Greetings from the Red Zone

Dispatches from a Five-Day Trip to Iraq

Senior Lawrence J. Korb travels through the red and green zones in Iraq, speaks with officials and soldiers, and reports about the current situation.

Day 1: April 7, 2007

Greetings from the Red Zone. I was originally supposed to reside in the Green Zone at the Al Rashid Hotel. But the Green Zone is now referred to as the International Zone because of the repeated shellings (called indirect fire), and despite $36 million in repairs, the Al Rashid is a dump. The air conditioning doesn’t work at all, the elevators only sporadically, and the furniture looks like it was purchased at a yard sale (the reconstruction of the Al Rashid is a metaphor for most of the reconstruction projects in Iraq).

Therefore, after one sleepless night at the Al Rashid and on the advice of a State Department official I made the decision to move to a compound outside the Green Zone. (Given the events that transpired during my visit it was a smart move. Also, living in the compound got me out of the Green Zone and into the real Iraq.)

I am over here at the request of the National Academy of Public Administration—a congressionally chartered organization like the National Academy of Sciences, to which I was elected some 20 years ago—to work on the U.S. Agency for International Development’s National Capacity Development Project, known in Arabic as TATWEER.

The purpose of TATWEER is to assist the government of Iraq’s efforts to strengthen public administration in its civilian ministries. There is no doubt that if a democratically elected government of Iraq is unable to function effectively after our departure, it will not last very long. And to function effectively its policies must be carried out by an honest, nonpartisan civil service.

I arrived here on Saturday April 7 (Saddam Hussein’s birthday) on a flight from Amman. Besides myself and one other NAPA member, virtually all of the other non-Iraqis on the flight were contractors from companies like Blackwater, Halliburton, and Dynacorps. The person sitting next to me on the plane was from Blackwater. He looked like Bruce Willis and was about as talkative about the situation in Iraq and what he does there as Sgt. Friday from Dragnet.

The flight took about an hour to get to Baghdad but we circled the airport for another hour. I assume it was for safety reasons, but it seems to me that the best way to avoid being hit by a missile or a rocket-propelled grenade is to go right in. I know the circling had nothing to do with traffic because there was none. I counted seven aircraft on the ground and none of them moved during the hour.

Getting through Iraqi customs was a chore—it was like Moscow in the early 1990s. There were four lines: three for Iraqis and one for “others”. Like the majority of the passengers we went through the “others” line. It took at least an hour for me and my colleague to get through. The Blackwater and Halliburton people, however, went right around the line. One of the other less fortunate contractors remarked that it was not surprising since they are running the country.

The long wait did allow me to speak to some of the contractors about the situation on the ground. When I assured them I was not a member of the press, they were unanimous that the surge was not working. One of them said that members of Muqtada Al-Sadr’s militia have sold their guns and melted back into the population in Sadr City and will buy back their guns at the appropriate time (our own security guard said something similar).

My instructions were to look for my escorts when I got through customs, but for security reasons they would not have any signs with my name on it. Alas, when I got into the terminal there were two South African security guards with a “Welcome Larry Korb” sign. My security guards are veterans of the South African military who are armed with AK-47s and communicate in their walkie-talkies in an Afrikaner dialect that I am sure the insurgents cannot understand (in fact I have trouble understanding them when they speak English).

Before embarking on the road from the airport, I was given an armored vest and a helmet. The vest was infinitely better (and heavier—45 pounds) than the flak jacket I was issued on my last visit in 2003 and the helmets were not required then.

The ride from the airport in our General Motors SUV to the Al Rashid was uneventful. There were some cars on the road and we were part of a two-car convoy. We forced several Iraqi cars onto the side of the road and made several turns over the highway median to get to the Green Zone. (Maybe I am wrong but riding a General Motors car in Iraq would make one more of a target.)

Getting into the Green Zone (now the International Zone) was quite a chore. There were checkpoints manned by private contractors from Peru (employed by Triple Canopy), Georgian soldiers, and U.S. military personnel from the 1st Cavalry Division. (Because of our “Beyond the Call of Duty” report I now know the unit emblems.)

Saturday afternoon we had an Iraqi-style lunch with American and Iraqi officials where we sat on the ground and ate with our fingers. In discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the Iraqi government and political system and the American efforts to date, some intriguing facts emerged. The Iraqi civil service is modeled on that of Turkey; the number of Iraqis working for the government has jumped from 1.3 million in 2003 to about 2 million today (not including the security forces); the government functioned effectively in the 1970s and 1980s; and the decisions that the provinces are making with their allocations from the federal government are not coordinated or controlled from Baghdad. (I must admit that with the flies swarming around and the roar of helicopters and planes overhead it was hard to concentrate).

