with the United States
Agency for International Development. He came from a patriotic family
that believed in public service; his father was a lawyer whose chance at
an open seat in Congress, in 1986, was blocked when the state Republican
Party chose a former wrestling coach named Dennis Hastert to run
instead. Johnson, an Arabic speaker, was studying Islamist thought as a
Fulbright scholar in Cairo when the war began; when he arrived in
Baghdad, he became one of U.S.A.I.D.'s few Arabic-speaking Americans in
Johnson, who is rangy, earnest, and baby-faced, thought that he was
going to help America rebuild Iraq, in a mission that was his
generation's calling. Instead, he found a "narcotic" atmosphere in the
Green Zone. Surprisingly few Americans ever ventured outside its gates.
A short drive from the Embassy, at the Blue Star Café-famous for its
chicken fillet and fries-contractors could be seen, in golf shirts,
khakis, and baseball caps, enjoying a leisurely lunch, their Department
of Defense badges draped around their necks. At such moments, it was
hard not to have uncharitable thoughts about the war-that Americans
today aren't equipped for something of this magnitude. Iraq is that rare
war in which people put on weight. An Iraqi woman at the Embassy who had
seen many Americans come and go-and revered a few of them-declared that
seventy per cent of them were "useless, crippled," avoiding debt back
home or escaping a bad marriage. I met an American official who, during
one year, left the Green Zone less than half a dozen times; unlike many
of his colleagues, he understood this to be a problem.
The deeper the Americans dug themselves into the bunker, the harder they
tried to create a sense of normalcy, resulting in what Johnson called "a
bizarre arena of paperwork and booze." There were karaoke nights and
volleyball leagues, the Baghdad Regatta, and "Country Night-One
Howdy-Doody Good Time." Halliburton, the defense contractor, hosted a
Middle Eastern Night. The cubicles in U.S.A.I.D.'s new Baghdad office
building, Johnson discovered, were exactly the same as the cubicles at
its headquarters in Washington. The more chaotic Iraq became, the more
the Americans resorted to bureaucratic gestures of control. The fact
that it took five signatures to get Adobe Acrobat installed on a
computer was strangely comforting.
Johnson learned that Iraqis were third-class citizens in the Green Zone,
after Americans and other foreigners. For a time, Americans were ordered
to wear body armor while outdoors; when Johnson found out that Iraqi
staff members hadn't been provided with any, he couldn't bear to wear
his own around them. Superiors eventually ordered him to do so. "If
you're still properly calibrated, it can be a shameful sort of existence
there," Johnson said. "It takes a certain amount of self-delusion not to
be brought down by it."
In October, 2004, two bombs killed four Americans and two Iraqis at a
café and a shopping center inside the Green Zone, fuelling the suspicion
that there were enemies within. The Iraqi employees became perceived as
part of an undifferentiated menace. They also induced a deeper, more
elusive form of paranoia. As Johnson put it, "Not that we thought they'd
do us bodily harm, but they represented the reality beyond those blast
walls. You keep your distance from these Iraqis, because if you get
close you start to discover it's absolute bullshit-the lives of people
in Baghdad aren't safer, in spite of our trend lines or ginned-up
reports by contractors that tell you everything is going great."
After eight months in the Green Zone, Johnson felt that the impulse
which had originally made him volunteer to work in Iraq was dying. He
got a transfer to Falluja, to work on the front lines of the insurgency.
The Iraqis who saw both sides of the Green Zone gates had to be as alert
as prey in a jungle of predators. Ahmed, the Kurdish Shiite, had the job
of reporting on Shia issues, and his feel for the mood in Sadr City was
crucial to the political section. When a low-flying American helicopter
tore a Shia religious flag off a radio tower, Ahmed immediately picked
up on rumors, started by the Mahdi Army, that Americans were targeting
Shia worshippers. His job required him to seek contact with members of
Shiite militias, who sometimes reacted to him with suspicion. He once
went to a council meeting near Sadr City that had been called to arrange
a truce between the Americans and the Mahdi Army so that garbage could
be cleared from the streets. A council member confronted Ahmed,
demanding to know who he was. Ahmed responded, "I'm from a Korean
organization. They sent me to find out what solution you guys come up
with. Then we're ready to fund the cleanup." At another meeting, he
identified himself as a correspondent from an Iraqi television network.
No one outside his immediate family knew where he worked.
Ahmed took two taxis to the Green Zone, then walked the last few hundred
yards, or drove a different route every day. He carried a decoy phone
and hid his Embassy phone in his car. He had always loved the idea of
wearing a jacket and tie in an official job, but he had to keep them in
his office at the Embassy-it was impossible to drive to work dressed
like that. Ahmed and the other Iraqis entered code names for friends and
colleagues into their phones, in case they were kidnapped. Whenever they
got a call in public from an American contact, they answered in Arabic
and immediately hung up. They communicated mostly by text message. They
never spoke English in front of their children. One Iraqi employee slept
in his car in the Green Zone parking lot for several nights, because it
was too dangerous to go home.
Baghdad, which has six million residents, at least provided the cover of
anonymity. In a small Shia city in the south, no one knew that a
twenty-six-year-old Shiite named Hussein was working for the Americans.
"I lie and lie and lie," he said. He acted as a go-between, carrying
information between the U.S. outpost, the local government, the Shia
clergy, and the radical Sadrists. The Americans would send him to a
meeting of clerics with a question, such as whether Iranian influence
was fomenting violence. Instead of giving a direct answer, the clerics
would demand to know why thousands of American soldiers were unable to
protect Shia travellers on a ten-kilometre stretch of road. Hussein
would take this back to the Americans and receive a "yes-slash-no kind
of answer: We will take it up, we'll get back to them soon-the soon
becomes never." In this way, he was privy to both sides of the deepening
mutual disenchantment. The fact that he had no contact with Sunnis did
not make Hussein feel any safer: by 2004, Shia militias were also
targeting Iraqis who worked with Americans.