The Iraqis who trusted America the most.
by George Packer
'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.
An Iraqi interpreter wears a mask to conceal his identity while he assists a soldier delivering an invitation to an Imam for a meeting with an American colonel. Photograph by James Nachtwey.
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,” he said.
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 the Ambassador.
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 punctured bag.”
“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.
In June, 2006, with kidnappings and sectarian killings out of control in Baghdad, the number of Iraqis working in the Embassy’s public-affairs section dropped from nine to four; most of those who quit fled the country. The Americans began to replace them with Jordanians. The switch was deeply unpopular with the remaining Iraqis, who understood that it involved the fundamental issue of trust: Jordanians could be housed in the Green Zone without fear (Iraqis could secure temporary housing for only a limited time); Jordanians were issued badges that allowed them into the Embassy without being searched; they weren’t subject to threat and blackmail, because they lived inside the Green Zone. In every way, Jordanians were easier to deal with. But they also knew nothing about Iraq. One former Embassy official, who considered the new policy absurd, lamented that a Jordanian couldn’t possibly understand that the term “February 8th mustache,” say, referred to the 1963 Baathist coup.
In the past year, the U.S. government has lost a quarter of its two hundred and six Iraqi employees, and many have been replaced by Jordanians. Not long ago, the U.S. began training citizens of the Republic of Georgia to fill the jobs of Iraqis in Baghdad. “I don’t know why it’s better to have these people flown into Iraq and secure them in the Green Zone,” a State Department official said. “Why wouldn’t we bring Iraqis into the Green Zone and give them housing and secure them?” He added, “We’re depriving people of jobs and we’re getting them whacked. It’s not a pretty picture.”
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