The dictator in Iraqi hearts must be toppled
Real change requires shifts at the individual level nudged by programs that focus on respect and accomodation.
The contrast between the Baghdad I saw in 2006 and the Baghdad I saw last month seemed nothing short of miraculous.Skip to next paragraph
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Families gathered and picnicked in parks along the Tigris River. Baghdad University students danced at a party on campus. Restaurants and shops were bustling. I even rode around town in an unarmored car and walked down a busy market street without body armor, a previously unthinkable occurrence.
To my Western eyes, life in the war-torn capital seemed surreally normal. The Iraqis who spoke with our documentary crew, however, saw things differently. They emphasized the tenuous and fragile nature of the positive changes they've experienced. Indeed, two bombings wounded seven Iraqis on the same crowded street I had walked a day earlier. As a university student explained, "We are no longer the land of the dead. But we have yet to fully become the land of the living. We know we could die at any moment."
The trip also revealed some ways that Iraq had changed for the worse, such as the level of corruption. I experienced firsthand why Iraq ranks just above failed state Somalia as the second most-corrupt country in the world, according to the Berlin-based organization Transparency International.
Not only did our fixer have to pay "tips" to secure even the most basic appointments, but also to secure a police escort on some of our excursions.
One day we asked if we could visit a school in a sketchy neighborhood in Baghdad. "You will never be able to afford it," he demurred, since it would not only require the usual pay-off to the police, but would also require topping the exorbitant amount our police escort could potentially get from extremists for our heads.
Change on the political front, meanwhile, has largely been perfunctory. The recent provincial elections, while fair overall, awarded more power to one Islamist party over another and showed Iraqis' penchant for a strongman who will take charge.
The vote that bolstered the party of the centralizing and increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was a natural reaction to the corrupt and ineffective government ushered in by the democratic process, explained politicians.
"Democracy? What does that mean?" grunted a Sunni politician. "To the people, democracy means only a paralyzed process and a chaotic security situation." Maliki, he continued, was evincing a growing, "Saddam-like" leadership style, and was cloaking his tribal and sectarian tendencies in nationalist rhetoric for broader appeal.
With a Saddam-like government and a strawlike security situation ready for the wolf to blow it down, I began to wonder what, if any, real change had occurred in Iraq.