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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American journalists had been lured by the promise of a meeting with Maliki, US Gen. David Petraeus, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker. But only after more than two hours of waiting did a Maliki press aide inform the throng that there would be no questions, only a statement by Maliki announcing Iraq's purchase of Boeing aircraft to relaunch the moribund Iraqi Airways.Skip to next paragraph
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The journalists decided to leave. As they walked away, an American soldier standing at the gates fretted aloud about what his boss, General Petraeus, would say. "He's not gonna be too happy about this," he said, shaking his head. "He was pretty adamant about having press here."
At another time, the show would have been run the way the American general wanted, but now the Iraqis were letting it be known they were in charge.
Perhaps none of the Iraqis I met exemplified the mix of progress and inertia so well as my friends Ali and George. A Shiite Muslim and a Christian, respectively, Ali and George are two young men I first met in 2004 when I wandered into their photo and computer repair shop in Baghdad, my malfunctioning camera in hand.
Ali fixed the camera, and we became friends, their everyday experiences – bombs on the street, death threats for taking a work contract with the American military, friends fleeing the country as refugees, George's Christian community dwindling from year to year – a barometer for me of how Iraq was doing.
Last year had been a low point. At the last minute, my two friends had called off a reunion we had planned for the guarded compound where the Monitor has its bureau. With violence raging, they had decided it was risky for them to be seen entering a compound where Americans lived. I left Baghdad without seeing them.
A bid to reconnect with long-missed friends
This year, being able to see my old friends became a kind of personal litmus test of progress. But phone numbers I had from a year earlier didn't work, and e-mails went unanswered. I told the Monitor's security team that there was one visit I had to make before I left. If only for five minutes – judged the safe amount of time I could be on the street in central Baghdad – I had to go to the photo shop I'd happened into in 2004.
I felt I knew right where to go, but when I entered what I thought was the right shop, the place looked surprisingly different: The counters weren't right; the lights were brighter; a staircase was missing. I left and went to the shop next door, but it was wrong, for sure. The next was no better, and my five minutes were ticking down, my security detail getting nervous. I decided the first shop had to be the right place – perhaps my friends had sold it over the last difficult year.
When I walked in the second time, it looked no more familiar. A creeping sadness was setting in.
Then from behind a partition, a familiar figure, the same tall, hopelessly thin young man who had cheerfully repaired an American journalist's camera four years before.
"Ali," I said.
The instant smile and widened eyes, the leap over the (remodeled) counter, and warm hug told me I had found the right place. Ali whisked me to a back room where George sat hunched over a computer circuit board. "Wow, this is a fantastic surprise!" he said.
We were able to have dinner at Ali's house – an impossibility a year before.
The friends told me that after the disaster of the previous year, their shop was now doing well (so well they didn't have the time to resolve their personal e-mail problems). Iraqis seemed to have money to spend again, they said, and they were getting out more to spend it. It had been months since a car bomb or shooting had damaged the shop!
Ali and George showed little confidence in Iraq's government. Services were still terrible; Baghdad remained a dangerous and deteriorating war zone – even as much of the rest of the Middle East enjoyed an oil-fed boom, they lamented.
Each young man made the by-now familiar sign denoting corruption to explain Iraq's woes, each said that, even though things were better than the year before, they still had a sense of lost years and of life passing Iraq by.
But Ali did have a special surprise to share with me, a pure embodiment of optimism in otherwise mixed times in Baghdad: his two-month-old son Hassan.
Cradling his vigorous offspring, ruffling his shiny jet-black hair, Ali said, "My wishes for a better Iraq are now for him, I want him to have a good life."