Baghdad Diaries

One womans two-year adventure in Iraqs Green Zone

But in the months that passed after Padberg saw Iraq as an opportunity for "adventure" and "challenge," the country was transformed. The initial welcome that greeted U.S. troops in March 2003 had expired, and sporadic attacks by insurgents had become a daily occurrence. A year after the invasion, insurgents ambushed four security contractors in Fallouja. In a scene reminiscent of Somalia 10 years before, enraged Iraqis dragged the burning bodies of the Americans from their smoking vehicles and strung them up on a nearby bridge.

Things worsened the following month, when photographs taken by U.S. soldiers inside Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison were beamed to television screens around the world. They depicted smiling GIs posing next to naked Iraqi detainees stacked like cordwood, or chained to their cells with women's underwear covering their faces.

By June 1, when Padberg and her 24-year-old Iraqi-American associate flew from Kuwait City to Baghdad International Airport, Iraq had become the most dangerous place on the planet for a 60-year-old American woman. Loaded with soldiers, weapons and equipment, their C-130 flew first to Basra in southern Iraq, then Mosul, in the Kurdish-dominated north of the country, and then finally to Baghdad. Each landing required stomach-churning banking and steep dives to avoid enemy fire.

Illustration by Matt Bors
Illustration by Matt Bors
Padberg with 41 pounds of flak jacket
Padberg with 41 pounds of flak jacket

"It was scary," Padberg says. "But we were totally focused on not throwing up. We were the only two women on the flight, so it wouldn't have looked good. The good news is neither of us got sick."

In Baghdad, Padberg and her partner took a bus brimming with armed guards directly to the Green Zone, five square miles in the heart of the capital surrounded by concrete barriers and checkpoints and bordered by Hussein's Republican Palace and the Tigris River.

Although a Shia, Padberg's Iraqi friend came from a family that had prospered under Saddam Hussein's secular regime. Her mother regaled Padberg with fond memories of the 1960s, when women university students in Baghdad freely strolled through the city in miniskirts and danced to western music at nightclubs. With Hussein's fall, many urban Iraqi women feared they would lose their freedoms, that the country's resurgent conservative Islamic movement would drape them in a collective veil. They successfully lobbied the Americans to reserve 25 percent of parliamentary seats in the new Iraqi government for women.

"The minute Hussein fell, Iraqi women started pressing for their rights," Padberg says. "Sixty-two percent of the Iraqi population is women. Because so many men have been killed, women have had to step up and take care of their extended family, and there are a lot of women-owned businesses. There are more women engineers in Iraq than any other country in the Middle East."

At first, the Iraqi officials who ran the public works and water resources ministries resisted Padberg. Many were exiles who had fled Iraq and returned, in some cases, to replace women who had held those jobs under Hussein's regime.

But Padberg kept at them until they let her set up a women's task force in both ministries. "I kept telling them day after day how important it was to give women opportunities," she says. "We trained 1,300 senior and midlevel women in areas that would help them advance in government. The other part of our program was getting women jobs. The idea behind this was that if women didn't have a stake in Iraq's future, democracy would fail.

"We became known all over Iraq. Women who wanted jobs would come to us."

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During her first six months inIraq, Padberg shared a room inside a converted high school with three other women, then moved to a trailer, where she had four roommates. The trailer was located in the Green Zone's "Mortar Alley," infamous for the frequency of attacks. In her free time, she went fly-fishing in what she calls a "fairly secured" area of the Tigris River inside the Green Zone—a concrete channel that resembled the Santa Ana River—and dined three times a day at the Steel Dragon, Halliburton's high-carb and high-cost cafeteria—$30 per plate to the U.S. taxpayer. She ate alongside soldiers, none of whom, she says, ever complained about being in Iraq, being lied to by President Bush or the absence of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

"It wasn't like talking to soldiers in Vietnam," Padberg says. "They were all happy about getting rid of Saddam Hussein."

That enthusiasm apparently didn't extend to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "The soldiers I spoke to were glad we were there," she says. "But they weren't too happy about not having enough equipment or much of a plan for occupying the country."

Whenever she had access to a computer, Padberg typed up her experiences in regular e-mails she sent to friends in the U.S.

"I feel safe most of the time, but on guard," she said in one e-mail shortly after her arrival. "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 car bombs and mortars 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.'"

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