A cable from the U.S. ambassador in Iraq to the State Department says Iraqis employed at the American Embassy in Baghdad live in fear that they will be unmasked as working for Americans.  The message was leaked to the Washington Post newspaper.  The newspaper says the cable is at odds with the more upbeat public assessments by administration officials.

The June 6 cable paints a grim picture in which Iraqi employees live in fear and deprivation once they leave the relative safety and comfort of the U.S.-controlled "Green Zone."  One employee is quoted as saying that life outside the Green Zone is, as she put it, "emotionally draining."

The cable, printed in full by The Washington Post, says Iraqi employees of the public affairs section are in dread that their identities as U.S. embassy workers will be discovered.  Of the nine employees in the section, the cable says, only four of them had family members who knew of their embassy job.  It says the embassy has been shredding documents containing the surnames of local staff.

The employees also complained of harassment by Islamist or militia groups in their neighborhoods, especially over Islamic dress.  It says that the quality of life has, as the cable puts it, "visibly deteriorated" with continuing power cuts and higher fuel prices, even in upscale neighborhoods.

The cable was prepared by the public affairs section and approved by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. 

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli downplayed the cable, saying there is nothing new in its contents.  He disputed the suggestion that the cable's gloomy portrait is at odds with official Administration pronouncements on Iraq.

"I think our discussion of what is going on in Iraq has consistently been, again, forthright, realistic, frank," he said.  "And anything that was in that article is consistent with how we've discussed the reality in Iraq. Yes, there are challenges.  We are working to solve them.  The Iraqi government is working to solve them.  But broadly speaking, you've got some very positive things going on. So we're not seeking to either minimize the difficulties or inflate the successes."

Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington-based public policy research institute, called the cable "gripping reading," both for its content and its origin.

"I think the impact is that it was coming out of the embassy, and that it is very human-scale reporting," she said.  "So if you were just reading the newspaper normally you wouldn't necessarily have such a granular feel to be an Iraqi that actually supports what the United States is doing, or is at least willing to work for the U.S. government."

Robert Perito, senior program director at the non-governmental U.S. Institute for Peace, says the cable underscores the desperate need for professional police in neighborhoods.

"Well, it certainly tells you that the circumstances in Iraq are getting more desperate for Iraqis," he said.  "It also tells you that the ability of the United States to influence events certainly is not what it was even a year or so ago."

The cable was unclassified but marked sensitive. A senior official, who asked not to be identified, called the leaking of the message "an unprincipled act," but said he did not anticipate any legal action against whoever might have divulged it.