An Iraqi friend, who feared for his life because he was close to the Americans, used to live inside the Green Zone, the heavily protected area in central Baghdad where the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has its headquarters. One day he fell into conversation with an American soldier guarding one of the gates. The soldier said he was of Iraqi origin and could speak Arabic. He added that security was not quite as tight as it looked since prostitutes were regular visitors to the zone.
My friend, a little alarmed, decided to investigate. He went to a house which was being used as a brothel. He says: "In the toilet I found that the women were writing pro-Baath party, anti-American and patriotic slogans with their lipstick on the mirrors." Their clients could not tell what they had written because it was in Arabic.
The story illustrates the way in which the CPA officials became wholly isolated from the real opinions of Iraqis. Arriving in the wake of the war last year they cut themselves off inside Saddam Hussein's old palace complex. They were as remote from the lives of ordinary Iraqis as if they lived in a Martian spaceship which had temporarily touched down in the centre of Baghdad.
This isolation helps explain the CPA's repeated mistakes. When it arrived 14 months ago Iraqis were evenly divided on whether they had been liberated or occupied by the US. The CPA's own poll shows that just 2 per cent of Iraqis say they feel liberated and 92 per cent say they are occupied. The CPA may be the least successful organisation ever created by the US government. It is certainly one of the strangest. "It is really like living in an open prison,' said one CPA official.
Much of the security is in the hands of private companies. One day I had an interview with an Iraqi minister inside the zone. We had arranged it over the phone. The meeting never took place. I was first asked who I was by a friendly Nepalese soldier, then questioned by a nervous Algerian and finally stopped by a paunchy security man who, from his accent, came from Mississippi or Alabama.
"We can't let in journalists," he said in a suspicious and hostile tone. "They are a security threat." I asked exactly whom they had threatened. The security man said: "They killed the president of Afghanistan."
It turned out he had read somewhere of Ahmed Shah Massood, the Afghan warlord, being assassinated by two Moroccans with Belgian passports pretending to be a television crew. I said these were hardly typical of the journalistic profession but he was unconvinced.
Uncertain where real threats come from, the guards of the CPA - both regular US army and private security firms - treat all Iraqis as equally suspicious. According to one former Iraqi minister a suicide bomber was able to blow up Izzedin Salim, the head of Iraq's Governing Council, on 17 May after his convoy had been prevented from passing through US security into the Green Zone because a vital document was missing. His vehicle turned around giving the bomber his opportunity.
The difficulty getting into the Green Zone is less than that of CPA officials getting out. It is now truly dangerous for them to do so but most remained cocooned behind the walls even when it was less so.
One official remarked: "What shocks me is the number of people in the CPA who never even want to see the city where they live." Even the plastic cutlery in the dining hall was imported and almost ran out in April when insurgents destroyed the convoys bringing it in.
Presiding over the CPA until 30 June when power is supposedly handed over to an Iraqi government, is Paul Bremer. He has remained a remote figure to his own staff as well as Iraqis. When a rocket hit the Republican Palace, where the CPA has its headquarters earlier this month, officials wondered if he would make a reassuring visit, but were not entirely surprised by his absence.
It is still unclear why Mr Bremer and the CPA showed such poor judgement. The swift overthrow of Saddam Hussein showed few Iraqis supported him. But Mr Bremer disbanded the army and persecuted the Baath party pushing their members towards armed resistance.
By last summer he had alienated the Sunni Arabs (20 per cent of Iraqis) and by this spring he had infuriated the Shia (60 per cent). He turned the hitherto marginal Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr into a respected martyr and the hillbilly city of Fallujah into a patriotic symbol.
Many able and intelligent CPA officials are mystified by the extent of the failure, perhaps the greatest in American foreign policy. "Bremer stuffed his office full of neo-conservatives and political appointees who knew nothing of the country or the region," one said. "They actively avoided anybody who did."