The World's Most Dangerous Place

A lot of Americans in Baghdad now are desperately reviewing their personal security, especially after Sunday's attacks on the al Rashid Hotel and Monday's half-hour rampage of six suicide car bombings around the city. If even Paul Wolfowitz isn't safe (his room was only one floor away from taking a direct hit from a rocket), then who is? Here's a primer for those who really must go.


If you don't have a military flight, or a seat on a military convoy, then there are four main ways in to Iraq, all of them bad.

You can drive up from Kuwait, the safest route. There are downsides, though. For one, you need a visa from Kuwait, which is hard to get. Then you need permission to cross the border from Kuwait's Ministry of Interior, which is even harder to get. If you have a car you can take into Iraq, fine; otherwise you'll have to walk across the border at Safwan, where mobs will greet you as you try to fight your way into a car-for-hire waiting for you on the Iraqi side. Sometimes they stone travelers. After that, the road is relatively safe, although armed highway robbery happens fairly often, several times a week. Lie down on the back seat or, if you're a woman, put on a chador so no one knows you're American.

You can drive down from Turkey. Visas are no problem from Turkey, and obtaining permission to cross the border takes only three days or so. Most of the route through northern Iraq is safe. The downside to this plan? For the last 100 miles or so there's a risk of roadside bombs and armed highway robbery.

You can drive in from Amman, across the 600 miles of the Western Desert. No visas or border permissions needed, and this is probably the fastest route. Downsides: it's also the most dangerous. Highway robberies and even attacks on armed convoys happen daily, sometimes several times a day. Forget about trying to hide your money. The thieves will either find it, or kill you for not having it.

You can take a charter flight from Amman into Baghdad International Airport. The roundtrip fare from Amman will set you back as much as $1,100. And missiles may be fired at aircraft as they land, though none has so far hit anything and the attackers don't seem to target civilian planes. All this may make the option of going in with the military sound attractive, if you can swing permission. But military flights have had missiles fired at them (though defensive measures like chaff and flares have deflected them). And military convoys are routinely hit by ambushes and roadside bombs.


Once in Baghdad you have to decide where to live. Baghdad now is essentially divided into two broad zones: the Green Zone and everything else. It's not clear when everyone started calling the Green Zone that, anymore than it's clear when everyone started calling Iraq Rummy World, though it predated Doonesbury. The Green Zone is also widely called The Bubble, but that's considered derogatory. Perhaps it got that name because the zone does include some of the only green space in Baghdad, including most of the Zawra Park and Zoo, the Festival and Parade Ground, the vast grounds of the New Unknown Soldier monument, the Convention Center, the al Rashid hotel, the Republican Guard presidential palace, the National Assembly complex, the Hands of Victory monument, the 14th of July Monument and all or parts of five city neighborhoods.

Around the four-mile square Green Zone, a triple perimeter has been erected, consisting of an outer blast wall of concrete barriers 15-feet high, inside of which are coils of barbed wire, a space, and another row of barriers and concertina wire. The eastern side also fronts the Tigris River. The entire area now has one main entry point, next to the al Jumhariya Bridge, where 1st Armored Division soldiers, backed up by British rapid reaction commando teams, are on duty. Tanks are located at key points, with machine gun nests on buildings and teams of snipers on rooftops.

The only place Iraqis, other than coalition employees, are allowed to visit inside the Green Zone is the Baghdad Convention Center. Everyone who enters there from outside is double and even triple-searched, often after half-hour or hour-long waits. From a practical point of view, it's much better to live outside the Green Zone, where contact with Iraqis is easy. Sometimes too easy. Most of the hotels now have some sort of security, ranging from blast barriers and American tanks at the Palestine and Sheraton hotels, to squads of Iraqi guards at other hotels. Some people have taken private houses, which if they're large enough come with walls around them; most people are sandbagging them now and putting armed guards at the gates, 24 hours a day. An endless and essentially unsolvable debate goes on about whether it's better to be in a hotel, where there's better security and a high-enough concentration of Americans to make the target attractive; or in a house, which is more discreet with fewer targets, but is harder to defend. There's no good answer. Westerners have been attacked at houses and at hotels.


Once you're settled, you should register at the American consulate ( in the Baghdad Convention Center (the United States has no embassy as yet, being the occupation power). Take heart, you're not alone. In addition to some 17,000 American soldiers, there are at least 700 private Americans in town, journalists, aid workers, and contractors. For the record, the consular staff will give you the latest State Department warning on Iraq from Oct. 2: "The Department of State continues to strongly warn U.S. citizens against travel to Iraq. Although the restrictions on the use of U.S. passport travel to, in or through Iraq has been lifted, travel to Iraq remains extremely dangerous. Remnants of the former Baath regime, transnational terrorists, and criminal elements remain active."

( There is some other useful reading material on display, too. Lists of medical hospitals, private clinics and the like; a list of security firms doing business in Iraq, and a helpful leaflet called "Carjacking Prevention," put out by Lt. Col. Kevin W. Kille of the Iraqi Assistance Center. "Attempt to escape car if possible. Do not attempt to fight unless you believe you are armed better than the carjackers. If forced to drive by the carjackers, consider crashing car into something. This will attract attention, and momentarily distract carjackers, opening the possibility of escape. If forced into the trunk of your vehicle, attempt to disable the tail lights and/or brake lights." On the bulletin board is a hand-drawn diagram that shows the latest approved way for civilians to travel in convoy: two cars abreast to fill the lane and prevent attackers from coming alongside and running you off the road.

