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A reporter returns to Iraq – and finds guarded optimism

The evidence is seen in late-afternoon strolls in the park, meetings with long-missed friends, relief over an improved economy.

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Yet while little political progress has been made, the government has advanced its sovereignty over areas it did not control a year ago. This started in late March, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hastily launched an offensive targeting Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra – apparently with little warning to the Americans. The poorly planned offensive exposed Iran's heavy influence in Iraq, after the Iranians helped broker a cease-fire.

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Still, it is seen as a triumph for Mr. Maliki. Basra, a port city known for a strong cultural heritage and a joyful, open-air lifestyle, is living again after having fallen increasingly under the yoke of Shiite extremists.

In Baghdad's Sadr City, many residents told me they hoped that they, too, could be freed from the grip of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. By the time of my recent departure from Baghdad, the Iraqi Army was moving in, without a fight, to parts of Sadr City it had never controlled.

Love-hate view of US forces

Still strong this year were signs of an enduring love-hate relationship with the US military presence. Justified or not, people still fear that, without the Americans, whatever has come together will fall apart. But some Iraqis said the Americans were enabling a do-nothing tendency in the government, while others said there would be no sovereign Iraq with the Americans, still more than 130,000 strong, appearing to run the show.

I had heard it in 2003 from a Shiite woman selling some of her prized wedding jewelry in Baghdad's old Shiite Khadimiyah neighborhood. "Yes, the Americans should leave, just not yet," she said. I heard the same sentiment now, in the much newer and mixed neighborhood of Saidiyah. Residents, who had lived through daily killings at the height of sectarian violence last year, feared that the progress they were seeing would vanish if the American soldiers camped in their midst picked up and left.

An artist sees gains

Despite such worries, the sense of budding progress is broadly based. Artist Qasim Sabti is one Iraqi who exemplifies this still-fragile optimism. His speech is peppered with references to a ruined country, and his artwork depicts the desert landscapes of his youth now torn by barriers, concrete blast walls, and rifle shot.

But he has a stack of files on his desk that tells him things are changing. "For the first time in five years, we have a government that is putting up some money so our young artists don't have to either starve or leave," he says. At his Hewar Gallery, which never closed amid the violence, he recently organized an exhibit of 85 female artists.

As president of the Iraqi Council of the Arts, Mr. Sabti reviews the applications of artists seeking government stipends. "It won't be much money," he says, "but at least it's something that says there is a government that is remembering the cultural dimension of a country's life."

Over five weeks, I witnessed sometimes-amusing signs of a changing Iraq. As I stood in the security-check line to enter the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, I watched a US soldier undergo a full search and even be asked to remove his body armor – much to the amusement of the Iraqis in line. Just a few years ago, it was US soldiers who controlled this same building, and Iraqis who entered under great suspicion.

Then there was the scene at the gates of Prime Minister Maliki's residence, in a lush corner of the Green Zone called "little Venice" for its meandering waterways.