Inside Baghdad there is another Baghdad. It is called the Green Zone and my Times colleague Richard Beeston wrote about it in The Spectator a few weeks ago. I visited the Green Zone last month. This was virtual reality. Outside lies a dirty and dangerous country. Within, you encounter a magic park where newly planted young trees wave in the breeze and hopeful Americans with perfect teeth speak only of freedom.
I had come to attend one of the regular press conferences at which the US generals commanding the different military zones report progress in their sector. Inside are marbled halls built by Saddam for an international convention which never convened, and along with a gaggle of local and foreign journalists I waited as a young US soldier adjusted the lectern and projected on to the podium backdrop (in English and Arabic) the logo of the Coalition Provisional Authority: ‘Liberty, Equality’; Fraternity has been dropped. Off-message, gender-balance-wise. Another soldier, more senior this time, announced the programme of speakers and asked us to switch off our mobile phones. A third soldier came in to adjust the microphones.
Soldiers do most things in the Green Zone. They march about saluting each other, set up the press conferences and take the press conferences. In their ideal world they would also ask the questions and then report their own answers. All are dressed in similar pale-yellow-beige, sandy-looking camouflages. All, from generals down, wear pale desert boots. Most have pale Caucasian faces and many have sandy hair too. From time to time, even in the Green Zone, one of this bleached, almost eyebrowless tribe quicksteps tightly past a representative of the Iraq outside — a nation of swarthy, dark-skinned people with thick black hair, bushy eyebrows, colourful shirts, bad teeth and a looser walk. You get the weird impression that one or the other — the soldier or the Iraqi — must be a ghost: two figures in a photograph in which one figure has been horribly overexposed. The blanched combatant looks like an intruder from a parallel universe, superimposed upon this Middle Eastern one. Idly you wonder whether one might sail like the Mary Celeste right through the other. Sometimes duty propels the bleached ones temporarily beyond the cultural biosphere of their Green Zone and into the real Iraq, where they stare around as though they had been beamed down into an alien planet but might at any moment — please God — be beamed up home to Missouri.
On to the podium strode Brigadier General Carter F. Ham. He had come to report progress in the military governance of the northern sector. He looked awkward. He looked a decent sort. He looked profoundly unconvinced that he had been put on this Earth to command heathen tribes speaking strange tongues far from his native land. On to the screen behind him was now projected a big circular emblem, stamped around its circumference, as on a coin, in English and Arabic, the boast ‘OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM’.
As he spoke, Arab-speaking journalists among us put on headphones. When they spoke General Ham awaited a translation, and a minute’s silence would ensue as he listened to his headphones, staring glassily around. Then he would answer in English. It was fun to guess from his answers what the questions had been. General Ham made a statement about security in his sector, taking care to mention America’s ‘Coalition Partners’ at least once, and coining the immortal phrase, ‘We are grateful to the Albanian commando.’ As he spoke, hopeful thoughts were projected on to the screen behind him: ‘Building Stability’. Then he took questions, including (by satellite) inquiries from journalists on the home planet: in the Pentagon. I had thought, as General Ham made his statement, that he was reading a prepared text, but realised from his answers that was just how he spoke. ‘I-think-we-are-in-good-shape,’ he intoned in a stolid, reading-aloud voice: ‘Yes-we-are-doin’-quite-well.’ Most questions were about what Green-Zoners call the ‘insurgents’ and the ‘insurgency’. The Coalition are getting insistently delicate about words, and fault has been found with the plain English ‘rebel’ (lest it imply a rebellion) or ‘terrorist’ (lest it imply organisation) or ‘guerrilla’ (lest it imply a war).
Whatever the nomenclature, the general had a foolproof strategy for dealing with the issue. Failures in security were a sign of the Coalition Partners’ success, because violent acts showed the insurgents were ‘desperate and isolated’. And when Iraqis attack ‘other Iraqis’ (General Ham had no time for types of Iraqis) that ‘indicates the desperate nature of the attackers’. The more they kill, the more desperate they have become: a comforting thought. Someone asked, ‘How will your mission change after 30 June?’ (when sovereignty is handed to the Iraqis). ‘I don’t think it will change significantly,’ replied General Ham, with more realism than tact.
After General Ham came a very senior general indeed: Brigadier General Mark Kimmit, flanked by Dan Seymour, the Americans’ chief press spokesman in Iraq. Kimmit is a lean man with a wary glance — like a chicken eyeing a speck in the sky lest it be a hawk. Mr Seymour is a lean man too, with more fluency than warmth. The pair bore a closer resemblance to suspects than to law-givers. The general read out a long bulletin of raids and arrests from each Iraqi sector — ‘594 patrols, 40 search missions, 6 suspects’ — which took on the air of a BBC shipping forecast. ‘On 30 June, who will you hand over sovereignty to?’ a journalist asked Seymour. ‘We’re working on that.’
According to the next question, it seemed Saddam Hussein’s former supporters were rebranding the old Baath party. They have renamed themselves the New Baath party. The idea owes something to New Labour: ‘traditional values in a modern setting’, as John Prescott put it. Among New Baathists the tone may be set by smaller moustaches.
Next General Kimmit was asked the same question as his brother-general: would the US military’s role change once Iraqis regained their sovereignty? ‘We will continue to operate as before,’ he replied, then, more careful than the bluff Ham, whom by now I was beginning to miss, ‘but as invited guests.’ Amused by General Kimmit’s concept of an invitation, I reflected that this was the general who, when a local Iraqi journalist asked how he answered Iraqi parents whose children were being terrified by low-flying US helicopters, had replied, ‘What we would tell the children of Iraq is that the noise they hear is the sound of Freedom. My wife, who is a schoolteacher, tells the children that when they’re sitting in the classroom and they hear the artillery rounds go off at Fort Bragg — she says, “Children, that’s the sound of Freedom.” They seem to be quite pleased with that explanation.’
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.