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Embassy staff to don safety gear in Green Zone

Increase in attacks prompts order for helmets and vests

In this image taken from video footage, people left the scene of a suicide blast where three Iraqi lawmakers were killed in Baghdad on April 12. Yesterday, a large explosion rattled the US Embassy's windows during Vice President Dick Cheney's visit. (Reuters TV)

BAGHDAD -- A sharp increase in mortar attacks on the Green Zone -- the onetime oasis of security in Iraq's turbulent capital -- has prompted the US Embassy to issue a strict new order telling all employees to wear flak vests and helmets while in unprotected buildings or when they are traveling substantial distances.

The order has created a siege mentality among US staff inside the Green Zone following a recent suicide attack on parliament. It has also led to new fears about long-term safety in a place where the US government is building a massive and expensive embassy.

The situation marks a sharp turnaround for the heavily guarded Green Zone -- long viewed as the safest corner of Baghdad with its shops, restaurants, American fast-food outlets, and key Iraqi and American government offices.

The security deterioration also holds dire implications for the Iraqi government, which uses the Green Zone as a haven for key meetings crucial to its ability to govern. Yesterday, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney held meetings in the Green Zone with Iraq's prime minister.

Reporters covering Cheney's visit were hustled into a secure area when a large explosion rattled windows in the US Embassy late in the afternoon. Lea Anne McBride, a Cheney spokeswoman, said the vice president's meeting "was not disturbed, and he was not moved."

The increase in mortar attacks is occurring despite the presence of tens of thousands more American and Iraqi soldiers in the streets of Baghdad as part of the security crackdown President Bush ordered in January. Attacks on the Green Zone are nothing new: They have occurred from time to time since the first months of the US presence in Iraq .

The vest and helmet security order was issued May 3, one day after four Asian contract workers working for the US government were killed when rockets or mortars slammed into the Green Zone.

It was at least the third straight day of barrages against the 3.5-square-mile area along the west bank of the Tigris River.

Because of the "recent increase of indirect fire attacks" -- the military term for mortar and artillery barrages -- the order told embassy employees that until further notice, "outdoor movement" must be "restricted to a minimum."

"Remain within a hardened structure to the maximum extent possible and strictly avoid congregating outdoors," the order said.

Government employees who work outside a "hardened structure," such as the current embassy building, or travel "a substantial distance outdoors" must wear "personal protective equipment," meaning flak jackets and helmets, the order said.

A US Embassy spokesman confirmed that the order was in effect until further notice. He refused to say more, citing security, and would not allow his name to be published .