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Versailles on the Tigris
UNLIKE ALMOST ANYWHERE else in Baghdad, you could dine at the cafeteria in the Republican Palace for six months and never eat hummus, flatbread, or a lamb kebab. The fare was always American, often with a Southern flavor. A buffet featured grits, cornbread, and a bottomless barrel of pork: sausage for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, pork chops for dinner. There were bacon cheeseburgers, grilled- cheese-and-bacon sandwiches, and bacon omelets. Hundreds of Iraqi secretaries and translators who worked for the occupation authority had to eat in the dining hall. Most of them were Muslims, and many were offended by the presence of pork. But the American contractors running the kitchen kept serving it. The cafeteria was all about meeting American needs for high-calorie, high-fat comfort food.
None of the succulent tomatoes or the crisp cucumbers grown in Iraq made it into the salad bar. U.S. government regulations dictated that everything, even the water in which hot dogs were boiled, be shipped in from approved suppliers in other nations. Milk and bread were trucked in from Kuwait, as were tinned peas and carrots. The breakfast cereal was flown in from the United States—made-in-the-USA Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes at the breakfast table helped boost morale.
When the Americans had arrived, there was no cafeteria in the palace. Saddam Hussein had feasted in an ornate private dining room and his servants had eaten in small kitchenettes. The engineers assigned to transform the palace into the seat of the American occupation chose a marble-floored conference room the size of a gymnasium to serve as the mess hall. Halliburton, the defense contractor hired to run the palace, brought in dozens of tables, hundreds of stacking chairs, and a score of glass-covered buffets. Seven days a week, the Americans ate under Saddam’s crystal chandeliers.
Red and white linens covered the tables. Diners sat on chairs with maroon cushions. A pleated skirt decorated the salad bar and the dessert table, which was piled high with cakes and cookies. The floor was polished after every meal.
A mural of the World Trade Center adorned one of the entrances. The Twin Towers were framed within the outstretched wings of a bald eagle. Each branch of the U.S. military—the army, air force, marines, and navy—had its seal on a different corner of the mural. In the middle were the logos of the New York City Police and Fire departments, and atop the towers were the words thank god for the coalition forces & freedom fighters at home and abroad.
At another of the three entrances was a bulletin board with posted notices, including
those that read, bible study—wednesdays at 7 p.m.
go running with the hash house harriers!
feeling stressed? come visit us at the combat stress clinic.
for sale: like-new hunting knife.
lost camera. reward offered.
The kitchen, which had once prepared gourmet meals for Saddam, had been converted into an institutional food processing center, with a giant deep fryer and bathtub-size mixing bowls. Halliburton had hired dozens of Pakistanis and Indians to cook and serve and clean, but no Iraqis. Nobody ever explained why, but everyone knew. They could poison the food.
The Pakistanis and the Indians wore white button-down shirts with black vests, black bow ties, and white paper hats. The Kuwaiti subcontractor who kept their passports and exacted a meaty profit margin off each worker also dinned into them American lingo. When I asked one of the Indians for French fries, he snapped: “We have no French fries here, sir. Only freedom fries.”
The seating was as tribal as that at a high school cafeteria. The Iraqi support staffers kept to themselves. They loaded their lunch trays with enough calories for three meals. Between mouthfuls, they mocked their American bosses with impunity. So few Americans in the palace spoke Arabic fluently that those who did could have fit around one table, with room to spare.
Soldiers, private contractors, and mercenaries also segregated themselves. So did the representatives of the “coalition of the willing”—the Brits, the Aussies, the Poles, the Spaniards, and the Italians. The American civilians who worked for the occupation government had their own cliques: the big-shot political appointees, the twentysomethings fresh out of college, the old hands who had arrived in Baghdad in the first weeks of occupation. In conversation at their tables, they observed an unspoken protocol. It was always appropriate to praise “the mission”—the Bush administration’s campaign to transform Iraq into a peaceful, modern, secular democracy where everyone, regardless of sect or ethnicity, would get along. Tirades about how Saddam had ruined the country and descriptions of how you were going to resuscitate it were also fine. But unless you knew someone really, really well, you didn’t question American policy over a meal.
If you had a complaint about the cafeteria, Michael Colewas the man to see. He was Halliburton’s “customer-service liaison,” and he could explain why the salad bar didn’t have Iraqi produce or why pork kept appearing on the menu. If you wanted to request a different type of breakfast cereal, he’d listen. Cole didn’t have the weathered look of a war-zone concierge. He was a rail-thin twenty-two- year-old whose forehead was dotted with pimples.
