News / Middle East

Iraq Moves On, But Slowly

Then President George Bush declares the war over in Iraq May 1, 2003. Behind him on board the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln is a banner reading: "Mission Accomplished."
Then President George Bush declares the war over in Iraq May 1, 2003. Behind him on board the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln is a banner reading: "Mission Accomplished."
TEXT SIZE - +
 VOA Correspondent Scott Bobb returned to Baghdad recently to report on the 10th anniversary of the war that toppled President Saddam Hussein’s regime. He has been reporting on Iraq since the 1990s, and in this report he gives his impressions on how the Iraqi capital has changed in recent years.

By SCOTT BOBB
 
BAGHDAD -- Flying into Baghdad at dawn after a seven-year absence reveals many changes, at least at first light.
 
Gone is the surveillance balloon that hung over the airport like a giant eye.
 
The pilot executes a smooth landing. In the years after the Iraq War he would have brought the plane to ground in an adrenalin-pumping corkscrew pattern.
 
With the aircraft's wings banked sharply toward the ground, he would have circled over the airfield bringing the plane down 3,000 meters in less than three minutes while passengers' ears popped from the rising air pressure.
 
That was to evade missiles fired by insurgents from the fields around the airport. The procedure is no longer necessary.
 
The airport appears about the same, mostly deserted. Taxis and most private cars still are not allowed to approach the building. A bus shuttles passengers to a dusty parking lot some five kilometers away.
 
The six-lane highway into town, once the deadliest road in Iraq, is clean and clear of debris. Instead of the carcasses of burnt-out cars, sprinklers water the lush grass alongside the road.
 
Recollections of Saddam’s Iraq
 
I first visited Iraq some 14 years ago when the country was still under the grip of Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party. An ordered society seemed to flourish on the surface despite years of sanctions and a no-fly zone that had crippled the economy and virtually eliminated the middle class.
 
U.S. soldiers walk past two gigantic status of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, March 20, 2009.U.S. soldiers walk past two gigantic status of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, March 20, 2009.
x
U.S. soldiers walk past two gigantic status of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, March 20, 2009.
U.S. soldiers walk past two gigantic status of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, March 20, 2009.
It had taken me two years to obtain a visa, which I did by joining a journalists' tour from Cairo. VOA had been blacklisted for years, I presumed, because of its broadcasts to Iraq in Arabic and English.
 
We had raced overnight across the desert from Amman, Jordan, to reach the Iraqi border post at dawn where our passports were stamped and our radios, cell phones and other communication devices were confiscated until we left the country.
 
After a few more hours' drive through the Mesopotamian desert my group checked into the Rasheed Hotel. The threshold of the hotel was inlaid with a mosaic of former U.S. President George Bush the father. When entering the hotel, it was difficult to avoid stepping on the face of the architect of the 1991 war that ended Saddam's occupation of Kuwait.
 
At the reception desk I was taken aback when the attendant asked for me by name. Was he a fan or someone designated to keep an eye on me? I never found out.
 
Riding then in the upscale Mansour district, scions of the political elite chatted from their sleek cars idling in the middle of the street while traffic backed up around them.
 
Neighborhood markets sold at discount prices the silver plates and candelabras pawned by middle class families that could no longer make ends meet.
 
Iraq post-Saddam
 
Driving through Baghdad today brought back memories of the Iraq War organized by George Bush-the-son.
 
I covered the war in early 2003 from Qatar where the U.S. military's forward command was headquartered. Several hundred reporters would gather at the end of the day in the media hanger on a Qatari military base outside Doha.
 
As the TV anchors in the audience finished their live-shots, a senior U.S. commander would appear on the battleship-grey set and brief us on the day's accomplishments.
 
We assembled in the middle of the night on March 19th to watch the beginning of the war and the wave of nighttime bombings called “Shock and Awe.”
 
The relatively new practice of “embedding” reporters with the troops quickly shifted the focus of media coverage to the frontlines. My job soon included checking out tips from my colleagues advancing in the desert.
 
