Iraq: A Guide to the Green Zone

Lonely Planet, take note.  A new guide book has been written for Americans who plan to spend some time in Baghdad's Green Zone, the relatively secure area in the heart of the occupied Iraqi capital. Called "A Visitor's Guide to Baghdad's International Zone," the book bills itself as "a comprehensive guide to local landmarks and history of the International Zone (formerly the Green Zone) in Baghdad, Iraq."  With tongue in cheek, it adds that it's "written by tourists for the tourist."

Although it hasn't been officially published, photocopied and e-mail versions of the 41-page work are being passed around among U.S. Embassy and military officials, contractors and aid workers in Baghdad. There's even a copy of the guide in the waiting room to U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's office; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received a copy after a recent visit to Baghdad, and took it back to Washington with her. "It's floating out there," says the guidebook's author, Richard Houghton III, a former Capitol Hill staffer who has spent the last 19 months working for an NGO in the Green Zone. Though, he jokes, the version that has been circulating doesn't have the latest additions and may have "some typos."

Houghton first decided to write the book as an informal guide six months into his stint. It was mostly out of personal curiosity, but also because it gave him an excuse to move around. It combated the feeling of being "caged here," he says. "I was getting tired of rolling by buildings and statues, and asking whoever I was with, 'Do you know what that is,' and they'd say, 'I don't know,' or I'd get conflicting urban myths." He also wanted to tackle the lack of "institutional memory"—the fact that because so many Americans rotate in and out of the country, local knowledge constantly gets lost and needs to be relearned.  He soon teamed up with the book's contributor, Patrick McDonald, a civil affairs Army major, and started to compile entries when they could find the time on the weekends.

What they've come up with is filled with a wealth of insider's knowledge, beginning with the basics: the Green Zone is 5.6 square miles in Baghdad, "the main base for Coalition and Iraqi government officials." (As opposed to the "red zone"—red signifying danger, "which refers to anything outside the Green Zone, in practical terms these days the whole of Iraq….") The book explains how to get to the "IZ," the new shorthand slang for the Green Zone, even listing the frequency of attacks on the way in.  (Take a Royal Jordanian flight from Amman to "BIAP," in military speak, or the Baghdad International Airport, and from there head down "Route Irish," or the infamous Airport Road.) It mentions a place to stay upon arrival—-not really many options, to be sure. The Al-Rashid Hotel is "currently the only operating hotel in the Green Zone," notes the book, with "restaurants [that] are barely Zagat-worthy, and are known primarily for charging $2 for a can of soda while the going rate in the IZ is around $0.50." The guidebook has another entry on the neighborhoods in the Green Zone, like the misleadingly named "Little Venice," a group of villas that formerly housed Saddam Hussein's top Baathist party members and now is the home to new generation of Iraqi officials. It also details how old landmarks have become entwined with the fabric of the U.S. occupation, like the tomb of Ba'ath party founder Michel Aflaq, which is now inside Forward Operating Base Union III: "Until recently, the tomb was being used rather irreverently as one of the FOB's two gyms on the ground level…. and as barracks on the lower museum level."

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Read Excerpts From Houghton’s Guide

The guidebook also cleverly flicks at the isolated perspective many residents of the Green Zone have on Iraq.  A section called "On the Skyline" focuses on the buildings on the unsecured horizon. "While tantalizingly close, because of the current security situation, many GZ occupants will never do more than glimpse them from afar," reads the book. There is the Palestine Hotel, the now empty Sheraton Ishtar (the tallest building in Baghdad, as the guide notes), and farther away there's "the most noticeable building on the Eastern skyline of the IZ," the massive ar-Rahman Mosque.

Like most travel books, it comes with a section on security, entitled, "A Word of Caution." But this being Iraq, the warnings are hardly of the typical beware-of-pickpockets variety. “Entering any compound or guarded building must be done with caution,” advises the guide. “Guards, whether military or civilian, can shoot first then ask questions." Another tip: while traveling [in the Green Zone] you should, at all times, observe the force protection posture of the facility or base you are entering," advises the guide. "The biggest threat in the IZ is indirect fire and missile and mortar attacks. You should plan accordingly before venturing out." Or perhaps try not to come at all.

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