Baghdad's Green Zone 'island' prepares for rough seas

Insecurity has become an issue even for those living in the heavily fortified bubble, home to the US Embassy and Iraqi interim government.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told members of the US Congress last week that the Iraqi capital is "good and safe."

That didn't quite capture the mood of Baghdad's Green Zone, the heavily fortified sector on the banks of the Tigris in the center of the city.

Site of Saddam Hussein's most sumptuous Baghdad palaces and now headquarters for both US officials and the Iraqi interim government, the Green Zone - as opposed to what the military calls the "Red Zone," anything outside the vast compound's 12-foot concrete walls - is experiencing a case of the jitters.

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One reason is the approach of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, set to start around Oct. 15 (the exact commencement depends on phases of the moon).

Last year Ramadan saw a surge in violence against the US-led military occupation. This year the holy month starts just two weeks before the US presidential election, an event some US officials say Iraq's insurgents may try to mark with another wave of violence.

Other reasons for the heightened anxiety include the ever-bolder attacks on Baghdad streets just a short drive from the zone, and the recent spike in kidnappings and killings of foreigners in Baghdad.

Then there are the almost daily mortar attacks against the zone - most of which cause little or no damage or injury, but which do rattle nerves.

So even though the Green Zone operates like an island in the Baghdad storm, it is not the picture of tranquility.

On various visits to the Green Zone over the past few weeks, this reporter has noticed few signs that security is being taken for granted. The perimeter walls and tire wells of official vehicles parked in guarded lots are checked for explosives. Even some restaurants inside the supposedly high-security sector are now off limits to a growing number of diplomats and other officials.

On a culinary note, the variety of foods and overall comfort level of the main dining hall's salad bars and other chow stations has declined over the past year, officials report, as security problems have interrupted the flow of convoys provisioning the zone from outside Iraq.

Of course, the Green Zone has never been considered perfectly secure. Last year a US military officer was killed in a rocket attack on the zone's Rasheed Hotel, and officials have worried about infiltration by "sleeper terrorists" among the Iraqis who work in the zone ever since it was created. That's one reason many workers were brought in from other countries.

Some Green Zone residents say they are reassured by the fresh attention being paid to security concerns. But others who have regular cause to enter and work in the sector say they are not impressed.

"They should be worried," says one American technology contractor here who has refused - despite the recent kidnapping and beheading of two US contractors who lived in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood - to relocate to the Green Zone. "I still feel safer where I am than living in there," the contractor says. requesting anonymity. "The place never has been what I'd call secure, but it's gotten worse. If they think the mortars and rockets going in there now are something, they aren't going to know what hit them."

The contractor says military specialists have repeatedly warned of the zone's security shortfalls. Indeed, officials report that a desire to head off any unhappy surprises is prompting "what-if" sessions, where scenarios involving various security breaches are thrown out and responses are weighed - with the idea of taking action so that nothing ever happens.

"What if they were able to take 200 Americans hostage, and announced they would kill one a day until they got what they wanted," one official queries. "What would our response be?"

Such scenarios may be pure fantasy, but they are filtering out amid signs that others are taking the "what-ifs" seriously as well. This week the Philippines reported that it is drawing up contingency plans for evacuating some 4,300 Filipinos working in US-operated bases should a deterioration in security require action. Some of those Filipinos work in the Green Zone.

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