Saddam Hussein's statue is taken down in Baghdad's Firdos Square April 9, 2003 after U.S. and allied troops enter the Iraqi capital.Saddam Hussein's statue is taken down in Baghdad's Firdos Square April 9, 2003 after U.S. and allied troops enter the Iraqi capital.
x
Saddam Hussein's statue is taken down in Baghdad's Firdos Square April 9, 2003 after U.S. and allied troops enter the Iraqi capital.
Saddam Hussein's statue is taken down in Baghdad's Firdos Square April 9, 2003 after U.S. and allied troops enter the Iraqi capital.
After Saddam's statue was toppled on Firdos Square and Baghdad was deemed “freed,” we moved the bureau from Doha to a hotel in Karada, a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood lying across the Tigris River from the fortified Green Zone.
 
I was sent in August to report on the efforts to raise a new democracy from the cinders of war. When I arrived, the foreign troops were still heroes and there was a fresh, almost giddy ambiance of freedom.
 
I arrived one day after a cement truck crashed into the United Nations compound and exploded under the main office building. The attack killed U.N. representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and at least 16 others.
 
He died slowly under the collapsed ceiling of his office talking to rescue workers while they tried feverishly to reach him. Some believe his death ended any chance of a peaceful transition to democratic rule in Iraq. In any case, it signaled much more violence to come. More than 100,000 people including 4,400 U.S. soldiers eventually would die.
 
I returned to Iraq several more times: After Saddam's capture, during his trial and eventual execution, and as the country prepared for its first multiparty elections.
 
I watched as the power vacuum left by his demise sucked in a vortex of anti-occupation resistance and sectarian-based fighting that eventually escalated into a low-grade civil war.
 
Iraq today
 
Today, the main streets in Baghdad seem cleaner and in better repair. A mechanized street cleaner sweeps the dust along the road.
 
Sidewalks are being re-paved. Buildings are being repaired. New cars imported from Korea and Iran snarl the traffic circles.
 
But conversations with Iraqis from all walks of life unveil deep worries and a general unhappiness with conditions a decade later.
 
The biggest concern is security.
 
An unemployed construction worker, Mahdi al-Moussawi, says the pace of the bombings and ambushes has gone down since the peak of the sectarian conflict five or six years ago.  “In general the security situation has improved a little bit, but there are still security problems,” he said. Bombings continue to kill and injure hundreds of people a month and they touch everybody.
 
A lifelong resident thanks God after his college-aged daughter is only slightly wounded in a car bomb attack that kills more than a dozen people on the 10th anniversary of the start of the war.  His son was wounded in a car bombing nine months before.
 
The windows of an office of a women's rights activist have yet to be replaced two months after a bomb exploded on the street below. She explains the target was not her group but a VIP driving down the street.
 
A police officer inspects the aftermath of a car bomb attack at a used car dealer's parking lot in Habibiya, Baghdad, Iraq, April 16, 2013.A police officer inspects the aftermath of a car bomb attack at a used car dealer's parking lot in Habibiya, Baghdad, Iraq, April 16, 2013.
x
A police officer inspects the aftermath of a car bomb attack at a used car dealer's parking lot in Habibiya, Baghdad, Iraq, April 16, 2013.
A police officer inspects the aftermath of a car bomb attack at a used car dealer's parking lot in Habibiya, Baghdad, Iraq, April 16, 2013.
Sectarian tensions affect much of life and have eliminated the mixed-ethnic nature of many neighborhoods. Residents blame these mostly on politicians pursuing their partisan agendas.
 
The majority Shi'ite group, which now dominates political life, lives in fear of terrorist attacks by its rivals. These range from former Saddam supporters to radical Islamist “jihadis.” Kidnappings, whether for political or financial gain, are common.
 
Minority Sunnis, who controlled politics under Saddam Hussein, feel marginalized and discriminated against by the government.
 
Kurds, who were harshly repressed under the Saddam regime, continue to build their autonomous region in the north and spar with the central government over oil revenues from their region.  Other minorities, such as Christians, Assyrians and Turkmen, live in fear.  Many seek to leave.
 
Civil war fears
 
Many Iraqis say they fear another civil war.
 
Analyst Taha Jallo says, “Iraq will never be one country again. The Shia will go their way and make their country and so will the Sunni and the Kurds.”
 
The framework of a democratic government has been set up. Iraq has successfully held four multiparty elections -- two national, two local -- and is to hold a fifth this month. But voting has been postponed in two Sunni-dominated provinces because of anti-government demonstrations there.
 
But Iraqis say the civic institutions needed to support democracy are not there yet. Dissidents are harassed. Some 6,000 activists are in prison. And politicians, they say, continue to play the ethnic card.
 
