Workers bear brunt of Iraqi turmoil

A leaked cable from the US Embassy in Baghdad, written by the ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and sent to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, has painted a grim and uncensored picture of how the security situation is deteriorating in Iraq.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  June 25, 2006

A leaked cable from the US Embassy in Baghdad, written by the ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and sent to secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, has painted a grim and uncensored picture of how the security situation is deteriorating in Iraq. The six-page cable, which was sent on the eve of President George W. Bush’s recent visit to Iraq to meet the new prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki, was marked ‘sensitive’ with the subject line: “Public affairs staff show strains of social discord”. President Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair have both tried to play down negative pictures of Iraq and promote an upbeat account of events on the ground, saying the Iraqi government and its security apparatus are making progress against a violent insurgency that has killed over 2500 US soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians. The confidential memo, which was leaked to The Washington Post, comprised 23 points under various sub-topics. It detailed the concerns of female employees, who have complained that: “Islamist and Militia groups have been negatively affecting daily routine,” and have harassed them “over proper dress and habits”. One of the embassy’s three female workers “was advised by an unknown woman in her Baghdad neighbourhood to wear a veil and not to drive her own car. She said some groups are pushing women to cover even their face, a step not taken in Iran even at its most conservative”. Another female worker cited warnings to cover up, as well as to “stop using cell-phones.” A third female employee at the public affairs section of the embassy now dresses in a full abaya “after receiving direct threats.” The cable referred to the perils of men wearing shorts, and cases of workers wearing jeans in public coming under attack. Also alarming were details of a report by the editor of an Arab newspaper, which claimed “ethnic cleansing … is taking place in almost every Iraqi province, as political parties and their militias are seemingly engaged in tit-for-tat reprisals all over Iraq”. There are also indications that sectarian rivalry has seeped into the ranks of government officials. Some Shiite civil servants in Baghdad have been implicated in the eviction of Kurdish households, in retaliation to Kurdish evictions of Arabs. “Ethnic and sectarian fault lines are becoming part of the daily media fare in the country,” cautioned the cable. One of the embassy’s Sunni female employees, the report claimed, has said “most of her family believes that the US, which is widely perceived as fully controlling the country and tolerating the malaise, is punishing populations as Saddam did”. There was also a chilling account of employees “reporting a change in demeanour of guards at the Green Zone checkpoints”. This caused one worker to ask that she be given press credentials because the guards held her embassy badge up and proclaimed loudly to passers-by “embassy” as she entered. “Such information is a death sentence if heard by the wrong people,” the report said. Concerns over staff safety have now prompted the embassy to take measures to try to conceal the identity and whereabouts of local employees. “We have begun shredding documents that show local staff surnames,” the memo continued. The cable described the deteriorating living standards and power outages Iraqis have had to endure in the midst of scorching summer heat, and alluded to preferential treatment in areas that house Iraqi government officials. Embassy employees reported waiting 12 hours a day for gas, while prices had quadrupled on the black market. “Against this backdrop of frayed social networks, tension and moodiness have risen,” it added. “Although our staff retain a professional demeanour, 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 towards news that comports with their own worldview. Objectivity, civility and logic that make for a functional workplace may falter if social pressures outside the Green Zone don’t abate.”

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