Baghdad Diaries

One womans two-year adventure in Iraqs Green Zone

As the anti-American insurgency that had begun in earnest a few months before Padberg arrived in Baghdad grew in ferocity, she became accustomed to being awakened by mortars each morning at 6:30. "It was our wake-up call," she says. "It was pretty funny, because their aim was so bad, but a couple of times our guards got killed. You'd hear the first mortar hit, grab your helmet and vest, and hide under your mattress until you heard the all-clear signal."

Despite the Green Zone's reputation as the most secure area in Iraq, Padberg says, there were still 10,000 Iraqis living there, squatters who, with their extended families, had taken over villas and government buildings almost immediately after Hussein fled Baghdad. Whenever they entered the Green Zone, these Iraqis had to stand in line for security checks, making them easy targets for suicide bombers and IEDs.

The security checks didn't always work. On Oct. 15, 2004, a day after Padberg returned from a short R&R, two suicide bombers affiliated with Al Qaeda of Iraq attacked the Green Zone Cafe—an Iraqi-owned kebab shop favored by Americans—and a marketplace just a block from her compound. The bombers likely smuggled their explosives piece by piece through the checkpoints, possibly with help from Iraqis living inside the walls.

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

Padberg was in her office when the first attacker blew himself up at the Green Zone Cafe, and moments later, when the second explosion tore apart the market. Nearly a dozen people died in the blasts.

"Everyone knew someone who was killed," she says. "I knew the vendors at both places and some of the security guys who were in the restaurant. I was sitting next to them on a plane, and they got killed sitting in a cafe. It was a total shock. When that happened, all of us knew everything was going to change."

*   *   *

The following month, Nov. 2004, 137American troops died, making it the bloodiest month of the war. In the midst of the carnage, Padberg flew all over the country, carrying with her a briefcase full of presentation materials for her seminars. It often took days to reach a four-hour conference in a town only an hour away by air.

Getting to Kirkuk, for example, involved catching an armored bus inside the Green Zone between midnight and 2 a.m., and then traveling the world's most dangerous road—Airport Road, the 10-mile freeway connecting the Green Zone to Baghdad International Airport. Early the next morning, she ran onto the tarmac in her flak vest and helmet, ducking to avoid the whirling rotors of a waiting Blackhawk helicopter, and flew to the U.S. military base in Kirkuk.

At the base, Padberg was greeted by a convoy of three Humvees staffed by several heavily armed female American soldiers.

"We never traveled in cities unless we were in a convoy," Padberg says. "When I met these ladies, we were all laughing about the fact that we had an all-women convoy. But when we started moving, they were all business." As the convoy rolled through downtown Kirkuk, the woman in the turret of each Humvee gripped her 60-caliber machine gun, searching for any sign of the enemy.

The conference was located in an air-conditioned, theater-style conference room at the Kirkuk Business Center, a renovated building next to City Hall.

"It was like being in a classroom at UC Irvine," Padberg says. "Except when I walked in the room, I realized all the women were wearing abayas, which covered everything except their faces."

At first, Padberg thought she was in the wrong room. Her audience looked more like a bunch of rural Arab housewives than aspiring government contractors with advanced engineering degrees.

*   *   *

Padberg pulled off five seminars throughout Iraq; four more in the north of the country were canceled, mostly for security reasons. The weather didn't help. Her flight to Erbil should have taken only three hours. Halfway there, as Padberg looked out the open window of the Blackhawk, she realized that the midday sun had disappeared.

"We had flown directly into a sandstorm," Padberg says. "The wind was blasting my face. I looked at the door gunner, and he made a motion with his hand saying we were turning around. So we flew to a military base in Balad."

There wasn't another flight to Erbil for two days. Fortunately, instead of having to sleep in a tent, Padberg scored a trailer—and, more important, a bathroom and shower—offered by a friendly contractor. "Every morning we'd go to the airport, sit there with our luggage all day, and watch helicopters coming and going," she says. Several times a day, Padberg would run to a waiting Blackhawk, strap herself into a seat and sit there for 20 minutes until the pilot told her the weather was still too bad to fly.

"This went on for four days," Padberg says. She had no choice but to e-mail her contacts in Erbil and let them know they'd need to cancel the seminar. When she got back to the Green Zone, an e-mail was waiting for her: seven Iraqi women bound for the Erbil seminar had driven hundreds of miles from Basra—about the distance from San Diego to San Francisco, plus dozens of military checkpoints—in vain.

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