War on Iraq

In Baghdad, Mixed Feelings Over Iraqi Takeover of Green Zone

Among Iraqis, joy at the U.S. handover is tempered by doubts about the competence of its new guards.

At the gates of the Green Zone every day, Marwa Yasin is greeted by a volley of suggestive remarks from the Iraqi guards who this month took over from their American counterparts on checkpoint duty.

"Why is the moon so cross?" the men say, calling Yasin by the colloquial term for an aloof, beautiful woman. "What are you doing after work today? Why didn't you call me yesterday?"

The 19-year-old student is one of a growing group of women who says they run a gauntlet of insults and innuendo when they go to the Green Zone, a fortified complex of government offices, palm orchards and palaces built by Saddam Hussein. For the past six years, it has symbolized the United States presence in Iraq.

Iman al-Khalidi, a 23-year-old journalist, says she returned from a trip to the Green Zone to find a note containing a phone number inside her bag, supposedly left by a "lover who could who could not sleep" since he saw her at a checkpoint.

Khalidi believes the paper had been placed inside her bag during a search.

The responsibility for securing this vast area of central Baghdad passed from American to Iraqi forces on January 1, 2009.

Iraqi officials insist they will investigate all allegations of harassment against the guards now in charge of security.

Marwa Yasin, who attends an exclusive school inside the zone, says women had less to fear when the Iraqi security forces had American overseers.

"The American soldiers would punish any Iraqis who verbally harassed us and take away their badges," she said. "Now we miss their protection."

Most Iraqis and foreigners were barred from the Green Zone unless they lived or worked there. The U.S. military controlled access, protecting government officials and diplomats from the insurgency raging beyond its walls.

Amid a recent improvement in security, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki was able to hail the handover of the Green Zone as a sign that his country was regaining its sovereignty.

Weeks earlier, his government had finalized a deal on the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

The government says it will eventually open up the Green Zone to the public, though it has not set a date for this.

Mahdi Kathem, the 33-year-old owner of a food store in Baghdad's Harethya neighbourhood, said, "Entering the Green Zone has been like a dream for us."

He says the transfer of the zone to Iraqi control is a big step in the "restoration of our sovereignty".

Like Kathem, most Baghdadis are pleased at the promise of regaining access to a once-forbidden part of their city.

However, many who have been working inside the Green Zone are pessimistic about its prospects under Iraqi control.

They fear the gradual withdrawal of American forces will worsen security and take a chunk out of their earnings.

Adil Mahmoud, a 20-year-old taxi driver, says the takeover of the zone by Iraqi security forces has been bad for business.

"My profits have fallen because of traffic jams inside the zone," he said. "The Iraqi forces are closing off streets and setting up checkpoints, creating congestion just like they've done in the rest of Baghdad."

Ali Jasim, a 22-year-old working in the zone's Iraqi-owned Freedom restaurant, says the new security arrangements have prompted foreign companies to relocate to Baghdad airport, which remains largely under the control of foreign guards.

"The number of customers who used to come to the restaurant has fallen by half because of the danger," Jasim said.

A government official insists Iraqi forces are capable of keeping the zone secure for all its occupants.

"I am not aware of any organizations leaving the Green Zone," said Firyad Rawanduzi, a member of the Iraqi council of representatives' security and defense committee.

"Security for all areas inside the zone is handled by Iraqi forces and they have done their job successfully."

Rawanduzi also said his committee had not received any reports from women of misconduct or harassment by the guards. "We will punish anyone guilty of such behavior if we receive complaints in the future," he said.

Over the past year, general improvements in security across Iraq have helped lessen the Green Zone's isolation.

Mohammed, a 17-year-old working with a private security firm inside the zone, says he is now able to visit his family outside more frequently.

At the height of the violence, he was confined to the zone because of the threat from militants to anyone who worked there. The teenager spent long periods without seeing the family he had given up his schooling to support.

Mohammed's mementoes from his last two-and-a-half years inside the zone include a photo of himself with some American soldiers.

"The handover is a good step," said Mohammed, who did not give his real name because of security concerns. "We have to protect our areas by ourselves."

Despite the ceremonial handover on January 1, the U.S. military currently still has a presence in the Green Zone, mentoring and supporting the Iraqi force.

Iraqi officials say the handover will be completed on March 31, at the end of a three-month transition period. The minister for national security, Shirwan al-Waeli, says U.S. forces are training and monitoring the Iraqis' handling of "technical equipment and other such issues."

Waeli says protection of the Green Zone has been assigned to a brigade of 3,000 men from the ministry of defense, who are under the command of the prime minister.

He says the government plans to support the brigade's work with an intelligence unit, supplied by the ministry of national security.

The agreement on the U.S. forces' withdrawal from Iraq, signed late last year, says the Green Zone must be fully handed over to the Iraqi government.

Iraqi forces already guard all five entrances to the zone. They also control vehicle checkpoints inside the zone.

Pedestrian checkpoints inside are jointly manned by Iraqi and American forces. The Iraqis there have the same duties as the Americans, asking for badges and checking them.

On the ground, the Iraqis are getting to grips with the new order.

"Now I, as an Iraqi officer, can give orders to the American soldier, whereas this was not possible in the past," said Mohammed Ameen Abbas, a 24-year-old officer in charge of a checkpoint in the Green Zone.

Ali Hameed, a 19-year-old soldier at another checkpoint, said Iraqi guards are more understanding than the Americans.

"We can still assist our citizens, even if they do not have identification cards with them," he said. "The Americans were strict in their treatment of Iraqis. It is different now that we have taken responsibility."

However, Marwa, who goes to school inside the zone, fears the Iraqi guards will be less reliable.

"The American soldier would never single anyone out for favorable treatment, even if it was his father," she said.

"But the Iraqi soldiers can show courtesy to their friends and let them enter the Green Zone, even though they do not have identification cards. What guarantee is there that a suicide bomber might not enter the zone and head to my school?"

 

Abeer Mohammed is an IWPR trainee and freelance journalist in Baghdad.
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