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A leaked cable from the US embassy in Baghdad signed by the ambassador paints a grim picture of Iraq as a country disintegrating in which the real rulers are the militias, and the central government counts for nothing.
The cable, signed by the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and sent to the State Department in Washington on 6 June, is wholly at odds with the optimistic account of developments given by President George Bush and Tony Blair in their recent visits to Iraq.
Iraqis employed by the US embassy live in fear that other Iraqis will find out who they are working for. “We have begun shredding documents printed out that show local staff surnames,” the cable says. “In March a few staff approached us to ask what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate.”
The US and Britain have said they would withdraw their troops as the security situation improved, though the embassy memo suggests that it was, in fact, deteriorating. Britain said yesterday that it was to pull out 170 soldiers from Muthana province in southern Iraq when the Iraqi government took over security there next month.
There are chilling details about why, even in the heavily fortified Green Zone, Iraqis employed by the US embassy are frightened. “In April, employees began reporting change in demeanour of guards at the Green Zone checkpoints,” the memo says. “They seemed to be more militia-like. In some cases seemingly taunting.”
The vulnerability of the US position in Baghdad is so great that the Iraqi military units guarding the perimeter of the Green Zone, the heart of US power in Iraq, are now considered untrustworthy.
An Iraqi employee asked if she could have credentials saying she was a journalist. This was because the Iraqi soldiers would hold up “her embassy badge and proclaim loudly to nearby passers-by ‘Embassy’ as she entered. Such information is a death sentence if overheard by the wrong people.”
The memo, leaked to The Washington Post, gives a vivid and detailed account of the limited authority of the US and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Entitled “Snapshots from the Office: Public Affairs Staff Show Strains of Social Discord” it is one of the most revealing documents ever made public, in this case involuntarily, by US authorities in Iraq. Based on the experiences of the nine-member Iraq staff of the public affairs press office in the US embassy, the cable portrays a society in a state of collapse. [Its contents should torpedo the claims by aides to Mr Bush and Mr Blair that the media is exaggerating the state of insecurity and fear in which Iraqis live.]
As Islamic militancy increases, women find it increasingly dangerous not to wear a veil in Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods. One was warned not to drive a car. Others were told to cover their faces and to stop using mobile phones. Threats against women who do not accept this second class status have escalated in the last two months. It has also become dangerous for men to wear shorts or jeans in public or for children to play outside wearing shorts.
As temperatures reach 46C (115F) “employees all confirm that by the last week of May, they were getting one hour of power for every six hours without.” One area called Bab al Mu’atham in central Baghdad has received no electric power for more than a month. But a building where a new minister lived started to receive power 24-hours a day as soon as he was appointed.
The cable admits that the unpopularity of the American presence in Iraq is the reason why Iraqis working for the US dare not reveal the identity of their employer even to family. One Sunni Arab woman who was sent for training in the US told her family she was in Jordan.
The embassy reports increased sectarian tensions between Iraqi members of its staff. A Shia woman said she could no longer watch the television news with her Sunni mother because her mother blamed the Shia government for everything that went wrong.
The government of Nouri al-Maliki, greeted with such acclaim by the US and Britain, has little impact on ordinary Iraqis because real power lies with militias and local power brokers. It is they who barricade the streets at night and ward off outsiders.