Sunday, July 02, 2006

Immanuel Wallerstein: The Worries of the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq

Commentary No. 188, July 1, 2006

"The Worries of the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq"

The U.S. government tries to keep a brave face about Iraq. It regularly claims it is making progress in its objectives. The recent publication in the press of a June 6 memo that U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad sent to the Secretary of State shows internal discussion that is much more pessimistic. It relates the multiple and growing problems of the Iraqi staff who work for the U.S. government in the ultra-protected Green Zone. It is not a happy story. The Iraqi staff is complaining, says Khalilzad, that "Islamist and/or militia groups have been negatively affecting their daily routine."

Female employees are under great pressure to wear so-called modest dress, sometimes more extreme than that required in Iran. One of them reports that the taxi driver who brings her to work daily has informed her that "he cannot let her ride unless she wears a headcover." In addition to the multiple pressures concerning dresswear (for men as well - no shorts), the employees complain of daily lack of power in their apartments and of having to spend 12 hours on a Saturday on lines for gas.

The situation has become so risky for the employees that they are hiding their employment from everyone, including their own families. They do not use cellphones outside the Green Zone, or even carry them, because this is a dangerous giveaway, especially for females. They reply only in Arabic if called by the Embassy at home. The Embassy has, as a result, ceased calling them at all because they've decided it blows their "cover." Nor can the Iraqi employees be used to translate if press cameras are there.

To enter the Green Zone, the employees must pass checkpoints. Since April the Iraqi guards at these checkpoints have been more "militia-like" and "taunting." One employee asked the Embassy to give her press credentials rather than an employee pass, so that these guards cannot hold up her pass publicly, loudly proclaiming her status to bystanders. "Such information is a death sentence if heard by the wrong people."

Nor are these problems only true of those living in poorer districts. It has affected the so-called "upscale" districts in Baghdad as well, the nearest of which has become an "unrecognizable ghost town" because of fear of being on the streets and growing emigration of the Iraqi middle class. Employees report that their safety depends on their relations with what are in effect neighborhood governments, in which "even local mukhtars have been displaced or coopted by militias." One result is that "people no longer trust most neighbors."

In turn the U.S. Embassy is no longer sure it trusts its very apprehensive Iraqi employees. "We fear they may exaggerate developments or steer us towards news that comports with their own worldview." It makes for a dysfunctional workplace. The Ambassador feels it necessary to report the view of an Arab newspaper editor that "ethnic taking place in almost every Iraqi province."

But the most extraordinary segment of the cable needs to be reproduced in full: "More recently, we have begun shredding documents printed out that show local staff surnames. In March, a few staff members approached us to ask what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate."

Shredding documents? If the United States evacuates? Obviously, the Iraqi employees are remembering Saigon in 1975 as Vietnamese employees of the U.S. embassy and armed forces struggled to get on departing helicopters. Are we already coming to that point? It seems some of the Iraqi employees of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad think so, and the U.S. ambassador is so informing Washington.

by Immanuel Wallerstein

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