While they kept Iraqis away, Americans let their hair down in the pool, gazebos, and palm tree-shaded garden of Saddam’s Republican Palace, which was known as Iraq’s White House, in the Green Zone
Nestled in groves of eucalyptus trees in a bend of the Tigris River, Baghdad’s Green Zone was the heart of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime.
It continued to be a symbol of tyranny when it was sealed off for American officials, who made it their base after the US invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam in 2003.
The Green Zone would become a heavily fortified enclave; a bubble known as Little America spread across 10 square kilometers.
It came to symbolize the disconnect between Iraq’s new rulers, who succeeded American administrators, their luxuries and privileges, and the grim realities of the lives of ordinary citizens.
In October 2015, the Green Zone was opened for limited access to the public four months before we spent a day in Baghdad as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS.
We drove nonstop into Baghdad until we neared this fortified area, where the traffic slowed to a crawl. Concrete walls and concertina wires protected the Green Zone housing ministries, embassies, and the villas of politicians, judges, bureaucrats, and diplomats.
It was among the places which escaped the ruin Baghdad suffered after the American invasion. Baghdad mostly wore a decrepit look beyond the Green Zone with litter piled around small houses and apartments a bulk of residents lived in.
The anger over the disparities boiled over shortly after our trip. Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets seeking reforms and against corruption in April 2016.
The protesters breached the zone’s fortified blast walls, brought down a part of it, and stormed Parliament. They waved flags and mocked lawmakers as cowards as they chased them away.
The lawmakers’ failure in reaching a quorum for a vote on a new Cabinet of technocrats to replace officials earlier chosen as per a sectarian and ethnic quota fuelled the anger.
The protests forced the government to declare a state of emergency, block roads leading into Baghdad, and close key installations in the Green Zone dotted with checkpoints, barbed wires, 17-foot blast walls, and barriers.
It was back to square one, months after the Green Zone was reopened partially to offset brewing popular discontent over corruption and poor services.
Little appeared to have changed since the withdrawal of Americans, who largely kept away the natives from the zone except odd Iraqis who worked for them.
In his book Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood, Justin Marozzi recalls how a dinner he had with a senior Iraqi politician at the Al Rashid Hotel on the fringes of the Green Zone was ruined after an American soldier slammed him against a wall for an aggressive body search, completely unprovoked.
‘They treat us like common criminals in our own country,’ the politician told Marozzi as he shook with anger. ‘And this is liberation.’
While they kept Iraqis away, Americans let their hair down in the pool, gazebos, and palm tree-shaded garden of Saddam’s Republican Palace, which was known as Iraq’s White House, in the Green Zone.
A network of canals connecting a water park of man-made lakes, restaurants, and boat docks at the palace made it the perfect place for them to relax. And in case of any eventuality, an adjacent landing area for Black Hawk helicopters was also available.
What happened, wrote Marozzi, inside the Green Zone had very little to do with what happened outside.
When gunfire erupted one night in May 2004, the Americans drinking by the pool thought insurgents were storming the zone. They fled in panic to the palace’s basement only to find later the noise was gunfire celebrating the Iraqi football team’s victory over Saudi Arabia which secured them a place in the Olympics.
The zone’s reopening before our visit was meant at least to help ease one of Baghdad’s woes—congested traffic. That was hardly the case. We experienced it first-hand when the traffic stopped altogether as we reached the Sinak Bridge.
We had come prepared and left Karbala early factoring in Baghdad’s infamous traffic snarls. Even our hosts did not expect the gridlock to be so bad.
We were stuck on the bridge for almost the same time it took us to reach Baghdad from Karbala, over 100 km away. The jam was perhaps among the most innocuous consequences of the war in the barricaded and militarised city. It was a far cry from Najaf and Karbala, where we landed and spent the first few days of our trip.
Heavily-armed soldiers were in greater numbers as we made our way to the bridge over the Tigris, which splits Baghdad into two parts—Al-Karkh (the western bank) and Al-Rusafah (the eastern bank). They were trying their best to ensure the traffic moved.
But the gridlock kept worsening. The streets were packed with armoured 4×4 vehicles, Iranian taxis, tuk-tuks, and even horse-drawn carts. It was not a completely unfamiliar situation for us.
Most of the journalists in our delegation came from big Indian cities such as Bengaluru, which are infamous for their traffic woes.
None of us was complaining. Security did not appear to be an issue either. We were more worried as the traffic jam was eating into the precious time set aside to explore Baghdad.
It made more sense for us to leave our comfortable SUVs and explore the city on foot on a balmy, sunny, and bright winter afternoon. A clear blue sky made the day particularly beautiful for the walking tour.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide