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Inside Iraq's Green Zone

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On Sale: September 19, 2006
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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents

Synopsis

An unprecedented account of life in Baghdad’s Green Zone, a walled-off enclave of towering plants, posh villas, and sparkling swimming pools that was the headquarters for the American occupation of Iraq.

The Washington Post’s former Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran takes us with him into the Zone: into a bubble, cut off from wartime realities, where the task of reconstructing a devastated nation competed with the distractions of a Little America—a half-dozen bars stocked with cold beer, a disco where women showed up in hot pants, a movie theater that screened shoot-’em-up films, an all-you-could-eat buffet piled high with pork, a shopping mall that sold pornographic movies, a parking lot filled with shiny new SUVs, and a snappy dry-cleaning service—much of it run by Halliburton. Most Iraqis were barred from entering the Emerald City for fear they would blow it up.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews and internal documents, Chandrasekaran tells the story of the people and ideas that inhabited the Green Zone during the occupation, from the imperial viceroy L. Paul Bremer III to the fleet of twentysomethings hired to implement the idea that Americans could build a Jeffersonian democracy in an embattled Middle Eastern country.

In the vacuum of postwar planning, Bremer ignores what Iraqis tell him they want or need and instead pursues irrelevant neoconservative solutions—a flat tax, a sell-off of Iraqi government assets, and an end to food rationing. His underlings spend their days drawing up pie-in-the-sky policies, among them a new traffic code and a law protecting microchip designs, instead of rebuilding looted buildings and restoring electricity production. His almost comic initiatives anger the locals and help fuel the insurgency.

Chandrasekaran details Bernard Kerik’s ludicrous attempt to train the Iraqi police and brings to light lesser known but typical travesties: the case of the twenty-four-year-old who had never worked in finance put in charge of reestablishing Baghdad’s stock exchange; a contractor with no previous experience paid millions to guard a closed airport; a State Department employee forced to bribe Americans to enlist their help in preventing Iraqi weapons scientists from defecting to Iran; Americans willing to serve in Iraq screened by White House officials for their views on Roe v. Wade; people with prior expertise in the Middle East excluded in favor of lesser-qualified Republican Party loyalists. Finally, he describes Bremer’s ignominious departure in 2004, fleeing secretly in a helicopter two days ahead of schedule.

This is a startling portrait of an Oz-like place where a vital aspect of our government’s folly in Iraq played out. It is a book certain to be talked about for years to come.

Excerpt

1

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.

Table of Contents

Map of the Green Zone

Prologue

PART ONE—BUILDING THE BUBBLE

1 Versailles on the Tigris

2 A Deer in the Headlights
The Green Zone, Scene

3 You’re in Charge!
The Green Zone, Scene II

4 Control Freak
The Green Zone, Scene III

5 Who Are These People?

The Green Zone, Scene IV

6 We Need to Rethink This

The Green Zone, Scene V

7 Bring a Duffel Bag

The Green Zone, Scene VI

8
A Yearning for Old Times


PART TWO—SHATTERED DREAMS

9 Let This Be Over
The Green Zone, Scene VII

10 The Plan Unravels
The Green Zone, Scene VIII

11 A Fool’s Errand
The Green Zone, Scene IX

12 We Cannot Continue Like This
The Green Zone, Scene X

13 Missed Opportunities
The Green Zone, Scene XI

14 Breaking the Rules
The Green Zone, Scene XII

15 Crazy, If Not Suicidal
The Green Zone, Scene XIII

16 Lot Left to Be Done

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

Notes

Index
Rajiv Chandrasekaran|Author Q&A

About Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Rajiv Chandrasekaran - Imperial Life in the Emerald City

Photo © Fran Ramos-Sabugo Rodriguez

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, right, is a senior correspondent and associate editor at The Washington Post, where he has worked since 1994. He has been the newspaper’s bureau chief in Baghdad, Cairo, and Southeast Asia, and he has been covering Afghanistan off and on for a decade. Chandrasekaran is the author of Little America and Imperial Life in the Emerald City, which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2007 by The New York Times.
 
@rajivwashpost

Rajiv Chandrasekaran is available for select speaking engagements. To inquire about a possible appearance, please contact Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau at speakers@penguinrandomhouse.com or visit www.prhspeakers.com. 

Author Q&A

Q: The stories contained here are pretty explosive. You detail how Bernard Kerik was more interested in photo-ops than training the Iraqi police, how prospective Coalition Provisional Authority staffers were asked for their views on Roe v. Wade, how a 24-year-old without any finance background was put in charge of rebuilding the Iraqi stock exchange. Why hasn't this been widely written about before?

A: During the occupation, most journalists were focused on U.S.military operations or on feature stories about newly liberated Iraqis reveling in their freedom; very few reporters spent any appreciable time digging into the CPA. Early on, my editor at The Washington Post very wisely encouraged me to keep my eyes on Ambassador Bremer and his occupation government. But the CPA was incredibly difficult to penetrate. The CPA's press office placed all sorts of barriers in the way of reporters who sought to interview, or simply interact with, CPA staffers. (They insisted that a press minder be present at any meeting between a journalist and a CPA employee.) I managed to get around those rules by calling and e-mailing CPA officials directly, but it was an onerous process, and I was only able to scratch the surface ofthe organization. My reporting eventually led to a three-part series in The Post about the CPA's unfulfilled promises. Although the series was published two weeks before the CPA was dissolved, the overwhelming interest in those stories led me to continue digging—and to write this book.

Most of juiciest parts of the book were the result of reporting conducted in the United States after the end of the occupation. It was not until CPA staffers had returned home that I could speak to them without fear of getting busted by the press minders. Some of them were ready to talk right away; others only decided to cooperate after seeing their grand initiatives crumble away. Some were willing to talk on the record; others, who continued to work for the Bush administration, only agreed to cooperate on "background" because they feared retribution. I often sat down with people for four or five hours at a stretch to have them describe in painstaking detail their experiences with the CPA and life inside the Green Zone. (I joked thatI provided free therapy to dozens of disillusioned people.) After the first few interviews, it became clear that I was onto an amazing tale of American folly. I can only assume the reason why others haven't written about the CPA is that it didn't seem exciting on first glance. What I discovered, however, is that dogged reporting can yield some really fascinating material.

Q: Were you shocked by the disparities between the Green Zone and the rest of Baghdad? What surprised you most?

A: I had always expected the Americans to establish a headquarters area in Baghdad for the occupation administration, but I had assumed that they would set things up so that the Americans working for the CPA would be able to easily interact with Iraqis, and vice versa. Of course, as security conditions deteriorated, it became necessary to wall off the Green Zone and restrict travel, but those steps were taken well before they became necessary, depriving the Americans of the ability to communicate with—and learn from—Iraqis. I figured that, at the very least, there would be some attempt to expose Americans in the Green Zone to Iraqi cuisine, culture, and customs. Instead, they got bacon, booze, and bare midriffs. What surprised me more than anything else was that you could spend months in the Green Zone and never eat a traditional Iraqi meal or learn anything about Islam. Like most journalists in Iraq, I lived outside the Green Zone. Whenever I went inside, I felt as if I had entered a Disney-like fantasy land: I waited under wooden shelters for air-conditioned shuttle buses, I ate hot dogs for lunch, and I heard my fellow Americans describe a vision for the future that seemed divorced from reality that I experienced outside the walls.

Q: How did Bremer's misjudgment of Ayatollah Sistani's power and import within Iraq handicap him throughout his time there? Is this indicative of his attitude towards Iraq during his tenure as viceroy?

A: Bremer and his senior staff knew Sistani was an important religious leader, but they never understood that the grand ayatollah was the most influential political figure in the country until they had made a series of decisions that set them on a crash course with his fatwa. Had they appreciated his influence from the beginning, and then enlisted more influential interlocutors to communicate with him, they might have come up with a workable political transition plan much sooner.

Q: You write about how the main factor in hiring people to work for the CPA was loyalty to the Bush administration. How was this enforced? Were there any Democrats working there? Does this remain the case today?

A: There were some Democrats there. (Please see Page 81: my scene about Donkeys in the Desert.) The principal enforcer of Republican loyalty was Jim O'Beirne, the White House liaison to the Pentagon. His office was responsible for hiring most CPA staffers. (I write about him in Chapter 5.) Instead of seeking out the best-qualified people, regardless of party affiliation, he sought out young Republicans from conservative think tanks, cabinet departments, and the offices of Republican members of Congress. There are probably more Democrats there today because the State Department is in charge of the U.S. Embassy. By law, State cannot ask people applying for most embassy jobs about their party affiliation.

Q: You talk about John Agresto, who was well (and closely) connected to Rumsfeld and Cheney, and had thus been appointed to rehabilitate Iraq's university system. After his time in Iraq, his disillusionment let him to describe himself as "a neoconservative who's been mugged by reality." How widespread do you think that feeling was?

A: Agresto was one of the very few CPA staffers I met in Baghdad who voiced disillusionment with the grand American experiment to remake Iraq, and he did so only as he was planning to depart for good. If his colleagues had doubts at the time, they didn't share it with journalists, or, for that matter, with anyone else in the palace. The Green Zone was the land of true believers. In the book, I write that "unless you knew someone really, really well, you didn't question American policy over a meal" in the dining hall. I also recount how staffers in the CPA's press office stared as one man unwrapped a care package from his mother to find a book written by Paul Krugman. "It was like I had just unwrapped a radioactive brick," the man told me.

