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Pelton's World
Life in Iraq's Green Zone
The world's most fearless traveler fears for his life.


Illustration: Pelton in Baghdad

To research his forthcoming book about the use of private contractors by the military, Adventure columnist Robert Young Pelton headed to Baghdad's Green Zone a year and a half after his previous visit to the Iraqi capital (see "Postcards from Ali Baba-ville," Adventure, September 2003). We debriefed R.Y.P. upon his return from the mother of all danger zones.

Is the Green Zone any safer than the rest of Baghdad?
If anything, it's more dangerous. After all, Baghdad's Green Zone—the hub of U.S. reconstruction—is the focal point for all insurgent anger in Iraq. Almost every day we came under mortar fire or someone got sniped from the mosque across from Gate 12, one of the Zone's main entrances. Signs are posted all over Saddam's former palace warning government employees to wear helmets and flak jackets. Government bureaucrats have even changed the name of the Green Zone to the International Zone, dropping the only connotation of safety left.

What's the most dangerous job in the Green Zone?
The soldiers posted at Gate 12 have it bad. They routinely get car-bombed and have to fend off attacks. The other most dangerous job is private security contractor. There are roughly 25,000 PSCs in Iraq, and, by my count, one is killed every three days.

Can you spot an insurgent?
On our runs through downtown, some folks would smile, some would frown, and others would just watch as we rolled by and mouth the word "boom." Instead of scanning individuals, you have to intuit the pre-ambush ambience. If the street is suddenly deserted, if traffic patterns turn weird, if people look frightened or are running like hell, it's about to get ugly.

What's the most dangerous corner of Iraq?
Each morning I would roll out with my contractor buddies to run security details on the six-mile road to the airport. This stretch of blacktop is nicknamed RPG Alley—a misnomer considering that just as many insurgents use car bombs as rocket-propelled grenades. In one 48-hour period, I counted 16 attacks on that six-mile strip. That's one every three hours. Burned-out cars litter the road. Scorched palm trees line the route. Drivers have to run a slalom course between blast craters. The insurgents just sit on the side of the road and wait to strike the slowest and weakest convoys. It's like lions hunting wildebeests on the Serengeti.

What did you do to relax?
Not much. Most nights my buddies and I would sit on the roof of their rented house drinking beer and smoking cigars. Ever since insurgents came by in October and blew up the Green Zone Café, there's not even a decent place to eat. Most folks go over to the chow hall in Saddam's former palace to eat Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. It's like a bad Denny's. The only other option is a quasi-Pizza Hut in a trailer next to the palace that must turn out about a thousand pies a day.

How are the prices over there?
Surprisingly expensive. That pizza? $17. That bad Salisbury steak? $27. Hell, I was buying cases of Corona for $40. About the only items that are cheap in the Green Zone are calling cards (40 cents a minute) and movies ($5 for a bootleg DVD with two films). The hottest "haji films"—named for the guy in the theater with a video camera—I saw around town were Walking Tall and The Rundown. Apparently there was a bit of The Rock fever sweeping Baghdad.

Is Iraq ready for tourists?
Yeah, there are about 150,000 of them and they're all wearing fatigues. Not even I would travel without a security detail in Iraq. Tourism still needs a few more years to ripen.

IRAQ Dos & Don'ts

DO take your Dramamine. To avoid groundfire and to touch down on a single-runway airfield, planes landing in Baghdad make a gut-wrenching corkscrew approach.

DON'T walk the streets at dawn or dusk. Twilight throws off the night-vision goggles used by helicopter patrols. Insurgents prefer these times to lob mortar rounds into the Green Zone.

DO bring a "ditch" bag for quick exits—a small daypack with a medical kit, a GPS unit, spare food and water, and a GSM phone programmed with the phone number of the First Cavalry Quick Reaction Force.

DON'T drive a Chevrolet Suburban. These are government cars and every insurgent knows it. If you have to drive—God help you—a BMW 7 Series is fast, handles well, and seems to blend in.

DO go for that Crown Royal. Most beer in the Green Zone is (damn!) 3.2 percent. Liquor's quicker.

Illustration by Asaf Hanuka


Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, March 2005

Pelton's World: Life in Iraq's Green Zone


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YOU GO TO A LOT OF UNSTABLE PLACES. HAVE YOU EVER FACED A KILL-OR-BE-KILLED SITUATION?

RYP: No. "Kill or be killed" is a Hollywood concept, not a wartime one. In combat, even when you're ambushed, there's usually leeway for escape (especially if, like me, you travel with groups of men who carry plenty of weapons). I was in sieges in Chechnya and Liberia, and both times we were completely surrounded but able to escape or repel our attackers.

Got a baffling travel question for RYP? We want to know, so e-mail us >>

WORLD TALK
Hear Pelton talk about being on the ground in the Green Zone.



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March 2005



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