Baghdad Diaries

Illustration by Matt Bors

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.

"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."

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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."

*   *   *

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.'"


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.

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.

Some would have viewed the Erbil affair as a failure, perhaps evidence of the futility of Americans trying to help Iraq while dealing with a growing insurgency inspired by our occupation of their country. But not Padberg, who says the fact that the women drove so far just to attend a seminar proves that Iraqi women appreciated what she was trying to do.

"It must have been a horrible drive," she says. "But they were so excited about the seminar that they did it.

"Some 26,000 contracts have been given to Iraqis for reconstruction, and less than 1,000 of those were for women," she adds. "But we believe we were responsible for 250 of those. There were days I wondered what the hell we were doing there, but I think we gave them confidence in themselves—to go out and bid on a job, to take a management course and advance. At every seminar, women told us that our efforts were giving them the confidence to compete with men."

*   *   *

More optimism: Padberg extendedherinitial six-month stay in six-month increments until March. She admits that her time in Iraq took "a heavy emotional toll," especially in the past few months. She acknowledges that the position of Iraqi women is more precarious than it had been. And four years into the war, the country is engulfed by what most observers—including the Iraqi president—believe is the beginning of an all-out civil war between Shias and Sunnis. On average, 50 people per day die from car bombs or are found handcuffed and shot in the head—the apparent work of rival militias and death squads.

The death toll includes an Iraqi woman who helped Padberg organize training seminars. A few months ago, the 42-year-old mother of three was dragged from her house, shot in the head and left dead in a parking lot—executed, Padberg says, for working with Americans. Then there's the Iraqi engineer she calls a "great guy" who was dragged from his house in November and never seen again. And the father of an Iraqi friend. A Shia who fled Iraq for California in the early 1990s, he had returned shortly after the March 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. Last September, he vanished, one of the countless kidnapping victims since the U.S. invasion. Padberg doesn't know if he was abducted by mere criminals or Sunni insurgents. There have been no ransom demands, and the man hasn't been heard from since.

Padberg is reluctant to provide details about such disappearances or even mention their names, afraid that doing so will somehow worsen the odds either man will turn up alive. And the week Padberg left Iraq, the son of another friend was kidnapped.

Despite all this, Padberg says she's upbeat about Iraq's future. She says that while every Iraqi she spoke to wants the Americans to leave, they also believe the country's security situation will get worse if that day arrives too soon.

"I still don't think the country is going to have a civil war," Padberg says. "There are days when I think it will happen, but the insurgency is being fueled by outsiders from Syria and Iran, and the Iraqis are participating to earn money to feed their families. But I think the majority of Iraqis value our efforts. There isn't an Iraqi I know who hasn't lost someone close to them. I think they are tired of sending their kids to school in the morning and not knowing if they'll come home alive."

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