By Ray LeMoine
This was written for the Guardian…
No place better exemplifies George Bush’s war on terror than the Green Zone. First occupied when Baghdad fell, the GZ is four square miles of the city’s finest real estate. Almost immediately the US put up 14-foot concrete blast walls, shutting out the local population. A British journalist I met in Baghdad once emailed me his take:
“The Green Zone was by far the most surreal experience of my life, with all the worst aspects of America fenced into it. Where else in the world could you find a disco playing the Bee-Gees with bulky men on steroids barging into it each other and groping the few chicks there; sweaty overweight US government employees eating Chinese takeout, then cannonballing into a former dictator’s huge swimming pool. Thank god it was zoned off. It’s enough to make you green in the face.”
And that wasn’t even the worst of it.
Nightly mortar attacks on the Green Zone started in mid-March 2004, beginning a siege that lasted four years. Back then I was living in the Republican Palace, the nerve centre of the US-led occupation. Before March, attacks were sporadic – maybe once a week – and there was still a general sense that Iraq might work out. Looking back, the mortars were foreboding. As March ended, Iraq turned and hope vanished.
By April 4 – a day now called Black Sunday – America was fighting a nationwide, dual uprising against Sunni and Shia. The Green Zone was paralysed. Nation-building ceased. From a Green Zone vantage, this was the moment America lost Iraq. It was the moment when usually tempered diplomats said “civil war” was coming, when westerners could no longer walk the streets without being kidnapped.
Now, Bush, about to leave office, is trying to secure his Iraq legacy. This month, America formally handed the Green Zone back to Iraq, complete with a baton-passing ceremony. The timing was not coincidental. Two days later, America opened a new $700m US embassy on 104-acres in the centre of the Green Zone, complete with ribbon-cutting pageantry. Technically, what the US gave back to Iraq was the Green Zone’s perimeter while keeping its heart. Bait and switch, pomp and circumstance, doublespeak – the Green Zone’s hallmarks.
While it made a fine place for security contractors to boot steroids and drink warm beer, the Green Zone came to signify American corruption, arrogance and profiteering, a power hub that somehow spent $100bn on nothing. But the wasted money has little consequence compared to US policy, implemented from the GZ, which led to the deaths of thousands. One early GZ scheme, disbanding the Iraqi army, practically created the insurgency. Another, ignoring thug cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s growing militia, meant combat that left thousands dead and made Sadr the most powerful man in Iraq. For these reasons and many more, the GZ should join Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and Bagram as symbols of Bush-era disgrace.
These days, the Bush administration uses the late-game troop surge as proof of Iraq victory. But the US and Iraq are in a place that looks like early 2004. “Fragile” is the mantra of Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq. The main difference between now and 2004 is that hundreds of thousands Iraqi civilians are dead and millions are displaced.
All Bush did was take Iraq from fragile to hellish and back to fragile. From 2004 until 2006, the civil war germinated as Bush and his Green Zone team told us Iraq was “stabilising” through elections. By February 2006, Baghdad faced mass ethnic cleansing. The capital was rapidly partitioned into mini-Green Zones, each neighbourhood walled and surrounded by militia checkpoints. Iraq’s civil war peaked in September and October 2006, when over 7,000 Iraqis were killed in two months. The 2007-2008 surge provided additional security in the capital and later co-opted the former Sunni insurgency.
Bush did not win Iraq. The surge merely stopped bleeding from a self-inflicted wound. Current Iraqi politics are more akin to “Shakespearean drama than to nascent democracy,” according to the New York Times. Each political party has its own militia. Terrorism is down, but hardly gone – bombs killed 50 last week. President-elect Barack Obama is committed to “removing all combat troops” with room for a “residual force”, without defining the difference between “combat” and “residual”. This foggy language is a reminder that Bush’s war is far from over.