March 29, 2011

Beyond the bubble

Behind the Book by
Share this Article:

I arrived in Baghdad on April 10, 2003, the day after a Marine tank felled the imposing statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdaus Square. At the time, I thought my 12-hour drive from Kuwait, in a sport utility vehicle that lacked armored plates, was the most dangerous thing I’d ever do. We passed rock-throwing bandits, American helicopter gunships strafing Republican Guard holdouts, and looters ransacking government buildings. We stopped in Baghdad’s southern outskirts to watch soldiers pursuing fedayeen armed with rocket-propelled grenades.

How wrong I was.

Over the next 18 months, as Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post, I encountered real danger. I was in a hotel that was struck by a suicide car bomber. I missed driving over a pulverizing roadside bomb by seconds. And I spent two weeks embedded with Marines in Fallujah, taking incoming fire as they sought to clear the city of hard-core insurgents.

When I needed a respite, I went into the Green Zone, the seven-square-mile American enclave in central Baghdad surrounded by concrete walls and razor wire. There I could eat pork bacon for breakfast. I could chill out in a bar. I could buy Doritos and Dr Pepper from the PX. The Green Zone was a perfect rest-and-recreation spot. There were pools, gyms and Chinese restaurants. The problem was that for most Americans in Baghdad save for journalists like myself it wasn’t just for relaxing. It was where they lived and worked and spent almost all of their time.

From inside the Green Zone, the real Baghdad the checkpoints, the bombed-out buildings, the paralyzing traffic jams could have been a world away. The horns, the gunshots, the muezzin’s call to prayer, never drifted over the walls. The fear on the faces of American troops was rarely seen by the denizens of the palace. The acrid smoke of a detonated car bomb didn’t fill the air. The sub-Saharan privation and Wild West lawlessness that gripped one of the world’s most ancient cities swirled around the walls, but on the inside, the calm sterility of an American subdivision prevailed.

The disconnect between life in this bubble and life in the rest of Iraq is a key theme of my book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. The book tells the story of the people and ideas that inhabited the Green Zone dur- ing the occupation, from Viceroy L. Paul Bremer III to the fleet of 20-somethings hired to implement the idea that Americans could build a Jeffersonian democracy in an embattled Middle Eastern country. I describe how Bremer ignored what Iraqis told him they wanted, or needed, and instead pursued irrelevant neoconservative solutions: a flat tax, a sell-off of Iraqi government assets and an end to food rations. I detail how his underlings spent their days drawing up pie-in-the-sky policies, among them a new traffic code and a law protecting microchip designs, instead of rebuilding looted buildings and restoring electricity production. These almost-comic initiatives angered Iraqis and helped fuel the insurgency.

Reporting the book in the Green Zone was the easy part. Waving my American passport and submitting to three separate pat-downs was all it took to get inside. Of course, I did encounter plenty of people who didn’t want to talk to me, or refused to speak candidly, but my travails in the Emerald City were nothing compared to life outside.

In the first few months after Baghdad’s liberation, the house I rented had just two guards, each working 12-hour shifts. As the security situation deteriorated, I hired more guards and bought them more powerful weapons. We reinforced our walls with sandbags and barbed wire. By early 2004, I joked that I had a small militia working for me. We didn’t know it at the time, but our fortifications were noticed by the bad guys, who found new ways to target us. One morning, they bombed the home of a Post translator. He and his family survived, and we relocated them outside Iraq, but it sent us an unambiguous message: We were in the insurgents’ sights.

As roadside bombings became more prevalent, The Post bought the bureau two $90,000 armored Jeep Cherokees. But when they arrived, I realized we had a problem: The shiny silver paint was too conspicuous. The SUVs looked like they belonged to foreign contractors. It was as if they had a big bull’s-eye on them. Risking the wrath of my bosses, I sent the vehicles to Baghdad’s Sadr City slum. Sixty dollars later, the shiny paint was sandblasted off and taxi decals were affixed to the sides. It was urban camouflage.

The trick worked for a while, but when contractors started doing the same thing, I gave up on the armored vehicles and got back in a soft-skinned sedan. As the months passed, the danger mounted. In late 2003, I was in the Baghdad Hotel when it was car bombed. Had the window behind me not been covered with Mylar film, I almost certainly would have been diced with glass shards. A few weeks later, on a drive outside Baghdad, I passed what I thought was a traffic accident. Two cars were on fire. Dozens of people were milling in the road. As I drove by, the mob appeared to be celebrating. When I returned to Baghdad, I learned why: The burned corpses I saw on the road were those of seven Spanish intelligence agents who had been ambushed moments earlier.

I eventually came to conclude that Iraq did not have to turn out the way it has. The Americans who were assigned to govern and reconstruct Iraq in the crucial first months after liberation should have focused on pragmatic policies getting people back to work, improving security and rebuilding the shattered infrastructure instead of the pie-in-the-sky initiatives that I detail in Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

Would that have made a difference? We’ll never know for sure, but doing a better job of governance and reconstruction almost certainly would have kept many Iraqis from taking up arms against their new leaders and the Americans. There still would have been an insurgency, led by zealots who saw no room for compromise, but perhaps it would have been smaller and more containable.

If this place succeeds, an American friend who worked for the occupation administration told me, it will be in spite of what we did, not because of it. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, where he was Baghdad bureau chief from April 2003 to September 2004. His website is

Imperial Life in the Emerald City
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

ISBN 9781400044870

Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Get the Book

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
ISBN 9781400044870

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Features