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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.