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0909 PD: The View from Here: Navigating through transition

Mike Gangwer Published on 05 June 2009

I spend at least two days a week in travel status, largely in the Red Zone. As some of you may know, Baghdad has the International Zone (IZ), or Green Zone.

This is a large area (several square miles) of city that sits just north of the Tigris River. In fact I can look out my office window and see the Tigris. It is a large river system originating in Turkey, our neighbor to the north.

Coalition forces, largely U.S. military, are gradually handing over greater control to the Iraqi military and police. And this includes the IZ. In fact, the offices of the U.S. Embassy used to be part of the Presidential Palace, one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. That palace is now controlled by Iraq, and interestingly we no longer can even visit the palace grounds.



One very nice meeting location for us and our Iraqi colleagues is the Al Rasheed Hotel. This rather famous building was home to much of the international press during the first years of the war here. It sits protected in the IZ, yet is next to the Red Zone. We learned recently that soon, within weeks, the Rasheed Hotel will likely be taken out of the IZ as it shrinks in size.

The IZ has much interest for us. We can travel here without a personal security detail, but we do have some other security requirements that must be met. For instance, on Saturdays a colleague of mine and I go to another military base to run. The U.S. Embassy compound here is entirely concrete and that is very hard to run on every day. The military base, actually a forward operating base, is within the IZ and we can run there as much as we want.

The Red Zone is basically everywhere outside of the IZ. The transition between the two is not too complicated if one has the proper badging and part of the security detail. There are multiple ECP, or entry control points. Just yesterday my linguist and I were at the Ministry of Agriculture for a weekly meeting. We entered and transited though nearly two dozen checkpoints. As you might expect these transits take a lot of time and certainly add to the complexity of the movement.

Our security detail folks, known as Regional Security Officers, take extraordinary steps at being unpredictable. Just like the military, there are certain parts of any mission that rely on surprise, on variable timelines and different routing to and from Point A and Point B. In the many times I have worked at the Ministry of Agriculture, not once have we done the same route.

All travel in the Red Zone is done wearing our personal protective equipment, along with a few other security items. Every movement is completely described to us prior to movement, and afterwards we have a short after-action review.


The RSO command here in Baghdad is the largest in the world with both ground and air assets. My work requires frequent use of both, and I am completely impressed with the professionalism and skill of these officers. Their job is protecting me, and they take that role to the highest levels of skill.

Regardless of the vehicle used, when I am in one they are in charge, not me. There is a very clear chain of command with all movements. Regardless of how important my particular movement is, when en route they are in command.

I am in two primary locations: Baghdad and the area west of the city known as Abu Ghraib. The name Abu Ghraib is well known to all of us. Yet it is far more than just a location of an Iraqi prison. It is an agricultural area and home to Baghdad University’s College of Agriculture. I was there recently, and the en route portion of our trip added three hours to our total time off post.

The city of Baghdad itself is a huge sprawling city that is separated by the Tigris River. There are several landmark buildings and historical sites, but I have seen little of these. Our transit movements are not joy rides, nor can I ask to go this or that way just to see a particular landmark. However we do travel through many major and minor streets. And we can see evidence of people out and about…shopping and visiting internet cafés and strolling down the boulevard along the river. We see school children out too, and they look remarkably like school children in any other county (walking in groups with backpacks). Here they usually wear a uniform.

We do see the remnants of the war…bombed-out buildings and partially destroyed structures. Few have been torn down. Even more structures stand partially built, as if abandoned rather suddenly. One metric we use for judging economic progress is the amount of construction underway. Here in Baghdad and in Abu Ghraib, there are few construction projects other than patchworks here and there.

Iraq is in transition. Iraqi people, about 30 million of them, are taking control of their country in rather profound ways. No longer led by a single leader, the people now have a representative democratic government.


The transition is not easy nor is it rapid. I am living here within that transition. Every time I enter the Red Zone I see and experience a country trying to figure out stability and order and Rule of Law…from instability and chaos and strongman rule. It is a vibrant and exciting time to be here in Iraq. The transformation is everywhere; I am fortunate enough to get out of the U.S. Embassy compound for my work, and that the RSO and U.S. military are superb at their job, too.

Our effort is this: one day, and the sooner the better, there will be no Red Zone or International Zone. There will be a safe, a secure and a prosperous Iraq. Construction cranes will dot the landscape and the schoolchildren, upon graduation, will have jobs and careers. Yes, this will take some time, but the movement is forward in small steps every day. This is why we work here...and this is the transformative mission all of us are a part of. PD

Mike Gangwer
USDA Adviser