AAAS Diplomacy Fellow Alex Dehgan in Iraq: Caught in the Crossfire
AAAS Diplomacy Fellow Alex Dehgan narrowly avoided injury in a blast that destroyed this car outside the Green Zone in May 2004
For most of the 22 months that he served in the U.S. State Department as a AAAS Diplomacy Fellow, Alex Dehgan was engaged in efforts to rebuild the once-vital science and engineering culture of Iraq. For five months in the first half of 2004, Dehgan was based in Baghdad, directing a program that sought to recruit Saddam Hussein's former weapons scientists for peaceful reconstruction work. In that time, his life was often in danger.
Dehgan's fellowship ended in June 2005, and he left the State Department. As part of a longer interview, AAAS Senior Writer Edward W. Lempinen posed a question to Dehgan by email this week:
You're back from Iraq, your fellowship is complete, and you're preparing to move on to new horizons, but do you ever stop and think about the extent to which you put your life on the line? As you look back, do you see any moment or moments when the risk or the danger was especially acute? How does that aspect of the experience sit with you now?
Here is his response:
There were many occasions when the risk was acute.
The Green Zone was not safe. When we would get rocketed, I would hear
the sound of a mortar being launchedit was surprisingly similar to the sound
of a car door closing, and it bothered me for a year after I returned. There was always a risk
that the mortar would be coming down on your trailer, but there was little
that we could do between the few seconds when you heard the thump and the
subsequent explosion. One week, we were rocketed repeatedly every morning
at 4 o'clock. It got to the point of normalcy, where my reaction would be to
put on my helmet, pull my flak jacket over my body like a blanket and go
to sleep. I wouldn't bother to try to go to a shelter.
On another occasion, I was walking across a parking lot with my colleague Carl
Philips when a rocket screamed over our heads and hit a building just
beyond the PX. Similarly, on my first week in the Green Zone, I found out
why I had been given the big window office when a rocket passed so close
to the window that I could feel its vibrations. We were completely
exposed, in the open, and felt vulnerable, much like you do after an earthquake, where all the solidity and security you normally felt was somehow drained away.
Further, there were many storiesand they were trueof how
we were infiltrated, of how our vetting systems were flawed, of
mines, explosive pens, grenades being placed within the Green
Zone. In the end, many people were killed, and that has led to the current restrictive atmosphere in the U.S. embassy.
Every time I left the safety of the Green Zone to enter what I called the
Red Zonewhich I did almost every daythere was substantial risk to
me, to my staff and to the scientists we worked with. I was once caught in the crossfire of a battle between Iraqi security forces and some insurgents, but because I was
stuck in a traffic jam, I couldn't move the car, and it wouldn't have been wise to
abandon the car and try to run. The thoughts in my mind at the time
were whether to go to the back of the car and get my AK-47 and start
shooting since I wasn't sure who were the insurgents and who were the police.
Another timeI blacked out the incident, but it was related to meI was
driving and someone jumped up in front of the car and held up an AK-47,
and my reaction was to accelerate the car toward the person. He jumped out
of the way.
There was a great feeling of exposure. Once I
was buying computers for our science center because going through
normal purchasing channels would have taken months. While my staff chief and I were out on the street in this neighborhood, a few black armored
cars pulled up and some heavily armed insurgents got out. I couldn't go
anywhere without drawing attention to myself, so I ordered a kabob from a street
stall and ate it with my back turned toward themthey were only 20 feet
awayuntil they went out of sight. Then we walked away slowly. We had to hold ourselves from breaking out into a full sprint.
The checkpoints were also deadly. On May 6 2004, I narrowly missed getting killed when the checkpoint at the July 14th bridgean entrance to the Green Zonewas bombed. Similarly, after that checkpoint was closed,
I missed a bombing at the new checkpoint I'd started using.
Perhaps the most fearful experience I hadtwicewas getting shut
out of the Green Zone after an order came to close all the
entrances. I was trapped outside the walls of safety. If I didn't have Iraqi staff that cared deeply about me and the Science Center, I would have had nowhere to go. I remember once seeing a contractor's car that was similarly shut out, and watching it drive in a
circle for hours in front of the checkpoint until it reopened. They
were more exposed than I was, and it was clear by how they were driving that they were terrified. When your only link to safety is taken away, it's awful.
The troops at the checkpoints were under constant stress, and
on more than one occasion, there was a potential threat to use force against me. It
wasn't hard to understand why since I was driving a Baghdad-registered
car, I have Mediterranean features, and I was coming and going at odd hours. The sign on the checkpoint warned you that you were entering a kill zone.
I was also worried about my safety from individuals who opposed
our policies of redirecting the Iraqi weapons scientists, from people and institutions that would rather have had us fail. There were veiled threats to the effect that we were operating in a
war zone and anything could happen. One time, approaching the
reconstructed checkpoint at the July 14th bridge, the soldiers refused to come out from
the barricade, and remained hidden behind the sandbags with their weapons
trained on me. Only after I dangled my ID out the window and shouted out
to them did the commander slowly approach the vehicle. I was informed then that
they'd been told that a car looking like minethe exact description of my carwas carrying a bomb.
Even upon leaving, my plane and the airport came under fire. The stress
never stopped until I was in the United Kingdom, where I was briefing the
British Ministry of Defenseand even then, it took months before I could
How does this experience sit with me now? I don't regret it, so
long as others can continue working on building science in Iraq, and so
long as the Iraqi people have hope in their future.
But it was hard facing these fears all the time without the support of my familyI could
not tell them of the dangers that I was in, or that I was even in Iraqbecause I didn't want them to worry. I needed them and their supportit was really difficult for me in this respect. I finally
told my parents a month ago, about a year after I came back.
16 August 2005