Saturday night in Baghdad, and Heidi, the barmaid at the Baghdad Country Club, is worried about the beer. On a busy night, she might serve 800 cold ones to the diplomats, security guards and construction workers who frequent the Country Club, a white cinder-block house with blue trim on a residential street in the Green Zone. The BCC, as it's known, gets its alcohol from suppliers outside the walls, but insurgents are targeting the crossings on either side of the Tigris River. On this Saturday, a truck bomb on a bridge has locked up traffic on the west bank of the Tigris, delaying the delivery of the night's beer supply. Heidi, a recent college graduate from Florida, wonders whether the war will eventually collapse on the Green Zone, the way it did on the U.S. embassy in Saigon. But she doesn't let that occupy her for long. Looking down at the empty glass in her hand, she smiles and says, "Let's do a shot."
Since opening in October, the BCC has become the closest thing to a Western-style drinking establishment in Iraq, the place to go for Cuban cigars, fresh cuts of beef and a decent bottle of Bordeaux. On a clear April night, the white plastic tables in the garden fill up with an assortment of Green Zone archetypes: broad-shouldered security contractors walk in with dates in tight tops and high heels; a handful of diplomats mingle in blazers; a construction worker wearing a fishing vest that reads BAGHDADDY meets his friends at the end of a 12-hour shift. The guards at the gate require that patrons surrender their guns, ammunition, grenades and flash bangs before entering. You get your weapons back at the end of the night.
For those viewing the war in Iraq from afar, reports from inside the Green Zone can make this ravaged city look almost serene. Protected on two sides by the wide, caramel-colored waters of the Tigris and surrounded by high cement walls, the 4-sq.-mi. Green Zone (officially called the International Zone) sits in the middle of Baghdad and is home to thousands of people, including many members of the Iraqi government. Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the Green Zone has been the seat of U.S. power in Iraq, first in the form of the ill-fated Coalition Provisional Authority and now the 1,500-person U.S. embassy, the biggest in the world. To most visiting American dignitaries, the placid, palm-lined streets of the Green Zone are the only glimpse of Iraq they see; to Iraqis, it might as well be another continent. "Living here is like living in Europe," says Haider Hassan, a store clerk at the $280-a-night al-Rasheed Hotel inside the Green Zone. "You miss nothing, starting with electricity, power, water and security. Outside the gates is hell."
But these days hell is starting to feel a lot closer. Even as the U.S. boosts its military presence in Baghdad, violence across Iraq has remained implacable--evidenced most dramatically on Monday in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, when a suicide bomber killed nine U.S. soldiers, one of the deadliest attacks against the military since the war began. Since the start of the U.S. surge, those kinds of insurgent strikes have become more frequent in areas outside the capital. But anxiety is rising in the Green Zone too. Some U.S. soldiers have orders not to travel through the area alone for fear of kidnapping. On March 27, a rocket landed in the complex of housing trailers near the U.S. embassy, killing a U.S. soldier. Security forces were tipped off to the location of two suicide vests, and rumors floated that authorities were looking for a third. That missing vest may have been worn by the suicide bomber who killed one Iraqi politician and wounded 22 in the parliament cafeteria on April 12--an attack that shattered any remaining notion that life in the walled city could go untouched by the battles raging outside. After the bombing, Lieut. Colonel Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, said, "The Green Zone is not safe."
In that assessment lies a portent of doom for the U.S. in Iraq. From the start, the occupation has been informed by illusions--about the strength of the insurgency, about the level of antagonism among Iraq's sects, about the very nature of Arab society and culture. Those illusions could be sustained as long as you stayed within the protected confines of the Green Zone. As much as any other indicator, the deterioration of security inside this ostensible fortress underscores the extent to which the war has spiraled out of the U.S.'s control.
In that sense, it's little surprise that business at the Baghdad Country Club has never been better. For many, it is the ultimate bubble. Escape is the club's most attractive offering. "It helps us forget what is out there," says a sheet-metal worker from Michigan named Alex Manikas, 63. "It is a place you go to keep you sane." On one hand, the popularity of the BCC is proof that a good time can still be found in the world's most dangerous city. But it also captures the contradiction of the Green Zone today: a place that has attained the feeling of permanence in a city where no one wants to be.
The Green Zone is guarded by a crazy quilt of security personnel--Georgian soldiers, Peruvian security guards, Iraqi army, Iraqi police and U.S. soldiers. Moving around the area requires learning a peculiar patois. Upon arriving at a routine checkpoint, you are typically greeted with a succession of questions and demands, issued in Georgian ("gamarjoba," or hello), Spanish ("amigo"), English ("badge"), Arabic ("silah," or weapon) and Iraqi slang ("mamnoon," or thank you). During the course of a recent day of meetings in the Green Zone, I was sniffed by dogs six times, sent my bags through four metal detectors, was photographed once by a body scanner that can see through my clothes and was patted down too many times to count.
Responsibility for coordinating this Tower of Babel still lies with the coalition forces. But in the coming year, more territory within the Green Zone, as in the rest of Iraq, is slated to be turned over to Iraqi government control. Manikas is part of the crew logging 12-hour days to build the new $592 million U.S. embassy, a small city of low-slung, thick concrete buildings with small windows on the banks of the Tigris. When it's finished this fall, the new compound will be the largest embassy ever built. Nearly all U.S. personnel will move out of the Saddam-era Republican Palace and a nearby warren of temporary trailers, where they currently live. In making the move, the U.S. aims to shrink its massive security cordon and hand the marble-floored halls of the palace back to the Iraqis.