That evening at dinner, I had an interesting discussion with an Iraqi official who is close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He made several intriguing observations. First, in their video conferences, Maliki and Bush do not really communicate. The official also noted that in his discussions with visiting members of Congress there is really not much dialogue, with both sides giving canned presentations. Second, the U.S. military and State Department do not really work well together and General George Casey would complain to Iraqis about the former U.S. Ambassador to iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. Third, the insurgency got started when the Americans failed to take control after the overthrow and the Iraqis realized that the American military was not invincible—that is, its soldiers were human beings who displayed the full range of emotions, including fear. Fourth, do not believe anyone who tells you that the situation is getting better.

Trying to sleep that night at the Al Rashid with the windows open was quite an adventure. Every few minutes it seemed like an F-15 or an Apache or Blackhawk would go roaring by and there would be occasional bursts of gunfire.

Day 2: April 8, 2007

We spent the entire day in the International Zone, also known as the Green Zone, meeting with members of the Iraqi government including career bureaucrats, members of Parliament, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Saleh, in their offices.

The career people were from the Ministry of Planning and the National Center for Consultancy and Management Development. As far as I can tell (though it is hard to tell) the MOP has responsibility for measuring the performance of Iraq’s 34 current ministries and NCCMD is the group that does the measuring (a poor man’s Office of Management and Budget).

My colleague gave a great PowerPoint presentation on the efforts of American presidents from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush to improve government performance. And while the Iraqis appeared to be interested in how organizations like OMB, the Congressional Budget Office, and the General Accounting Office functioned and how such ideas as reinventing government really worked, the session had an air of unreality about it. With the continuing chaos in Baghdad and the inability of the ministries to spend their investment budgets, it is hard to get too excited about performance measurement. Moreover, there is no doubt that corruption is rampant. In fact the Minister of Planning refers to it the second insurgency.

The session with the Parliamentarians in the convention center (which was attacked on April 12) was much more interesting. While Iraq is not a presidential system, the Iraqi Parliament—unlike most parliaments—sees itself as an independent and co-equal branch of government and is determined to serve as a check on the executive branch, even on members of its own party. And while there is much to applaud in this approach, it appears that currently this it is a recipe for gridlock (witness the failure so far to enact the hydrocarbon law that had been approved by the cabinet).

The meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister in his residence was fascinating. The meeting room resembled the Corcoran Gallery and Saleh, a Kurd who speaks English fluently, is quite articulate and charismatic, just the opposite of Maliki. In fact it dawned on me that he would go over much better with the media than Maliki. From what I was told every foreign government and international organization wants to deal with him.

Saleh said all the right things but after a while it seemed he was telling us what we wanted to hear; that is, his goals are creating a unified Iraq, providing scholarships for younger civil servants regardless of ethnic background, reducing the size of government, and making the legislature strong enough to bring down the government (including him). My impression was confirmed by an American official who told me that you never know what to believe about him—one day he is an ardent Iraqi nationalist, the next day he is a Kurdish separatist.

Day 3: April 9, 2007
The Fourth Anniversary of the Fall of Saddam

To avoid any problems, the government imposed a 24-hour curfew (actually Maliki declared it a government holiday). During the three-mile drive from our compound to the Green Zone and back, I noticed that there were only a handful of cars and trucks on the road and a small number people out of their homes. It is hard to believe that four years after our “victory,” the only way to provide safety is to lock down the capital city.

We spent the morning listening to briefings from consultants advising the individual ministries on the TATWEER project. Most were American and many spoke Arabic. Listening to the briefings, it is easy to see how people making a quick visit to the region with very little understanding of the situation can go away with the impression that things are getting better and that there is “light at the end of the tunnel.” These men and women believe in what they are doing and are close to their clients.

But if one uses the reports of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and pushes the briefers, a different picture emerges. The place is a mess and despite the almost heroic efforts of some Americans and some Iraqis it is not getting better. One of the consultants told me not to believe anyone who says that the situation is getting better.

In the afternoon (it lasted from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.) we had a luncheon meeting with about a dozen leading American and Iraqi officials. The American delegation included the heads of the Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office (the successor to the Coalition Provisional Authority), the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Office of Economic Reconstruction. The Iraqi delegation included the Iraqi ministers of National Security, Health, and Higher Education and the Deputy Minister of Interior, plus a member of Maliki’s staff and a Parliamentarian. This session also had an air of unreality.

The city was in lockdown, 10 American soldiers had died the day before, and the citizens of Najaf and the Sunni Scholars were calling for an end to the occupation. Yet we had a seven-course meal and the American officials and the Iraqis were exchanging diplomatic pleasantries about the progress they were making.

I had the good fortune to sit next to the Deputy Minister of Interior (the ministry responsible for the national police). He told me that the problem with the police is not training but loyalty and motivation—he cannot get enough officers to come to Baghdad, even though controlling Baghdad is critical to the establishment of a unified Iraq. He also said that Muqtada Al-Sadr still controls six ministries, including his own.

Day 4: April 10, 2007

The day started out normally but was anything but. In the morning we met at the Republican Palace with Ambassador Saleh, the outgoing head of the Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office, the successor to the Coalition Provisional Authority. The first thing that strikes you upon entering the Republican Palace that houses IRMO and most of the American citizens is how much tighter the security has become. In November 2003, we just showed our IDs and went in. Now, there are series of checkpoints and searches that seem to take forever.

