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Memo paints bleak picture at Baghdad embassy

A cable to the State Department from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad outlines a litany of fears and misery among Iraqi employees at the American diplomatic mission.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A recent cable to the State Department from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad outlines a litany of fears and misery among Iraqi employees at the American diplomatic mission that threaten “objectivity, civility, and logic” among workers.

The collection of anecdotes from Iraqi workers in an undisclosed office in the embassy paints an extraordinarily bleak picture of life in the capital, where local employees do not dare reveal where they work, even to family members, for fear of retribution.

“Employees all share a common tale: of nine employees in March, only four had family members who knew they worked at the embassy. Iraqi colleagues who are called after hours often speak in Arabic as an indication they cannot speak openly in English,” said the memo.

The author was not known. All cables from U.S. embassies to the State Department are sent under the ambassador’s name, but there was no indication that the top U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, had written the document.

It was first published Sunday by The Washington Post and apparently arrived in Washington during the early days of June, shortly before President Bush made his surprise visit to the capital.

In response to the memo, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said, “I don't want to minimize the difficulties of life in Baghdad. But these are things we’ve all known about and talked about for some time.

“I think our discussion of what’s going on in Iraq has consistently been ... forthright, realistic, frank,” he said, according to NBC News.

Iraqi women threatened
The report details fears among women who are taunted and threatened if they do not wear clothing of extreme modesty as demanded by some fundamentalist adherents of Islam.

“Two of our three female employees report stepped up harassment beginning in mid-May.

“One, a Shiite who favors Western clothing, was advised by an unknown woman in her Baghdad neighborhood to wear a veil and not to drive her own car,” the cable said. “She said some groups are pushing women to cover even their face, a step not taken in Iran even at its most conservative.”

The 23-point cable also detailed the hardships of daily life for Iraqi employees at the embassy who must live without electricity to power air conditioners about 16 hours of each day.

Baghdad temperatures have already hit 115 and have routinely been in that range since the early days of the month. Others complained of gasoline shortages, and of the high price of fuel when it can be found on the black market.

Among other problems faced by Iraqis working at the embassy, the cable said:

  • “Some of our staff do not take home their American cell phones, as it makes them a target. They use code names for friends and colleagues and contacts entered into Iraq cell phones. For at least six months, we have not been able to use any local staff for translation at on-camera press events.
  • “One Shia employee told us in late May that she can no longer watch TV news with her mother, who is Sunni, because her mother blamed all the government failings on the fact that Shia are in charge. Many of the employee’s family left Iraq years ago. This month, another sister is departing for Egypt, as she imagines the future here is too bleak.
  • “Another employee tells us life outside the Green Zone has become ’emotionally draining.’ He claims to attend a funeral ’every evening.’ He, like other local employees, is financially responsible for his immediate and extended families. He revealed that ‘the burden of responsibility; new stress coming from social circles who increasingly disapprove of the coalition presence, and everyday threats weigh very heavily.”’

Given the increasing difficulties, the writer of the cable concluded:

“Although our staff retain a professional demeanor, strains are apparent. We see their personal fears are reinforcing divisive sectarian or ethnic channels. Employees are apprehensive enough that we fear they may exaggerate developments or steer us toward news that comports with their own world view. Objectivity, civility, and logic that make for a functional workplace may falter if social pressures outside the Green Zone don’t abate.”