Patronage in the form of jobs, government contracts and other privileges promotes under-qualified individuals to important positions. It allows corruption to run unpunished and creates a sense of entitlement to an elite few.
 
Twenty-five year-old business student Samer Adnan says, “We are suffering because there are no jobs, especially for young people who have just graduated from college. The government promises to create jobs for everyone but it's just posing.”
 
Iraqis complain that despite billions of dollars a year in government revenues from the largely restored petroleum sector, they continue to live with a debilitating lack of public services.
 
All four smokestacks of the electrical power plant at the edge of town now billow smoke, up from the one-or-two that worked before. Electricity black-outs are shorter. But the hum of private generators still provides a soundtrack to daily life.
 
Most Baghdadis say they have electrical power for only six to 12 hours a day. Clean water is scarce. Public schools and health care facilities are under-equipped and under-staffed.
 
Some residents say they would leave if they could but there is nowhere to go. Political unrest in neighboring countries and a lack of jobs everywhere make emigration risky.
 
Iraqis are angry at their political leaders. They see them as corrupt barons living behind the blast walls of the Green Zone while ordinary citizens suffer in the dangerous and under-serviced neighborhoods outside.
 
Unbridled traffic
 
Iraqis remain deeply conservative, in part due to the decades of war and isolation under Saddam, and in part due to their own social heritage. This, too, hinders progress.
 
New traffic lights have been erected at the city's main intersections. But no one pays much attention to them.
 
Ten years after the war, Baghdad traffic is reverting to its old chaotic patterns.Ten years after the war, Baghdad traffic is reverting to its old chaotic patterns.
x
Ten years after the war, Baghdad traffic is reverting to its old chaotic patterns.
Ten years after the war, Baghdad traffic is reverting to its old chaotic patterns.
Instead, motorists prefer their more customary unwritten rules of the road. They jockey through the traffic at intersections and miraculously dovetail intact out onto the desired street.
 
Traffic policemen stand on the curb chatting and smoking. They only interfere when gridlock occurs. Most motorists seem to prefer it that way.
 
The financial sector shows a similar aversion to change. More than a decade into the 21st century, the Iraqi economy remains primarily cash-based.
 
There are only a few automatic teller machines, or ATMs, and no credit cards.
 
The head of the stock exchange laments that fund transfers between banks take up to 10 days to process unlike the rest of the world where they take a few minutes.
 
Consumers grumble that prices are high, especially gasoline which costs the equivalent of 50 U.S. cents a liter. This is 10 times the heavily subsidized price under Saddam Hussein, but it’s only a fourth of the cost in neighboring countries and one-tenth the price in Europe.
 
“We just live day by day. We do the best we can,” said Intassar Fadl, a mother of five shopping in the central market.
 
Iraqi optimism
 
Yet, Iraqis try to remain upbeat, shrugging off the daily dangers with the fatalistic expression, “It's God's will.”
 
They like to stroll the shopping streets and flood the swank new malls that have sprung up across the city.
 
Or they go to Zawra Park, in the heart of the city, to picnic on its broad lawns and watch the paddle boats glide across the lake.
 
Parents take their children to the zoo, which is slowly recovering, or to the refurbished amusement park which, they boast, now has the second largest Ferris wheel in the Middle East.
 
And they remain one of the most hospitable people around, obsessively over-feeding their guests and feigning anger when they can eat no more.
 
They like to laugh, making jokes about their living conditions and the foibles of their politicians. Asked about elections and democracy, they become irritated, saying these have produced nothing good.
 
Some say the country is changing, but it will take more time to see the results. Others say it is sliding back toward authoritarianism.
 
If they express any hope for the future, it is that their children will develop a better system when eventually they take over.
 
As a visitor prepares to leave, his friends bid farewell saying, “We don't know if we'll be here when you return.” No one commemorates the war that, depending on one's opinion, changed so much, or so little.

You May Like

Photogallery Pope's Easter Prayer: Peace in Ukraine, Syria

Pontiff also calls for end to terrorist acts in Nigeria, violence in Iraq, and success in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians More

Abdullah Holds Lead in Afghan Presidential Election

Country's Election Commission says that with half of the ballots counted, former FM remains in the lead with 44 percent of the vote More

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

As tensions between Kyiv and Moscow escalate, so too has frequency of online attacks targeting government, news and financial sites More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid