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Through the looking glass

At the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, war zone meets wonderland

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To get to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad you first must present proper identifying credentials to pass Iraqi army checkpoints. Then turn through Assassin’s Gate, into what’s now known as the International Zone, or IZ.

Nearing the banks of the Tigris, you turn right onto a boulevard, see the first guard tower marking the embassy compound, then drive—and drive—some minutes fronting its fortress-high walls before you reach an entry gate.

The embassy—opened in 2009 at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of over $750 million—is the largest diplomatic compound in the world. At 104 acres (that’s 80 football stadiums) it’s about 10 times the size of any other U.S. Embassy. Think Vatican City, as it’s nearly that big.

At the entry gate you surrender your driver and car and are met by heavily armed guards from Uganda before entering a building, where you will give up your passport, camera, phone, and most anything else before proceeding through metal detectors and into the actual grounds.

During my embassy visit in April, once inside we were quickly escorted to an up-armored white Suburban—added security apparently warranted even inside what’s starting to feel like some surreally pleasant but disquieting prison.

An expanse of flawless lawn lined with date palms extends from the main chancery building past a dozen four- or five-story buildings used for housing and offices. Across the lawn is a building with an extensive patio. Embassy personnel relaxed there with lattes (it was Saturday), some returning from tennis judging by their shorts and rackets. At one open doorway a sign read, “No weapons allowed when bar is in operation.”

Then, just when I thought, this must be a dream world I’d fallen into, coming from the dusty streets of Baghdad, there on the patio was a life-size chess set.

Fortress America, meet Alice in Wonderland.

The U.S. Embassy could serve as a metaphor for efforts by the United States to create a reality in Iraq without regard to the reality on the ground. Outside Iraq for months was falling to the very enemies the United States has been there to fight, but inside the American oasis along the Tigris few would know. State Department security protocol prevents meaningful contact and daily human intelligence-gathering outside the blast walls. For Iraqis, the fortress has become a symbol of distrust, suspicion, and ridicule.

One embassy official there for three years told me he’d never been on the streets of Baghdad, wouldn’t know what an Iraqi market or the inside of an Iraqi home, mosque, or church looked like. Interaction with Iraqi counterparts is via email or the occasional meeting with Iraqi officials who also work inside the IZ.

President Obama in 2010 promised, “Make no mistake: Our commitment in Iraq is changing—from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats.” Gen. James Amos, outgoing commandant of the Marine Corps, is the latest military leader to say the Islamic State takeover could have been avoided if the United States hadn’t completely withdrawn in 2011. A look at the Baghdad embassy shows further how grossly Washington has misused even diplomatic resources.

The new embassy opened with over 15,000 employees, and is now down to well under 5,000. All military officers attached to the embassy were being sent home when I was there in April, despite the clearly deteriorating situation. Embassy personnel could only imagine the bombs I could hear exploding in the city.

Yet the State Department managed to pay big Gulf contractors to landscape the embassy grounds and complete a soccer field to complement the Olympic-sized indoor pool, according to Ali Khedery, the longest-serving U.S. official in Iraq and a top adviser to Central Command.

Morale at the embassy since 2009 “was plummeting,” he wrote in The Washington Post, and “relations between America’s diplomatic and military leadership—so strong in the Crocker-Petraeus era, and so crucial to curtailing Maliki’s worst tendencies and keeping the Iraqis moving forward—had collapsed. Maliki’s police state grew stronger by the day.”

Pundits freely discuss now the want of strategy in President Obama’s determination to end the Iraq war, but few are uncovering another aspect: the fantasy-land waste in it.

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Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.