It is historically akin to the last chopper off the US Embassy roof in Saigon. The Green Zone in Baghdad has been overrun — not by the Sunni militants of Islamic State but by the followers of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. From the sprawling slums of Baghdad’s Sadr City, masses of protesters have come into town and physically pulled down the concrete blast walls that protected the government of Iraq from its own people. They streamed inside on Saturday, chanting, taking videos and selfies on their phones. The US-established and -supported government of Haider al-Abadi had to listen to them and their demands for social services, power, water and healthcare.
First a bit of background to what this means. Back in 2004 I filed a report from Sadr City, then a Shia-dominated part of Baghdad in open rebellion against US forces. Children were planting improvised explosive devices in the street (I was told not to film that). Children were marching and chanting slogans against the Americans and the US-installed Iraqi government (I was encouraged to film that). Meanwhile the Americans sat in their M1A1 Abrams tanks on the outskirts of the slum. They couldn’t enter without being attacked by Muqtada’s militia, who roamed the streets. I was almost detained for being a spy by some of those militia, but luckily for me I was in the company of a well-known local Shia journalist who got me out of that.
Overhead, Apache helicopters attacked at will. The famous footage leaked by Julian Assange called “Collateral Murder” that showed the killing of Iraqi journalists employed by international news agency Reuters was shot from an Apache gunship over Sadr City. Death was sudden and came both from the sky and from the frequent US raids into the area, a rabbit warren of sewage-filled streets and makeshift houses. I went on one with US troops and watched US soldiers harass and almost detain a family of Kurds, their natural allies, in the middle of the night as they raided their house.
Fast forward to 2007: the Green Zone, then renamed the “International Zone”, was the heavily fortified zone on the bank of the Tigris River that housed all the Iraqi government and foreign military leadership, embassies, military headquarters and the parliament itself. Back in 2004 you could walk around the area, and there was a shuttle bus service you could ride un-escorted to whatever military or government building you wanted. There was an outdoor market, which never really recovered from the June 2004 suicide bombing. Rocket and mortar attacks were rare and ineffective and just added to the buzzing excitement of the place.
By 2007, that had all changed. The International Zone was a bleak series of fortified buildings, each with its own detachment of security. The actual perimeter of the zone was protected by 18-foot-high blast walls as well as the ever-present dirt filled Hesco car bomb barriers guarded by US troops. Within that area there was a patchwork of different contractors and security guards, each with different regulations and requirements. Nobody trusted anybody else and movement was very difficult, involving many searches, identity checks and delays.
Mortar attacks were now regular and increasingly accurate. From the underground basement filled with containers that served both as offices and living quarters for the press office, I heard the recorded alarm “incoming approaching”, followed by a siren. Grabbing my camera I headed outside. But the Peruvian guards were having nothing of it. Despite being assigned to guard the press centre they refused to recognise my press credentials, my passport or my written orders and would neither let me out of the building nor back inside. Filming anything was absolutely out of the question, and until a Spanish-speaking reporter from New York arrived, I was caught in the security limbo of arguing with guards who did not speak English and interpreted my increasing agitation as a sign of guilt. Filming at all inside the zone was forbidden, as it was on most US bases in Iraq, for security reasons.
The contractor who was supervising the Peruvians outside the parliament was typical of the type: ex-military, early 40s and with a special forces background. He did not like the press and just wanted to talk about how wrong the press got the Abu Ghraib story in 2004. “These people understand force. They respect that. That is what the press got so wrong,” he said, indicating the Iraqis being searched. The problem for him, he explained,was that he was guarding the parliament. The Iraqi government was actually in control of this area but they employed his company, Triple Canopy, to provide security. Presumably the Iraqi army was not trusted enough to provide security for its own parliamentarians. The bad part of his job to him was that he had to allow Iraqis in. “And we just have to presume they are all potential bombers.” It is not hard to argue with him, considering a suicide bomber did get into the parliament that year, but as the starting point of any exchange with those he is supposed to be guarding, it was easy to see how accidents happen and Iraqi civilians get killed.
It benefited no one to allow the media to reveal how besieged the seat of power for the US-backed Iraqi government had become. The actual physical realities — the blast walls, the Hesco barriers, the razor wire, floodlights, sand-bagged machine gun emplacements and the streets inside the zone devoid of traffic except for convoys of armoured SUVs bristling with weapons — were not really discussed, let alone shown on television. The reason why you were not allowed to film inside the zone was always given as security, but I think part of it was a reluctance to admit just how bad things had become and how tenuous the position of the international zone was.
There used to be a gate where we journalists would queue to get into the press conferences. Back in 2004 I was always nervous using that gate. Delays were common and you were left standing exposed in a line. There were several car bombings at that gate and some shootings from passing cars. The military responded by placing more and more barriers along the footpath to cover those who were queuing. But no matter how far they extended the barriers, there was always a point where the barriers finished and those entering or leaving were exposed.
When I left the Green Zone through that gate in July 2007 I had to run the deserted last 100 metres where even the guards would not go and dash into the waiting vehicle, expecting sniper fire from the buildings across the street. Short of demolishing the buildings and relocating the people, the entrance will never be safe. But even if demolition occurs, there will always be a point where the zone finishes and the real Iraq begins, and in the summer of 2007 there seemed to be nothing the US military could do about that.
As of now, in 2016 — last Saturday, to be exact — there is no difference. The angry Shias from the poorest districts of Baghdad. They pulled down the concrete blast walls with cables and streamed inside, occupying the parliament, and they are staying, to protest the corruption of their government. The citadel that was the Green Zone is breached. I’m sure the helicopters are waiting at the US, Australian and many other foreign embassies in the zone.