Some of that changed once the CPA dissolved and its personnel returned to their regular lives in the United States. By early 2005, with violence increasing, with religious parties winning elections, with reconstruction projects stalling or being scrapped altogether, with extremists on rise, some of the true believers began questioning the core assumption that brought them to Iraq—that Bremer's CPA would beable to turn Iraq into a stable, secular, free-market democracy. Many of those people agreed to talk to me for this book. Most of them still work for the Bush administration, and many requested that I not use their names in print.

Halfway through my time in Iraq, after reading Neil Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie," I wondered whether there was a John Paul Vann in the Green Zone. I kept my ears open for someone as outspoken as Vann, but I never found anyone who saw the failings of America's political and military strategy in Iraq as clearly as Vann did in Vietnam. Some have suggested that Agresto is my Vann, but one crucial difference remains: Vann died believing that Vietnam was winnable; Agresto, as I detail in the end of the book, has no such optimism about Iraq.

Q: You note in one of the several, insightful vignettes from the Green Zone that many British members of the CPA were not on board with the mission in Iraq, as evidenced by their note on a bulletin board saying "YEE HAW IS NOT A FOREIGN POLICY." What was the relationship like between the British and the Americans in the Green Zone, given the nearly universal disapproval of any critical commentary of Bush or the job in Iraq?

A: The relationship was tense at best. In marked contrast to their American counterparts, many of the Brits who came to work for the CPA were diplomats who spoke Arabic, had worked in the Middle East, and had post-conflict reconstruction experience. The British also knew about the history of foreign occupation of Iraq—thousands of their countrymen died in an invasion and occupation of Iraq in the early 20th century—and they understood the need for modest, incremental change that involved full Iraqi participation, instead of sweeping, top-down solutions sought by the American bureaucrats cloistered in the Emerald City. As a consequence, the Brits in the Green Zone often found themselves at odds with the Americans.

It was the British, for instance, who argued against a plan by neoconservative American economists to replace monthly food rations with cash payments. It was supposed to be a first step toward eliminating government handouts, and the economists proposed that it be accomplished by issuing every Iraq family a "smart card" to track their stipends. When the Brits heard about the plan, they were flabbergasted. Nobody in Iraq used credit cards, and food merchants didn't have more than a few hours of electricity a day; there was no way the cards could be processed. The British, with the help of senior U.S. military officers, eventually prevailed on Bremer to scuttle the smart-card plan.

Before long, the British members of the CPA found themselves frozen out of high-level decision making within the Republican Palace. The Americans regarded them as insufficiently committed to the mission to remake Iraq and kept them at arm's length. But they didn't want to send them packing. Having the Brits around helped perpetuate the notion that the occupation of Iraq was a "coalition" project.

Here's a telling anecdote that I recently heard (and that's not in the book): When President Bush arrived at Baghdad's airport for a short, secret visit on Thanksgiving Day 2003, nobody on Bremer's staff alerted Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the top British diplomat Iraq. (Greenstock's office was directly across from Bremer's, in the same palace suite.) Greenstock learned Bush was in Iraq by watching the visit on television.

Q: It's pretty evident that most of the information fed to the press from Iraq during the CPA's existence was less than forthrightfor example, you document Bernie Kerik going on TV discussing how things were improving before he'd even left the Green Zone for the first time; you note that CPA spokesman Dan Senor maintained that Iraqis wanted U.S. troops to stay in Iraq even though the CPA's own polling suggested the opposite. How much of the information released by the CPA could be trusted? How much of the information released now, do you think, can be trusted?

A: The CPA's press office did a masterful job of spinning the media, at least for the first six to nine months of the occupation. (It was, perhaps, one of the most successful things the CPA did!) Facts that made the CPA look good were readily disseminated to the press; those that were unflattering were buried or were never announced. Unlike the spokespeople at U.S. embassies, who often are professional diplomats who represent American interests without partisan bias, the CPA's press office was like a war room for the president's re-election campaign. Many of the people working in the press office were loyal-to-the-core Republicans, drawn from Capitol Hill, cabinet agencies, and GOP-supporting think tanks. They insisted all was going swimmingly with the American experiment in Iraq, even when a quick trip outside the Emerald City made clear that wasn't the case.

When the press corps in Baghdad began to question the CPA's assertions, the press office adopted new strategies: reach out to sympathetic conservative journalists, and put CPA officials on American television programs whose hosts hadn't been to Iraq and couldn't truth-squad CPA claims. It worked for a while, but when the country boiled over in April 2004 because of the Moqtada al-Sadr rebellion and the siege of Fallujah, even the true believers began to question the CPA's–and the White House's–policies.

I think that information coming out of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad today is far more realistic and accurate. The embassy's press officeis staffed with nonpartisan State Department personnel who are doing a much better job conveying the complexity of the situation there.

