From McClatchy Newspapers
BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. Embassy employees in Iraq are growing increasingly angry over what they say are inadequate security precautions in the heavily fortified Green Zone, where recent mortar and rocket attacks have claimed the lives of six people, including two U.S. citizens.
In spite of the attacks, embassy employees complain, most staff members still sleep in trailers that one described as “tin cans” that offer virtually no protection from rocket and mortar fire. The government has refused to harden the roofs because of the cost, one employee said.
A second official called it “criminally negligent” not to reduce the size of the embassy staff, which a year ago was estimated at 1,000, in the face of the increasing attacks and blamed the administration’s failure to respond on concerns that doing so might undermine support for President Bush’s Iraq policy.
“What responsible person and responsible government would ask you to put yourself at risk like that? We don’t belong here,” the employee said, adding, “They’re not going to send us home because it’s going to be another admission of failure.”
Embassy employees have been ordered not to talk about security concerns or precautions with reporters, but three State Department employees in Baghdad discussed the issue with McClatchy Newspapers. All three asked not to be identified for fear that they’d lose their jobs.
The officials also complained that important security precautions appeared to have been set aside during highly publicized official visits. During a March 31 visit from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a high-profile presidential candidate, the embassy lifted a requirement that bulletproof vests and helmets be worn at all times. When a rocket landed outside the U.S. Embassy while Vice President Dick Cheney and several reporters visited last week, no warning sirens were sounded.
“Where were the sirens then?” one official asked. “We don’t belong here, and people are afraid to say it.”
Official spokesmen have rebuffed requests for information about the embassy, citing security concerns, and repeated requests for comment from the embassy and the State Department in Washington went unanswered Monday. On Sunday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called security the “utmost priority for” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.
The Green Zone, which is home to the U.S. Embassy and many Iraqi government offices and officials, has long been touted as an oasis of relative peace amid the chaos of Baghdad. Entry into the zone, which covers about four square miles in central Baghdad, requires special permits, and visitors must pass through a maze of checkpoints. Attacks have been relatively rare.
But in the past several months, security in the zone has deteriorated. On April 12, a suicide bomber exploded in the Iraqi parliament’s cafeteria, killing a lawmaker.
Rocket and mortar attacks also have become more frequent since the U.S. began a surge of additional American troops into Baghdad – and they’ve also become more accurate. On March 27, a rocket that landed behind the embassy killed an American security contractor and a U.S. soldier. On May 3, a rocket attack killed four foreign contractors who worked for the U.S. government.
Another rocket blasted a chunk of concrete from the facade of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace, which now houses the U.S. Embassy.
Last week, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told reporters in Washington after a visit here that conditions inside the zone were “infinitely worse” than she’d experienced during a visit last year.
“I was concerned then,” she said. This year, however, she said that she stayed at a place where a rocket had landed a month ago and that another recent rocket attack had killed a woman not long before.
On May 3, the embassy warned Green Zone residents to keep outdoor travel to a minimum and “remain within a hardened structure to the maximum extent possible and strictly avoid congregating outdoors.” The message ordered individuals “whose place of duty is outside a hardened structure or traveling a substantial distance outdoors” to wear bulletproof vests and helmets “until further notice.”
But those precautions haven’t calmed nerves inside the Green Zone, according to the three State Department employees, who complained bitterly about security measures in interviews with McClatchy Newspapers.
The three said rising anxiety was evident during recent town hall meetings, where several speakers demanded increased protection. One speaker asked for blankets made of bullet-resistant Kevlar to protect himself from shrapnel and debris in case a rocket or mortar round struck nearby.
The employees said their trailers have been surrounded with sandbags, but that nothing has been done to reinforce the roofs to withstand a rocket or mortar hit. When some employees asked during the meeting if they could move into a hardened structure, they were told to wait for the completion of a new embassy that’s still under construction.
“In any other embassy, we would have been evacuated,” one of the employees said. “As always, the U.S. government is reactive, not proactive. They are going to wait until 20 people die, then the people back in Washington will say we have a problem.”
Unlike the U.S. military, U.S. Embassy employees are volunteers and can ask to leave if they feel unsafe at any time.
“I can’t shake my fist at Uncle Sam and say, ‘Why am I here?'” one official said. “We’re all volunteers.”
But people are afraid to leave out of fear that such a request would hurt their careers, one of the officials said.
“I can’t sleep, I can’t eat,” another official said. “My life should be worth more than achieving this government’s agenda.”
Two of the people who spoke with McClatchy said the conditions also have affected experienced diplomats’ willingness to serve in Baghdad and that the holes are being filled by young and inexperienced volunteers and contractors.
“We’re like a patchwork quilt,” the official said.
One of the U.S. officials expressed anger that embassy employees were told not to talk to reporters.
“They want to say everything is fine. But if I’m asked I’m not going to lie,” he said. “It’s my life and it would be my grave and it would be my body flying back to my family.”