He had been out of college for less than a year and was working as a junior aide to a Republican congressman from Virginia when a Halliburton vice president overheard him talking to friends in an Arlington bar about his dealings with irate constituents. She was so impressed that she introduced herself. If she needed someone to work as a valet in Baghdad, he joked, he’d be happy to volunteer. Three weeks later, Halliburton offered him a job. Then they asked for his résumé.
Cole never ate pork products in the mess hall. He knew many of the servers were Pakistani Muslims and he felt terrible that they had to handle food they deemed offensive. He was rewarded for his expression of respect with invitations to the Dickensian trailer park where the kitchen staff lived. They didn’t have to abide by American rules governing food procurement. Their kitchens were filled with local produce, and they cooked spicy curries that were better than anything Cole found in the cafeteria. He thought of proposing an Indian- Pakistani food night at the mess hall, but then remembered that the palace didn’t do ethnic fare. “The cooking had to make people feel like they were back at home,” he said. And home, in this case, was presumed to be somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Cole’s mission was to keep the air in the bubble, to ensure that the Americans who had left home to work for the occupation administration felt comfortable. Food was part of it. But so were movies, mattresses, and laundry service. If he was asked for something, Cole tried to get it, whether he thought it important or not. “Yes, sir. We’ll look into that,” he’d say. Or, “I’m sorry you’re so upset. We’ll try to fix it as soon as possible.”
The palace was the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American occupation administration in Iraq. From April 2003 to June 2004, the CPA ran Iraq’s government—it enacted laws, printed currency, collected taxes, deployed police, and spent oil revenue. At its height, the CPA had more than 1,500 employees in Baghdad, most of them American. They were a motley bunch: businessmen who were active in the Republican Party, retirees who wanted one last taste of adventure, diplomats who had studied Iraq for years, recent college graduates who had never had a full-time job, government employees who wanted the 25 percent salary bonus paid for working in a war zone. The CPA was headed by America’s viceroy in Iraq, Lewis Paul Bremer III, who always wore a blue suit and tan combat boots, even on those summer days when Iraqis drooped in the heat. He was surrounded by burly, submachine gun–toting bodyguards everywhere he went, even to the bathroom in the palace.
The palace was Versailles on the Tigris. Constructed of sandstone and marble, it had wide hallways, soaring columns, and spiral staircases. Massive bronze busts of Saddam in an Arab warrior’s headdress looked down from the four corners of the roof. The cafeteria was on the south side, next to a chapel with a billboard-size mural of a Scud missile arcing into the sky. In the northern wing was an enormous ballroom with a balcony overlooking the dance floor. The heart of the palace was a giant marble rotunda with a turquoise dome. After the Americans arrived, the entire place took on the slapdash appearance of a start-up company. Dell computers sat atop ornate wooden desks partitioned by fabric-covered cubicle dividers. Data cables snaked along the gilded moldings. Erasable whiteboards hung from the mirrored walls.
A row of portable toilets lined the rear driveway. The palace, designed as a showplace for Saddam to meet visiting dignitaries, lacked enough commodes for hundreds of occupants. Dormitory space was also in short supply. Most new arrivals had to sleep on bunk beds in the chapel, a room that came to resemble a World War II field hospital.
Appearances aside, the same rules applied in the palace asin any government building in Washington. Everyone wore an identification badge. Decorum was enforced in the high-ceilinged halls. I remember hearing a soldier admonish a staffer hustling to a meeting: “Ma’am, you must not run in the corridor.”
Whatever could be outsourced was. The job of setting up town and city councils was performed by a North Carolina firm for $236 million. The job of guarding the viceroy was assigned to private guards, each of whom made more than $1,000 a day. For running the palace—cooking the food, changing the lightbulbs, doing the laundry, watering the plants— Halliburton had been handed hundreds of millions of dollars.
Halliburton had been hired to provide “living support” services to the CPA. What that meant kept evolving. When the first Americans arrived in Baghdad in the weeks after Saddam’s government was toppled, all anyone wanted was food and water, laundry service, and air-conditioning. By the time Cole arrived, in August 2003, four months into the occupation, the demands had grown. The viceroy’s house had to be outfitted with furniture and art suitable for a head of state. The Halliburton-run sports bar at the al-Rasheed Hotel needed a Foosball table. The press conference room required large- screen televisions.