By now you may well have decided to hire a CPD--close protection detail--from one of the Western security companies. They will recommend, unless you're extremely unimportant or poor or don't look foreign, that you have two "operatives" or "advisers", as they now call bodyguards; this will set you back $2,400. That's per day. The first thing your operative will do is sit down with you and outline an emergency escape plan from the building in which you live and a medical evacuation plan to get you out of the country to good medical care should something happen. He'll also advise you to carry around a field medic's kit wherever you go, and he may even give a Power Point presentation on how to use the new trauma dressings that can staunch a sucking chest wound (or your money back).

He'll also ask you to review the daily CPA Operational Threat Update, which will have useful pieces of advice such as how to drive in a convoy ("avoid having more than one vehicle in the killzone at a time," which you may find tricky if you follow the consular flyer's advice). Across the top of this report you'll notice under "Threat Conditions" that "Zone 6N, 8S, 28, 33N, 35, 36NJ, 37N, and 46 are Red. Use all security precautions if entering these zones. Do not travel there unless you have urgent business." There goes practically all of downtown Baghdad, aside from the Green Zone.


To read these reports, you have to learn quite a few acronyms. A quick primer:

IEDs: Improvised Explosive Devices (in the vernacular, bombs)

VBIEDs: Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (car bombs)

SVBIEDs: suicide version of above

CF: Coalition Forces (the good guys)

FRLs: Former Regime Loyalists, the current acronym for the enemy, guerrillas, fedayeen, terrorists, whatever (the bad guys)

NCFs: Non-Compliant Forces (other bad guys)

PSD: Personal Security Detail, synonym for CPD

IZ's: Iraqis (also called the haj, but that's rude)

SAF: Small Arms Fire

MRT: Mortar

RPG: Rocket-Propelled Grenade

ISG: Iraqi Security Guard

FPS: Facilities Protection Service, which consists of ISGs guarding public places

RTD: Returned to Duty, as in "Wounded, RTD"

WIA: Wounded in Action (as in "1,620 CF WIA as of Oct. 24, 2003")

KIA: Killed in Action (as in "267 CF KIA as of Oct. 24, 2003")

CQA: Close Quarters Assassination

NFI: No Further Information (one of the most common abbreviations).


You will also have to discuss with your CPD the proper vehicle to use. Nearly all American contractors and coalition officials have big Chevy Suburbans, Ford Excursions and similar SUVs, some armored and some not. Some CPDs prefer armor for obvious reasons; others feel the car will be faster and more maneuverable without all that extra weight. Also, armor is not much good against IEDs and RPGs. A lot of journalists and aid workers think it's wiser to go in nondescript Iraqi cars or taxis, sometimes hiding behind blackout glass or curtains.

If you're thinking of unwinding at night, your security adviser will disabuse you. "Credible intelligence" has come of attacks being planned against restaurants and hotels frequented by Westerners. "Avoid prolonged exposure on the streets or out of doors or in automobiles," recommends one security agency's report. "A continuation of attacks in all their various guises can be anticipated, particularly with regard to Westerners, NGOs, media and business personnel (especially those involved in the oil industry.)" Here's a typical example from a recent report by SAFE (Security Awareness for Everyone), a U.S. AID financed project that issues secret reports not for everyone: "An unknown anti-CPA group will attempt to attack CPA, NGO and/or IO [International Organization] targets...method of attack will be with IED devices equipped [with] magnets (number of devices is 11) and detonated by remote control. The group allegedly will use a 1991 Chevrolet Dolphin, packed with explosives, as a diversion attack and then follow up with the remote-controlled IED devices. NFI is known at this time to include possible locations...Remember to always check your vehicles for IED devices before driving. Have a SAFE day in Iraq."

By this point you may well have decided that you'll feel SAFEr living in the Green Zone, and if you have a military contract or a job with a high-profile American company, you may qualify. Once in the Green Zone, past the usual vehicle and body searches, you'll find a whole other world. There are trees and parkland, palaces and spacious open areas around the monuments, lakes, fountains, canals, and even Westerners out jogging. You can drive your big SUV, without being stopped and searched, from the CPA Palace, to the back entrances of the Convention Center, where you can meet with your triple-searched Iraqi contacts, to the Al Rashid, living quarters for coalition and soldiers on duty, and to the Governing Council office building. There are motor pools, and Internet cafes, cafeterias and video lounges. There's even a blog from inside the Green Zone, put out by someone who says he's a military intelligence soldier using the psuedonym Chief Wiggles ( Lately the boosterish Chief Wiggles has been using his blog to find donors to give him bicycles so soldiers can pedal around the zone giving out toys to children. Things are, as they say, getting better, at least inside the Bubble. The air conditioning works in the buildings now and most places when the power fails there's no roar of generators, so common out in Baghdad proper. Best of all, from a personal safety point of view, you'll hardly ever see Iraqis wandering around, unless they're escorted or under guard, or getting toys from Chief Wiggles' mounted associates. Oh yes, there's also a jail in the Green Zone, although by the time you leave Baghdad you may well feel you've already been in one.