This edited version of a leaked memo was published in The Independent, 20 June 2006
The ugly truth about everyday life in Baghdad (by the US ambassador)
FROM: US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Baghdad
TO: Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State
SUBJECT: SNAPSHOTS FROM THE OFFICE
1. Iraqi staff in the Public Affairs sector have complained that Islamist and Militia groups have been negatively affecting daily routine. Harassment over proper dress and habits is increasingly persuasive. They also report power cuts and fuel prices have diminished their quality of life.
2. Two of our three female employees report stepped up harassment beginning in mid-May. One, a Shia who favors Western clothing, was advised by an unknown woman in her Baghdad neighbourhood to wear a veil and not to drive her own car. She said some groups are pushing women to cover even their face, a step not taken in Iran even at its most conservative.
3. Another, a Sunni, said people in her neighbourhood are harassing women and telling them to cover up and stop using cell phones. She said the taxi driver who brings her every day to the green zone has told her he cannot let her ride unless she wears a headcover. A female in the PAS cultural section is now wearing a full abaya after receiving direct threats.
4. The women say they cannot identify the groups pressuring them. The cautions come from other women, sometimes from men who could be Sunni or Shia, but appear conservative. Some ministries, notably the Sadrist controlled Ministry of Transportation, have been forcing females to wear the hijab at work.
Dress Code For All?
5. Staff members have reported it is now dangerous for men to wear shorts in public; they no longer allow their children to play outside in shorts. People who wear jeans in public have come under attack.
6. One colleague beseeched us to help a neighbor who was uprooted in May from her home of 30 years, on the pretense of application of some long-disused law. The woman, who is a Fayli Kurd, says she has nowhere to go, but the courts give them no recourse to this new assertion of power. Such uprootings may be response by new Shia government authorities to similar actions against Arabs by Kurds in other parts of Iraq. (NOTE: An Arab newspaper editor told us he is preparing an extensive survey of ethnic cleansing, which he said is taking place in almost every Iraqi province, as political parties and their militias are seemingly engaged in tit-for-tat reprisals all over Iraq.)
Power Cuts and Fuel Shortages a Drain on Society
7. Temperatures in Baghdad have already reached 115 degrees. Employees all confirm that, by the last week of May, they were getting one hour of power for every six hours without. By early June, the situation had improved slightly. In Hal al-Shaab, power has recently improved from one in six to one in three hours. Other staff report similar variances. Central Baghdad neighborhood Bab al-Nu'atham has had no city power for over a month. Areas near hospitals, political party headquarters and the green zone have the best supply. One staff member reported a friend lives in a building that houses the new minister; within 24 hours of his appointment, her building had city power 24 hours a day.
8. All employees supplement city power with service contracted with neighborhood generator hookups that they pay for monthly. One employee pays 7500 Iraqi dinars (ID) per ampere to get 10 amperes per month (75,000ID = $50/month). For this, her family gets eight hours of power per day, with service ending at 2am.
9. Fuel queues. One employee told us that he had spent 12 hours on his day off waiting to get gas. Another staff member confirmed that shortages were so dire, prices on the black market in much of Baghdad were now above 1,000ID per liter (the official, subsidized price is 250ID)
Kidnappings, and Threats of Worse
10. One employee informed us that his brother-in-law had been kidnapped. The man was eventually released but this caused enormous emotional distress to his family. One employee, a Sunni Kurd, received an indirect threat on her life in April. She took extended leave, and by May, relocated abroad with her family.
Security Forces Mistrusted
11. In April, employees began reporting a change in demeanor of guards at the green zone checkpoints. They seemed to be militia-like in some cases seemingly taunting. One employee asked us to get her some press credentials because the guards held her embassy badge up and proclaimed loudly to passers-by "Embassy" as she entered. Such information is a death sentence if heard by the wrong people.
Supervising Staff At High Risk
12. Employees all share a common tale: of nine employees in March, only four had family members who knew they worked at the embassy. Iraqi colleagues who are called after hours often speak in Arabic as an indication they cannot speak openly in English.
13. We cannot call employees in on weekends or holidays without blowing their "cover". A Sunni Arab female employee tells us family pressures and the inability to share details of her employment is very tough; she told her family she was in Jordon when we sent her on training to the US. Mounting criticism of the US at home among family members also makes her life difficult. She told us in mid-June that most of her family believes the US - which is widely perceived as fully controlling the country and tolerating the malaise - is punishing the population as Saddam did (but with Sunnis and very poor Shia now at the bottom of the list). Otherwise, she says, the allocation of power and security would not be so arbitrary.
14. Some of our staff do not take home their American cell phones, as it makes them a target. They use code names for friends and colleagues and contacts entered into Iraq cell phones. For at least six months, we have not been able to use any local staff for translation at on-camera press events.
15. We have begun shredding documents that show local staff surnames. In March, a few members approached us to ask what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate.
Sectarian Tensions Within Families
16. Ethnic and sectarian faultlines are becoming part of the daily media fare in the country. One Shia employee told us in late May that she can no longer watch TV news with her mother, who is Sunni, because her mother blamed all the government failings on the fact that Shia are in charge. Many of the employee's family left Iraq years ago. This month, another sister is departing for Egypt, as she imagines the future here is too bleak.
Frayed Nerves and Mistrust
17. Against this backdrop of frayed social networks, tension and moodiness have risen. A Sunni Arab female apparently insulted a Shia female by criticizing her overly liberal dress. One colleague told us he feels " defeated" by circumstances, citing the example of being unable to help his two-year-old son who has asthma and cannot sleep in the stifling heat.
18. Another employee tells us life outside the Green Zone has become "emotionally draining". He claims to attend a funeral "every evening". He, like other local employees, is financially responsible for his immediate and extended families. He revealed that "the burden of responsibility; new stress coming from social circles who increasingly disapprove of the coalition presence, and everyday threats weigh very heavily".
Staying Straight with Neighborhood Governments and the 'Alama'
19. Staff say they daily assess how to move safely in public. Often, if they must travel outside their neighborhoods, they adopt the clothing, language, and traits of the area. Moving inconspicuously in Sadr City requires Shia dress and a particular lingo.
20 Since Samarra, Baghdadis have honed survival skills. Vocabulary has shifted. Our staff - and our contacts - have become adept in modifying behaviour to avoid "Alasas", informants who keep an eye out for "outsiders" in neighborhoods. The Alasa mentality is becoming entrenched as Iraqi security forces fail to gain public confidence.
21. Staff report security and services are being rerouted through "local providers" whose affiliations are vague. Those who are admonishing citizens on their dress are not well known either. Personal safety depends on good relations with "neighborhood" governments, who barricade streets and ward off outsiders. People no longer trust most neighbours.
22. A resident of Shia/Christian Karrada district told us "outsiders" have moved in and control the mukhtars.
23. Although our staff retain a professional demeanor, strains are apparent. We see their personal fears are reinforcing divisive sectarian or ethnic channels. Employees are apprehensive enough that we fear they may exaggerate developments or steer us towards news that comports with their own world view. Objectivity, civility, and logic that make for a functional workplace may falter if social pressures outside the Green Zone don't abate.