Combat's 'ended,' but U.S. still controls Green Zone access

BAGHDAD — Friends in the U.S. often are surprised to hear that, as Western journalists working in Baghdad, we don't live inside the famously fortified Green Zone. Access to the IZ, or "international zone," as it's also known, is governed by a complex and ever-changing formula of badges and placards, and every time I come into Iraq it takes me a few weeks to figure out the current system.

As a new arrival, I've applied for but haven't yet received a U.S. military-issued "green badge," which allows me to pass through the Iraqi-run checkpoints at IZ entrances and also to escort visitors. The green badges are the coin of the realm, and often time-consuming for Westerners to get, although the U.S. military says it's trying to streamline the system.

My Iraqi colleagues, who've been covering the war for McClatchy for several years, and are here year-round while we Westerners drop in and out, after several months of waiting were finally granted badges recently - but of different colors, which carry fewer privileges.

So for now I have limited access to the Green Zone, while I wait for my badge to be processed. This presents some challenges. When the U.S. Embassy invited me to a briefing earlier this week inside the Green Zone, a press officer suggested I hitch a ride with a green-badged member of another media organization. (Fortunately the Baghdad press corps is full of collegial folks, and it wasn't hard to drum up a lift.)

Yesterday, when one of my Iraqi colleagues and I had an appointment with a government official whose office is inside the Green Zone, we rather sheepishly had to ask the official to send one of his aides to pick us up from just outside one of the entrances.

Never mind the slight and temporary embarrassment this causes for us. Many Iraqis who would like to visit Iraqi government buildings inside the Green Zone either can't get in or have to wait to be searched by security contractors in long lines at entrances exposed to possible insurgent attacks.

As more than one Iraqi has pointed out to me, if Iraqi security forces now control the Green Zone - American forces handed over the checkpoints in a major symbolic move three months ago - why do U.S. military-issued badges still determine who can get in and out?

Lt. Col. Neil Harper, the head of the Combined Press Information Center in the Green Zone, which approves and processes the badges, said that the U.S. military has worked over the past several months to streamline the badging system. The badges take several weeks to process, Harper said, because they usually require that applicants submit to biometric scans as a security measure.

U.S. military officials also say that the military retains control of the badging process because Iraqi security forces lack the capacity to do such thorough vetting. In the meantime, Harper said, "We're trying to strike a balance between security and access."

To many here, the evolving frustrations of access to the Green Zone underscore how the U.S. transfer of security responsibilities to the Iraqis remains very much a work in progress.

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