The woman who controls access to Baghdad's Green Zone is one of the most powerful Americans in Iraq.
BAGHDAD, Iraq—Army Lt. Col. Kimberly Johanek is one of the most powerful Americans left here. Not even the U.S. ambassador or the four-star commander in charge of U.S. forces has the authority to do what she does.
One recent spring afternoon, Johanek, a sociology professor on her second deployment to Iraq with the Idaho National Guard, greeted Hai-Kwang Lee, deputy chief of mission for the Korean Embassy, at her tiny office, a white-tiled converted bathroom at FOB Prosperity in the Green Zone, now officially called the International Zone. (Most people still refer to these palatial, bomb-damaged former stomping grounds of Saddam Hussein as the Green Zone, its original name under the U.S.-led occupation government.)
Lee showed Johanek a blue badge, a coveted color in the multi-tiered system the Americans created to grant access to the Green Zone, the 3.8-square-mile walled compound in the center of Baghdad that houses the Iraqi government and the international diplomatic quarter. The badge was new, recently issued by Johanek's office, and will not expire until Dec. 31, 2011, when U.S. troops are scheduled to depart under the current agreement with the Iraqi government.
So what was the problem? Johanek knew it before Lee opened his mouth, because she's fielded daily calls like this since she assumed control of badging in November 2010. She is now advising the Iraqis on how to deal with their own issues of access since they regained control of the Green Zone checkpoints almost a year ago. The Iraqi government has a new, separate badge for entering the Green Zone. The U.S. military still controls access to its bases, some of which are inside the Green Zone, and the U.S. State Department controls access to the embassy, also in the Green Zone. (We'll come back to this complicated tangle of plastic in a moment.)
"They took away the PX," Lee said, pointing to the badge. In the movie version of this encounter, he would hang his head in shame or sorrow. But this isn't the movie version. Lee looked Johanek straight in the eye and said, "I want to explain why the PX is important to us. Our people eat a lot of meat. The Arab people only eat chicken, and the quality isn't very good. It is very difficult."
Johanek responded with a rehearsed answer, delivered to countless diplomats, contractors, and, yes, it must be noted, journalists. (Johanek refused to budge when the military's top spokesman recently went to bat for a Western reporter in Baghdad who wanted to shop at the PX. In the spirit of full disclosure, and because I'm no hypocrite, I should say that I've purchased jars of salsa, Chex Mix, Runner's World magazines, and a pillow or two from the PX in the years I've lived and reported from Iraq. But these days the only way journalists can access a PX on a military base is with travel orders issued for embedding with the military. I am crunching on Cheez-Its purchased at the PX as I write this. However, these are embedded Cheez-Its, not wasta Cheez-Its.)
"It's been this field of dreams for foreign embassies," Johanek said. "We built it. They used it. But if we were in Germany, you wouldn't go to the military or to the embassy for things. You'd find them on your own."
Lee looked a bit defeated when he left with his blue badge that won't get him—or his chef—into the PX.
Johanek is unapologetic. "Our badges are being used for access privileges," she said. "I know it. I see it every day," she said, noting that it has resulted in a pervasive culture of what she calls "badge wasta." The higher their rank and position, the more indignant many officials in Iraq seem to get if they are stopped at a checkpoint and not simply waved through.
Johanek is not only responsible for curbing the abuses that became entrenched in the system, she is also trying to guide the Iraqis not to make the same mistakes. It's tough. The Americans are essentially saying, Look, don't do it the way we did it, because our way created a system of privilege that left your people outside the gate, and not just metaphorically, and they stayed outside the gate until they learned how to manipulate our system. In fact, they are now so good at it that if you simply adopt our system, you will inherit our mess.
"We created it," Johanek said, "and now we're trying to get them to work their way out of it."
The Iraqis are issuing badges at a small office also in the Green Zone. The "GOI badge"—GOI stands for Government of Iraq—uses the same color-coded system for access as the USF-I—short for United States Forces Iraq—badges. At the bottom of the tier is the red badge, which indicates the holder has not be vetted for security and has to be escorted. A worker might have this kind of badge. Orange is the next level, which means the holder has been vetted but still has to be escorted. Yellow badge holders can escort other people. Blue and green badges offer the most privileges but not necessarily access to military dining facilities or the PX, the "post exchange" stores that sell towels, food, underwear, American brands of toiletries, food, magazines, sunglasses, souvenirs, and electronics. It's basically a very tiny Walmart, with lots of camouflage.
"The GOI badge system is replicated off of ours, so the colors mean basically the same thing," Johanek told me. "Access into the IZ is much easier with a blue or green badge—both GOI and USF-I, which is one of the reasons they are highly sought after."
Johanek made a visit to the GOI badge office one morning to talk to Bashar Al Saraj, security coordinator for GOI badging. Saraj and Johanek are on very friendly terms. Most people are with Johanek, a personable mother of two with an easy smile, a scholarly view of the world, and an infantryman's mouth.
"First, I'm very upset," Saraj told Johanek before she had even settled in her chair. "They confiscated one of our badges."
Growing Pain No. 1: The new Iraqi badges look similar to the USF-I badges, but they are different enough that a security officer thought it was fake.
Johanek is trying to encourage the Iraqis to use biometrics, which match fingerprints or iris scans against a database. It is a highly reliable but expensive identifier that embeds a chip in a badge that can be matched against information stored in a database. The U.S. military uses such biometrics on its badges. But the Iraqis only have five biometric-badge readers, and neither government is willing to turn over their databases to read each other's badges.
"You can fake a fraudulent badge all you want, but you can't match the chip," Johanek said, trying to encourage Saraj. He said he's content with changing the watermark on the lamination to help differentiate the badges.
Jackie Spinner is a journalist based in the Middle East. She was a staff writer for the Washington Post for 14 years and covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is the author of Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq.
Photographs courtesy Jackie Spinner.