I recently served a 12-month tour in Baghdad’s U.S. Embassy with the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq. Early in my tour, in September 2020, my office received a request from the Iraqi government to bolster security measures in Baghdad’s Green Zone to protect the seat of government from malign groups, angry civilian protesters and others.
I was assigned to lead the effort and spent the remainder of my tour working closely alongside my Iraqi counterparts to complete this project as quickly as possible.
From the start, top officials in the White House, DoD and the State Department from both the former and current administrations kept a close eye on this security project due to its impact on the safety of American citizens at the Baghdad embassy compound. This interest was heightened due to lingering concerns stemming from the tumultuous events around the new year in 2020 when thousands protested outside the U.S. Embassy gates, causing millions of dollars in damage and representing a significant threat to over 1,000 residents in the embassy compound.
That turbulent period culminated in the U.S. drone strike near Baghdad International Airport that killed Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces. As the one-year anniversary of those events approached, U.S. officials were concerned that a similar attack might occur. This generated a sense of urgency in achieving tangible progress in our efforts to bolster the security of central Baghdad.
The Green Zone is no longer the heavily defended fortress it was at the height of the war in Iraq. The once-formidable defenses have badly deteriorated. The International Zone, as it is officially called, contains numerous Iraqi government facilities, including the Council of Ministers, the prime minister’s residence, the presidential palace and the Iraqi High Tribunal court, as well as nearly two dozen foreign embassies.
Numerous threats pose a danger in the Green Zone. Most notably, the remnants of the Islamic State group, though militarily defeated, still demonstrate ambitions of striking one of the abundant lucrative targets inside the Green Zone. On Jan. 21, 2021, two Islamic State group suicide bombers struck a crowded outdoor market a little more than a kilometer away from the Green Zone, killing at least 32 people and injuring many more.
Protecting the Green Zone is not as simple as blocking roads and preventing traffic from entering that portion of the city. While that would undoubtedly be effective at preventing an attack inside the zone, it simply isn’t practical. Thousands of government officials and other workers commute to the Green Zone every day. Thousands more commute through the Green Zone to reach other parts of the city. The central location of the zone makes blocking all traffic a significant issue for much of Baghdad’s population. Also, hundreds of people live inside the Green Zone, forming yet another group of people who need daily access into and out of the area.
Instead, this security project, which is still underway, involves constructing a two-layered barrier system at 16 sites, consisting of hydraulic roadblocks and vertical lifting gates with steel plates and wire to prevent both vehicle and pedestrian intrusion into the Green Zone. Guard towers and security cameras will provide overwatch at each gate. The condition of the Green Zone gates is poor. Only a few of the gates at the 16 locations are able to open and close, allowing traffic to flow through central Baghdad. Most of the sites are permanently blocked with a mix of concrete retaining walls and wire. When this project is complete, all 16 gates will be able to open and close, greatly improving traffic flow through the congested downtown area.
The first actions of the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq were to validate requirements listed in the Iraqi government’s request for improved security. The office funded an engineer survey team to conduct an inspection of all 16 sites in October and November 2020 and obtained a detailed report that became the primary document used to generate a construction contract. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assisted in managing development of the construction contract.
In a parallel effort, the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq purchased nearly 2,000 sets of police riot gear, including helmets with face shields, vests, knee and elbow pads and tactical vests. This equipment was given to the 12,000-man Special Command Division (SCD). The division is the unit primarily responsible for securing the Green Zone and “Route Irish,” which leads from the zone to Baghdad International Airport. Members of the SCD were injured in recent months by rioters due to a lack of protective equipment. Therefore, this equipment will meet a critical need and increase the SCD’s ability to handle the frequent protests that occur in Tahrir Square and other locations near the Green Zone.
Additionally, the U.S. government has provided substantial support to the SCD through the Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund program. Dozens of Humvees and Toyota Land Cruisers were given to the unit, as well as concertina wire and barbed wire used to further reinforce the Green Zone perimeter.
As with any undertaking of this scale and complexity, the project endured challenges. First, organizations with a direct interest in the project generated a dizzying number of inquiries, pressures and requests. The Baghdad Operations Command, the Iraqi Joint Operations Center and the SCD headquarters are separate command and control elements within the Green Zone, each with unique but overlapping responsibilities. Part of my job involved liaising between these organizations to ensure we were fulfilling support requests from the Iraqi government.
A second challenge centers around cargo shipments into Iraq. The government’s process of granting levy exemptions for Foreign Military Sales cargo is a bureaucratic quagmire, resulting in lengthy delays for cargo shipments into Iraq. This creates difficulties in contract bidding, legal reviews, final cost estimates and other areas.
Despite these challenges and many others, the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq made great strides toward completing this project before my tour ended in August 2021 and I handed it over to my replacement. The rapid action of the office has generated a tangible improvement in Green Zone security. The equipment already divested to the SCD has improved its ability to secure the Green Zone and contributed to smooth Iraqi national elections in October 2021.
Overall, it was a unique and rewarding experience to be a part of this project. Not only will a reinforced Green Zone drastically increase the safety of U.S. citizens in the Baghdad embassy compound, it also will provide safety and stability to the Iraqi seat of government.
By securing key diplomats, Iraqi officials and government facilities, these gates will have an oversized impact in stabilizing the country and the greater Middle East region for decades to come.
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Maj. Jeb Graydon serves as the operations officer in the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. Previously, he served as the maneuver program manager, Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, U.S. Embassy, Baghdad. He holds a master’s degree in history from the University of North Georgia and a master’s in military arts and sciences from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.