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Courtesy Eileen PadbergEileen Padberg only takes off her 41-pound flak jacket at home, which is inside a trailer in the Green Zone, also known as the International Zone—the fortified area of Baghdad under constant attack by Iraqi insurgents. Padberg, 60, is also under constant personal attack; she has a $300,000 bounty on her head just for being an American woman in Iraq to help promote women's rights.
She's been there almost nine months, part of a team helping steer postwar reconstruction projects to Iraqi women, but Padberg has made a point of documenting life in the Green Zone through periodic e-mails to friends at home. Her writing veers between enumerating the difficulties in arranging conferences for Iraqi businesswomen and casually describing the thump and whoosh of mortar attacks that miss her trailer by mere feet.
"By all accounts, there is supposed to be an increase in the violence directed to us here in the Green Zone," Padberg wrote in a typically understated Jan. 29 e-mail, the night before Iraq's national elections. "We've had several drills in the past week on what to do if we were attacked or if the insurgents break through all the checkpoints and storm our building."
If she sounds blasé about life—and the possibility of death—inside the Green Zone, it's because she's been in dangerous situations before as an elections observer in such Third World countries as Guatemala, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. But Iraq is the first place she's lived where armed insurgents aim mortars at her trailer every night. It's a long way from her gated community in Laguna Niguel.
Padberg's journey to Iraq began in December 2003, when her friend Sara Katz, who runs the San Diego consulting firm Katz & Associates, asked her to help arrange a "woman small business component" of a contract to manage a $4.4 billion water-reconstruction contract in Iraq.
"I don't know what I was thinking. For whatever reason, I was at a point in my life where I needed a new challenge. I figured what the hell," Padberg said. "I passed off all of my clients to capable associates."
She also recruited Esra Naama, a 24-year-old Iraqi-American woman from San Diego who'd escaped Saddam Hussein's regime in 1991. On June 1, Padberg and Naama boarded a C-130 military flight from Kuwait City to Baghdad's main airport. From there, they took an armed military bus to the Green Zone, a four-square-mile area of Baghdad that is semi-protected by massive concrete barriers on two sides and the Tigris River on the third.
"I feel safe most of the time, but on guard," Padberg said in an e-mail at the time. "But there is a $300,000 award to anyone who kidnaps an American woman. I haven't had any close calls with insurgents—other than the mortars and car bombs that are lobbed into the Green Zone. A mortar came so close over our trailer a few weeks ago, I could actually hear the air 'whoosh.'"
Yet Padberg said her first impression of Baghdad was that it wasn't all that bad.
"Iraq is a very educated society. Women had the right to vote here in 1970. Women were very educated; there are more women engineers here in Iraq than anywhere in the Middle East," she said. "Saddam didn't stop women from being educated, and women here feel that women's rights have gone backward since the U.S. came. They are very worried."
Padberg figures she can take credit for getting at least 10 Iraqi women jobs, as well as for helping at least four win contracts they never would have gotten without the seminars she and Naama hosted all over the country—but despite that, she says most Iraqis she's met, including Naama's family, want the U.S. to leave their country as soon as possible.
"They are grateful for our help in ridding them of Saddam and for giving them the framework for freedom, but now they want to finish the rest on their own," Padberg wrote in a recent e-mail.
On Jan. 30, Iraq's Election Day, hours after the country's polling stations closed, she sent another message to her friends. "On Saturday night, there must have been 40 mortars, explosions and lots of gunfire," she wrote. "I kept trying to decide whether to put on my vest and helmet. One mortar hit the Palace, where the U.S. Embassy is located. Two people were killed—two people I knew, although not very well—and many others were injured."
She spent that day locked in her trailer, watching the news and feeling a certain sense of victory.
"It was so exciting," she said. "The first elections in Iraq since 1958 were a huge success. I was really moved by the many women who risked their lives to vote. It brought back memories of when I was in Guatemala for their first-ever democratic elections. They didn't have as many choices as the Iraqis had, and almost all their candidates were military-backed. When I asked them why they were voting, they would always smile and say, 'Because we can.'"