The Green Zone quickly became Baghdad’s Little America. Everyone who worked in the palace lived there, either in white metal trailers or in the towering al-Rasheed. Hundreds of private contractors working for firms including Bechtel, General Electric, and Halliburton set up trailer parks there, as did legions of private security guards hired to protect the contractors. The only Iraqis allowed inside the Green Zone were those who worked for the Americans or those who could prove that they had resided there before the war.
It was Saddam who first decided to turn Baghdad’s prime riverfront real estate into a gated city within a city, with posh villas, bungalows, government buildings, shops, and even a hospital. He didn’t want his aides and bodyguards, who were given homes near his palace, to mingle with the masses. And he didn’t want outsiders peering in. The homes were bigger, the trees greener, the streets wider than in the rest of Baghdad. There were more palms and fewer people. There were no street vendors and no beggars. No one other than members of Saddam’s inner circle or his trusted cadre of guards and housekeepers had any idea what was inside. Those who loitered near the entrances sometimes landed in jail. Iraqis drove as fast as they could on roads near the compound lest they be accused of gawking.
It was the ideal place for the Americans to pitch their tents. Saddam had surrounded the area with a tall brick wall. There were only three points of entry. All the military had to do was park tanks at the gates.
The Americans expanded Saddam’s neighborhood by a few blocks to encompass the gargantuan Convention Center and the al-Rasheed, a once- luxurious establishment made famous by CNN’s live broadcasts during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They fortified the perimeter with seventeen-foot-high blast barriers made of foot-thick concrete topped with coils of razor wire.
Open spaces became trailer parks with grandiose names. CPA staffers unable to snag a room at the al-Rasheed lived in Poolside Estates. Cole and his fellow Halliburton employees were in Camp Hope. The Brits dubbed their accommodations Ocean Cliffs. At first, the Americans felt sorry for the Brits, whose trailers were in a covered parking garage, which seemed dark and miserable. But when the insurgents began firing mortars into the Green Zone, everyone wished they were in Ocean Cliffs. The envy increased when Americans discovered that the Brits didn’t have the same leaky trailers with plastic furniture supplied by Halliburton; theirs had been outfitted by Ikea.
Americans drove around in new GMC Suburbans, dutifully obeying the thirty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit signs posted by the CPA on the flat, wide streets. There were so many identical Suburbans parked in front of the palace that drivers had to use their electronic door openers as homing devices. (One contractor affixed Texas license plates to his vehicle to set it apart.) When they cruised around, they kept the air-conditioning on high and the radio tuned to 107.7 FM, Freedom Radio, an American-run station that played classic rock and rah-rah messages. Every two weeks, the vehicles were cleaned at a Halliburton car wash.
Shuttle buses looped around the Green Zone at twenty-minute intervals, stopping at wooden shelters to transport those who didn’t have cars and didn’t want to walk. There was daily mail delivery. Generators ensured that the lights were always on. If you didn’t like what was being served in the cafeteria—or you were feeling peckish between meals—you could get takeout from one of the Green Zone’s Chinese restaurants. Halliburton’s dry-cleaning service would get the dust and sweat stains out of your khakis in three days. A sign warned patrons to remove ammunition from pockets before submitting clothes.
Iraqi laws and customs didn’t apply inside the Green Zone. Women jogged on the sidewalk in shorts and T-shirts. A liquor store sold imported beer, wine, and spirits. One of the Chinese restaurants offered massages as well as noodles. The young boys selling DVDs near the palace parking lot had a secret stash. “Mister, you want porno?” they whispered to me.
Most Americans sported suede combat boots, expensive sunglasses, and nine-millimeter Berettas attached to the thigh with a Velcro holster. They groused about the heat and the mosquitoes and the slothful habits of the natives. A contingent of Gurkhas stood as sentries in front of the palace.
If there was any law in the Green Zone, it was American. Military police pulled drivers over for speeding and drunk driving. When a shipment of office safes arrived, Halliburton prevented its American employees from lifting or delivering them until hand trucks and back braces had been sent to Baghdad. When one CPA staffer complained that she needed her safe—she said she was storing tens of thousands of dollars in her office toilet—Cole explained that Halliburton had to follow American occupational safety regulations.