In the heart of Baghdad lies a complex of palaces, ordinary houses, and even a park. But the area is more than a central neighborhood in the Iraqi capital. It is the so-called Green Zone, a place of great importance to both Iraqi officials and the U.S.-led multinational force -- and a source of continued political wrangling.
Baghdad, 2 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Muhammad Rabat is a farmer in his 70s. He, his wife, and their nine children live in a two-story house on the middle of what has become known as the Green Zone -- the administrative center for the U.S.-led coalition and much of the interim Iraqi government.
Rabat said he does not mind the Americans. They don't bother him and he doesn't bother them. But his is not the only opinion.
The Green Zone -- also known as the International Zone -- is an approximately 5-square-kilometer area protected on two sides by the banks of the Tigris River.
In the 1970s, before Saddam Hussein became the preeminent power in the country, the area was little more than a series of normal city streets and a few privately owned homes. Then the area grew bigger, as Saddam built a complex of palaces and high-class houses for government officials and his cronies.
By the time his regime was toppled last year, the area had become an exclusive zone from which many ordinary citizens were banned.
When the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) took over last year, the Green Zone became its administrative headquarters but also housed many military officials. Paul Bremer, the civil administrator, and Lieutenant General Richardo Sanchez, until recently the commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, had their offices in the Green Zone.
Since the handover of power to Iraqi officials in June, the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has put pressure on the United States to hand back some of the territory.
U.S. diplomats offer few details about the negotiations, only saying that talks are continuing.
U.S. and Iraqi officials here said the prime minister has personally and pointedly brought up the issue with U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte. The top U.S. diplomat, for his part, has claimed he is only in charge of a small portion of the Green Zone being used by the embassy.
U.S. military commanders are equally vague on where the talks stand. The only available comment has come from Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Boylan, director of the press operations for the U.S. military here.
"At the present time, with the negotiations and consultations with the Iraqi government, we are using what we need," Boylan said. "We expect that in the future, as things progress for both the Iraqi government and [U.S. military] operations, [we will] be able to return portions of the Green Zone. That will be in direct consultation and discussions with the [Iraqi] government."
But it is not clear how much of the Iraqi government's insistence is a genuine desire to see the U.S. presence removed from the Green Zone. Some see the move as an attempt to win support from ordinary Iraqis, many of whom consider the Allawi government an extension of the U.S.-led coalition and of doubtful legitimacy.
The offices of the interim Iraqi president and prime minister, as well as their official residences, lie in the Green Zone. So do some of the main operations offices of the Defense and Interior ministries, and the intelligence headquarters.
If the United States does hand back its Green Zone territory to the Iraqi government, those Iraqi offices will be deprived of much-needed security that the coalition has put there.
Because of its political importance, the Green Zone has been a repeated target of terrorist attacks, and the removal of U.S. security could make the region even more dangerous.
For their part, residents are of mixed opinion on whether they want the Green Zone dissolved.
While Rabat said he likes the U.S. control of the area, another Green Zone resident -- an elderly woman who asked that her name not be used -- said she is tired of the commotion and plans to leave the area, although she would be happy to rent her property to a U.S. company.
"We work. And with the checkpoints, sometimes it takes two hours [to get through] by car," she said. "Relatives are hesitant to come and visit because they need special passes [from the U.S. military]. And the mortars and rockets are something terrible. Always, there is some shelling."
Perhaps those most hurt by the closure of the streets and bridges leading to the Green Zone are the proprietors of small businesses, including nighttime fish and kebab shops on the banks of the Tigris, or small shops in front of the former presidential compound.
The interim Iraqi government, like the CPA before it, often closes the streets leading to main government buildings during major meetings or VIP visits. This only makes a bad business situation even worse for many of the local shopkeepers.
But there have been benefits as well.
Some entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the heavy U.S. presence in the Green Zone and elsewhere, and opened businesses that cater mainly to the international community.
Khaled Moayed and his brothers decided in May 2003 -- just two months after the creation of the Green Zone -- to open an Italian pizza shop in front of the main gate of the former presidential compound that became the CPA headquarters.
Moayed said his eldest brother had a pizza shop in Italy before the war, but decided to come back to Iraq after Saddam's fall, and chose to take advantage of the CPA's presence. He even has a delivery service for the American soldiers serving in the zone and foreign correspondents staying nearby.
"I had delivery to checkpoint 1, for the CPA, the Al-Rashid Hotel, the [presidential] palace. These were the [delivery] places," Moayed said. "I don't want customers' delivery to be delayed by traffic or explosions. So I have limited the places. This is really the best place to have the shop."