There also seems to be 10 times more people walking up and down the corridors of the palace and Ambassador Saloom’s office is much more modest than that of Viceroy Bremer (Paul Bremer, former head of the CPA).

As might be expected, Saloom was upbeat about Iraq’s progress, citing such positive indicators as the number of satellite dishes and the amount of goods in the stores. But the dishes have been there since 2003 (in fact, in my meeting with Bremer in November 2003 he said the same thing), and while the shops may be full, it does not appear that many people are out shopping.

Saloom also dismissed the concerns expressed in the Special Inspector General’s report about the lack of coordination between the U.S. military and civilians and attributed the dust-up between Secretaries Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates about the small number of State Department civilians being assigned to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams as a communication problem. In light of the new White House plan to create a powerful czar to oversee Iraq and Afghanistan, Saloom’s comments seem unreal.

The ambassador did make a good point about the fact that as a result of all the inspections and audits an error-avoidance mentality has permeated the Iraqi bureaucracy and this has had a chilling effect on its ability to take action. There is no doubt that this is one reason none of the Iraqi ministries have yet to spend even 25 percent of their investment budget. If they do not do this by the end of June, the Finance Minister has threatened to take the money back (my suggestion that they use these unspent funds to fund the war until the supplemental passes was not greeted enthusiastically by the American officials).

On our way into the Republican Palace, our security people told us that a helicopter had been brought down by fire, at least three American soldiers had been killed in Baghdad, and the Green Zone was taking indirect fire. Consequentially we could not leave the Green Zone until 1 p.m. and our afternoon meeting on the east side of the Tigris had to be canceled.

While waiting to leave the Green Zone after our IRMO meeting, we visited the military exchange, or PX, and the “pharmacy” (liquor store—the Iraqis call it the Christian pharmacy). I was surprised and saddened that the servicemen and women pay the same prices for goods in Iraq as they do in the states.

Day 5: April 11, 2007

In the morning we had to travel to the east side of the Tigris for a meeting with NCCMD to discuss our proposals for improving the performance of the Iraqi government. A rainstorm had flooded the streets and made a bad traffic situation infinitely worse. Even our normally unflappable security guards were concerned.

To say the least, the 10-mile trip out the Assassin’s Gate and over the al Jumhuriya Bridge and around Tahrir Square was an adventure as our three-car convoy drove over several medians, went the wrong way on a four-lane road and blew their siren constantly to get Iraqis to move aside for our SUVs. While I was glad that these steps enhanced our safety, I wondered what the Iraqis thought of the maneuvers.

The other thing that struck me was the lack of American soldiers patrolling the neighborhoods. In fact, in my whole time here I did not see one American soldier outside the Green Zone.

The meeting with NCCMD was anticlimactic. We and they made some useful suggestions about empowering existing organizations to help improve government performance. What most impressed me was the desire of this group to do the right thing. But they have a small budget and very few people.

Our last event was a debrief for the U.S. Agency for International Development leadership in its very own compound (where they live and work). The people from AID pointed out that while there were some Iraqis trying to do the right thing, the rules have changed so much that nobody is sure about what they are supposed to do and that it is hard to know who or what to believe. An Iraqi working for AID told me we should have allowed the transition government to stay in power much longer.


To say that Iraq in general and Baghdad in particular are much worse than on my last visit would be an understatement. It is hard to believe that after about 3,300 deaths, about 25,000 wounded, an expenditure of $500 billion, and two national elections things could be this bad. (The day I left was the day that the Parliamentarians were killed and the al-Sarafiya bridge was blown up.)

The real issue is if the latest surge will work. The most optimistic projection was “maybe temporarily.” But most people speaking off the record believe that the insurgents will shift to other areas and lay low for a while in Baghdad.

I knew that the Iraqi government was not very effective, but I had no idea it was so bad. The national government already has 34 cabinet-level ministries and is creating about five more. The best civil servants have been de-Baathified and left the country (in fact, I ran into a couple of them at the Baghdad Airport on my way out). The remaining two million civil servants are underpaid, have little motivation, and are hamstrung by a set of rules and regulations that combines the worst elements of Soviet and American bureaucracies.

No one in or out of the American or Iraqi government seemed to have a good answer to my question: “how does it end?” On the back of this visit, I am more and more convinced that we must take control of our own destiny by setting a specific timetable for withdrawal. Currently, our fate is in the hands of an Iraqi government that does not have any real incentive to get its act together and does not even seem to understand the gravity of the situation or the declining level of support in the United States.

While I did not see as many soldiers as on my last visit, the ones I spoke to were clearly dispirited about the repeated deployments and the three-month extension.

The views articulated in this post do not reflect the opinions of the National Academy of Public Administration, TATWEER, or any other organizations mentioned in the article.

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Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow