About the only benefit from not being able to move freely to report is that there is time to read about this place. But in doing so, one gets the impression that nobody in the U.S. government pays attention to what we do manage to report.
Or is it simply that the disconnect between the reality here and the preferred perception there is unbridgeable?
For example, in opening remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that part of the U.S. strategy for "winning" in Iraq was to hold and secure areas.
"We can implement this element of the strategy … neighborhood by neighborhood," Rice said, adding: "and this process has already begun."
As evidence, she offered: "Compare the situation a year ago in places like Haifa Street in Baghdad …"
Well, a year ago there was a sign at the Assassin's Gate exit from the Green Zone that read: "Haifa Street is Condition Red. Do Not Use Haifa Street." The sign is still there today, it just takes you longer to get to it as you leave the Green Zone because more barriers have been erected to keep the suicide bombers out.
Haifa Street begins about 500 yards from Assassin's Gate. I know this because our hotel is there. We take as much care in leaving it as we do the Assassin's Gate. Shortly after the polls closed in the referendum last weekend, there was a prolonged shoot-out just down the road.
In another example of how well things are going, Rice told senators: "Security along the once notorious airport road in Baghdad has measurably improved."
If that is the case, maybe they can remove the sign just beyond the last checkpoint on the way out. It reads: "You are Leaving a Secured Area … All Weapons Red at This Point. Lock and Load."
Perhaps she can be forgiven for not knowing. High-ranking officials such as Rice usually go to the Green Zone by helicopter. There are still several deadly incidents along the airport road every day — two-and-a-half years after U.S. forces swept into Baghdad and took it and the city center over.
Insurgents are not responsible for all the incidents, either. Among the most dangerous things on that or any other road here are American military convoys. Come too close, which is to say within 100 yards, and you can be shot. Mistake their hand signals, and you can be shot.
The problem is that the troops use military gestures and, for the most part, few people here — least of all Iraqis — have any idea of what they are trying to convey. That danger combined with the traffic jams they create has made the Americans no friends here, although no one in Washington or the military seems to have grasped that either.
For the sake of motorists, it's probably a good thing that many VIPs prefer to ride over the city rather than through it because even more dangerous than the troops are the private security convoys.
At least the troops are subject to some discipline and rules of engagement. The Private Security Details, or PSDs, drive as fast as possible, guns bristling, bulling their way through traffic in SUVs. The vehicles, of course, are guaranteed to make them a target. But maybe that's the point.
Apparently answerable to no laws, not even those of courtesy, PSDs who shoot at civilians are not known to stop and check what they have done. And the only thing they do more often than shoot is shout "F*** off!" at anyone who gets in their way.
Maybe they do it because they can. What's the point of having guns, wrap-around shades, lots of kit that looks like it came from the props department of an action movie, and a body that seriously hints at steroid abuse if you can't enjoy it? Once inside their home turf of the Green Zone, they can't — except for posing for each other, that is.
Now renamed the "International Zone" by its denizens, the sprawling compound houses almost all Westerners here except most journalists. It has seat belt requirements, stop signs, a 20-mph speed limit and police to enforce the rules. It also has pizza joints, burger bars and all the comforts of home. A total disconnect from Iraq. It would be interesting to know how much is spent making it look like the United States as compared to how much has actually been spent on development projects this year.
The one major "development project" recently has been the new constitution. Notes sent from a White House briefing quoted spokesman Scott McClellan as telling reporters that "tens of millions" of copies had been distributed.
Given that there were a mere 15 million estimated voters, one has to wonder what McClellan reads — for several days the media had been reporting that copies were not being handed out, and food distributors were tossing them away so as not to be caught by insurgents with them.
But then, there was no record that anyone in the White House press corps questioned his numbers.
The disconnect, it seems, is total.