Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- Iraqi citizens or anyone else walking past the International Zone’s (formerly the Green Zone) reinforced ‘T-Walls’ cannot help but stare in amazement at these high blast-proof concrete slabs and the barbed wire coils surrounding the complex. Numerous surveillance towers are spread throughout the area and if you look closely, you can spot the barrels of the snipers’ rifles.
There is a heavy sniper presence in the area; you see them hunched over their rifles, their eyes unflinching before the telescope and fingers steady on the trigger. Snipers are deployed on the roofs of al Rasheed Hotel, the Iraqi cabinet and parliamentary buildings and on top of the former Ministry of Planning building.
The International Zone, in the mind of many of the city’s dwellers, is another planet that lies in the midst of their lives. Most of my friends ask me what it is like behind these walls and wonder about the daily lives of its residents, while some around Baghdad have woven elaborate and unrealistic stories about the place and those living behind its fortress.
Responsible for the International Zone maximum fortification and security are the US Special Forces, snipers, and specially trained explosive-sniffing dogs. Within the zone, there are US forces, multinational forces and private security companies in which most of the personnel cannot communicate in English or Arabic. These include forces from Tibet, Thailand, or Georgia.
Entering into the International Zone, you encounter various checkpoints by the gates and beyond them. The complex houses foreign embassies; their offices and accommodation, including the US and British embassies. In fact, excluding the German and French embassies, which are located in al Karada district and by the Kahraman Square respectively, all other Western embassy headquarters are enclosed within the International Zone.
The complex, of course, also includes palaces of senior Iraqi officials and villas belonging to the prime minister, government ministers, MPs, in addition to residences for chauffeurs, security escorts and the protection squads of the incumbent government and [Ibrahim] Jaafari’s previous one. As for the President of the republic, Jalal Talabani; he resides outside the International Zone along with some of his advisers.
The zone is spread out over an area that includes three neighborhoods and a suspension bridge and its borders extend from al Qadisiyah and al Kendi districts in the west, Jumhuriyah Bridge, and al Zawra Park to the north and all the distance to the Tigris River both east and south. This area also includes al Qadisiyah’s highway, al Rasheed Hotel tunnel and the hotel itself with the surrounding areas.
There are three main entrances connecting to the main streets, the most important of which is the Jumhuriyah Bridge gate, which is located before the bridge towards the al Karkh area by the Ministry of Planning. The second entrance lies in close proximity to the al Rasheed Hotel and leads you to the parliamentary and cabinet buildings and the Baghdad Conference Palace, which is the seat of the Iraqi parliament. The third entrance is located at the top of the suspension bridge towards al Rasafa; however, there is another entrance known as ‘al Qadisiyah’ but it requires security permits. All the entrances without exception have a heavily armed US security force stationed at all times supported by either tanks or armored forces an including interpreters and explosives-sniffing dogs.
But entering the International Zone is not that simple. Those holding badges that are signed and authorized by the US and British embassies and the Iraqi government can enter at any time from any of the gates and are allowed to bring in a guest into the zone. Other badges, which come in a variety of colors that range from blue to green, yellow and red, include either the signature of one of the embassies or of the government only, not all three. The weakest of these badges is the one that is signed by the Iraqi government, since it only entitles the holder to enter into the parliamentary building. Regardless of their position; all badge-holders (with the exception of ministers) are subject to strict inspection measures that are frequently humiliating.
Previously, the area that is currently the International Zone was open to pedestrians and vehicles until the early 1980s, after which it largely restricted entry to small cars only. At the time, it was inhabited by the owners of property in the area rather than people working in the Republican Palace.
Drawing a quick comparison between the area that was once controlled by Saddam Hussein and that which is presently controlled by the International Zone, one would find that Saddam’s forces only controlled one-third of the area currently under the control of the US forces and the foreign and Iraqi officials. However, following his appointment as president of the republic, Saddam gradually seized control of the area, compensating the citizens whose houses had been taken.
But if this area was somewhat inaccessible during Saddam’s regime, it has now transformed into a strictly off-limits to Iraqis under the present occupation. US forces have added new areas to the prohibited zones, furthermore forbidding Iraqi citizens from using the suspension bridge, which is a major shortcut that significantly decreases the distance between the al Karkh and al Rasafa districts. Likewise, Iraqis are not allowed to use the al Qadisiyah’s highway and the tunnel that connects al Nisur Square to al Rasheed Hotel. This is not to mention depriving families of the recreational spaces of al Zawra Park and the Grand Festivities Square.
The main problem is that the American forces did not make efforts to maintain the additional areas it annexed and added to the International Zone; the Grand Festivities Square, with its famous balcony and reception halls, as well as the presidential palaces that have been seized by the US forces and used as bases for security and intelligence agencies have suffered some serious damage.
Deputy Security Director of the International Zone, Ali al Oqabi pointing to a map of the International Zone affirmed that even they cannot ascertain an accurate figure for the size of the complex and that this information is likely to be included only in the security records.
He added that, “the zone includes private residences that are owned by Iraqis who have been living on the premises for many years. There are also those who have returned to their homes, which had been seized by Saddam and for which they had received compensation against their will. These people are free to do what they want with their property.”
We sat down to have tea in a nearby café that is located within a large market attached to a residential compound in which Saddam’s Republican Palace staff and officers once lived. “This compound, known as al Qadisiyah, belongs to the state and its apartment’s are rented out for nominal sums to cabinet members and parliamentary MPs and officials,” al Oqabi explained.
“After the fall of Saddam’s regime, many families had fled but they soon returned to their homes after they felt they were safe here. However, there is a group of Iraqis who took over the houses and villas and some of apartments by force despite never having been residents in the area. Those are who we refer to as ‘al Hawasim’*, but they have been legally removed from the properties,” he said.
Al Oqabi added that the compound has Iraqis from all segments of society and affirmed that, “there is no discrimination and everyone here lives in peace.” He also noted that the al Qadisiyah compound has 750 apartments, which means that 750 families are based there and their children are distributed among seven schools. The compound also has a hospital, markets and shops for foodstuffs, clothes, electronic materials, hairdressers and barbers, bakeries, cafes and restaurants. This means that everything is available to the residents and they do not need to go outside the Green Zone, especially since the majority of the compound’s resident personnel are from Iraqi parliament and cabinet, which is based in the International Zone.”
But that does not mean that the families living in the compound or anywhere in the International Zone are imprisoned within it. “There are blue badges issued by the security authorities to residents that allow them to enter and exit the premises of the International Zone as they please,” he said and added, “they may also receive guests from outside of the zone at their own responsibility after showing their badge and making a record of the guest’s identity card.”
* Term coined by Saddam to refer to the 2003 war, which he called “maarakat al hawasim’. Hawasim is an adjective and noun derived from the verb ‘hasama’ meaning ‘looters’ or ‘thieves’ in this context.