Q: In the chapter entitled "Bring a Duffel Bag," you discuss Custer Battles LLC, a shockingly inexperienced (and, in the end, unethical) contracting company that was somehow able to secure more than $100 million in contracts from the US government. How did this happen? Was this an isolated event, or were there more shams of this sort?

A: I wish what happened with Custer Battles was an aberration, but it wasn't. There were other firms and individuals engaged in shady–and downright illegal–business practices in Iraq. Some of those cases have been detailed in reports issued by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

The fraud that I detail in the "Bring a Duffel Bag" chapter occurred not just because individuals with Custer Battles decided to break the law, but also because the CPA didn't have the right people and structures to manage the disbursement of billions of dollars of contracts.

One interesting footnote: Since I wrote the book, a federal judge has dismissed key parts of a lawsuit alleging Custer Battles defrauded the U.S. government. The reason? The millions of dollars Custer Battles made from overcharging the CPA involved Iraqi funds, not U.S. taxpayer dollars. Apparently it's not a crime to steal Iraqi money.

Q: Why did CPA officials so frequently ignore the advice of experts who knew more about Iraq?

A: Political considerations were almost always the key determinant in decision making inside the Emerald City. Consider health care (Fred Burkle, a well-regarded public-health specialist, was replaced by Jim Haveman, who had no post-conflict health-care expertise), governance (the views of State Department experts were ignored), or law enforcement (the Justice Department's assessment that 6,000-plus police trainers were needed was discarded by the White House). Politics trumped good sense. Sometimes it was because the White House favored Republican Party loyalists. In other cases, such as with police trainers, the administration didn't want—in the early days—to make it appear that America was planning to stay in Iraq for the long haul.

Q: Will you speak a bit about the pork in the cafeteria? What's the rationale there?

A: The people running the cafeteria wanted to offer comfort food to Americans working in the Green Zone. I don't think there's anything wrong with providing some old-fashioned home cooking, but they could have avoided items that offended Muslims—and they could have served upa few Iraqi dishes. To me, the food selection was a metaphor for the larger American failure to understand Iraqi culture, traditions, and history.

Q: If you had to point your finger at one or two of the worst policy decisions made by Bremer's CPA, what would they be?

A: Many others have identified Bremer's decision to disband the Iraqi army and to deny employment to thousands of Baathists as the two most egregious decisions made by the CPA. While I won't dispute that, there's another that is just as responsible for the mess we're in: The failure to send the right people to work for the CPA. There's no dearth of nation-building talent in the United States; many of our best experts have worked for the State Department, the United Nations, or non-governmental aid organizations. Jim O'Beirne and the White House viewed most of those people as suspect. O'Beirne and the White House wanted people who shared their ideology, even if they lacked Arabic language skills or post-conflict reconstruction experience. We should have sent the best and brightest, not the loyal and willing.

Q: Where do things stand today? What, in your opinion, would turn things around?

A: There's no easy solution. After Bremer left, American officials changed the way Iraqi security forces are recruited and trained, which has been an important development. The State Department has also re-allocated reconstruction money away from Bremer's big projects to smaller, more sustainable initiatives. State has also sought to reach out to Sunnis in a way Bremer's CPA never did. But even so, Iraq remains deeply troubled. I believe Iraq is in the throes of a low-grade civil war, and unfortunately, I think things will get worse before they get better. There was no way, I believe, to avoid a wrenching period of transformation after the fall of Saddam. But I feel that we lost one very valuable year to fix Iraq, and to address challenges such as the insurgency at their nascent stage, because ofthe CPA's missteps.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Absolutely brilliant. It is eyewitness history of the first order. . . . It should be read by anyone who wants to understand how things went so badly wrong in Iraq.”—The New York Times Book Review “A visceral – sometimes sickening – picture of how the administration and its handpicked crew bungled the first year in postwar Iraq. . . . Often reads like something out of Catch-22 or from M*A*S*H.”—The New York Times“Revealing. . . . Chandrasekaran's portrait of blinkered idealism is evenhanded, chronicling the disillusionment of conservatives who were sent to a war zone without the resources to achieve lasting change.”—The New Yorker“Incredible . . . fantastically written. . . . Chandrasekaran's sharp-eyed account of life inside Baghdad's Green Zone offers some of the blackest comedy at the bookstore.”—Entertainment Weekly"Black comedy, set in the graveyard of the neo-conservative dream. Superb."—John le Carré

Awards

FINALIST 2006 National Book Awards
FINALIST 2007 L.A. Times Book Prize (Current Interest)
FINALIST 2007 New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism
WINNER 2007 Ron Riddenhour Book Award
WINNER 2007 Overseas Press Club Book Award
WINNER 2007 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

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