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The Walls Around Baghdad's Green Zone Are Coming Down, Despite Continued Danger


Baghdad's so-called Green Zone is one of the best-known symbols of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It's the fortified district that once housed U.S. and Iraqi officials. Now, 15 years after the invasion, the new Iraqi prime minister says he's slowly dismantling it or at least opening a gate to a main road through it. He's trying to signal that Baghdad is safer, though that's a relative term. NPR's Jane Arraf was recently in Iraq. She's in the studio with me now to talk more about this. Hey there, Jane.


CORNISH: So we heard a lot about the Green Zone after 2003 when the U.S. basically seized the area - right? - and based their officials there. What does it look like today?

ARRAF: Well, it basically looks like its own little city, like a kind of really dull little city because unlike the rest of Baghdad, which is both chaotic and vibrant, you go in there and there are wide, empty streets. There are no little kids running up to your windshield asking for money. There isn't the chaos. It's all very empty and deliberately so.

The rest of Baghdad essentially was deemed too dangerous for a lot of the people who live in the Green Zone, so they retreated inside. It includes the U.S. embassy, which has quite a lot of real estate still - one of the biggest embassies in the world. The U.S. military still has a presence there, a lot of foreign embassies. But most importantly, most of the Iraqi government offices and the government officials are there. And for 15 years, nobody's been able to see that area unless they have special permission.

CORNISH: Right. Fortified is an understatement. And it became somewhat of a target over time.

ARRAF: It did become a target because for a while there, there were daily mortars and rockets being launched at it. And now that's eased up. They're almost entirely gone, although there are occasional mortar and rocket attacks. But it has become a lot safer, and that's why the new prime minister decided, hey, I'm going to do something that everybody has wanted to do for the past 15 years but hasn't been able to, which is open up the Green Zone.

CORNISH: Let's talk about that more because this new prime minister - it's only been two months - hasn't even really fully set up his government yet - right? - but he's going for opening up the Green Zone. What will that actually entail?

ARRAF: So the new prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, is a guy who campaigned on the issue of transparency and reform. And a big part of that was, hey, I'm going to open up the Green Zone that everybody hates. So did he do that? Not really, but he's made a start. He calls it a gradual opening. So they have allowed cars to drive through for certain hours every day through the main part of it. That means they can get across the city faster - doesn't mean the Green Zone is open so much.

But it is very symbolic because the Green Zone is a symbol of what all sorts of Iraqis thought was wrong with the government. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has also moved his own office outside the Green Zone. He's still within, like, concrete blast walls. He's very protected by soldiers. So it's a little mini Green Zone in the rest of Baghdad.

CORNISH: So when we talk about it being safer, how much safer is Baghdad in general these days?

ARRAF: It's really quite a lot safer, but we have to understand that we're starting from quite a low bar because for a while, in the dangerous years, there were bodies in the street. There were constant explosions. For three years after 2014, ISIS controlled large parts of the rest of the country, and Baghdad itself was affected as well. Now you don't have those big attacks. There are still occasional attacks on people. It's still not considered quite safe. But it's improved enough that in some neighborhoods it's really revived life there. There are lots of restaurants. Shopping malls are a huge industry. There's still an awful lot of problems in Iraq and an awful lot of problems in Baghdad. But security definitely has improved.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jane Arraf. Jane visiting us here in Washington, thank you for coming to the studio.

ARRAF: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.