A BREEZE of glasnost wafted through this tightly controlled country over the past two weeks. But as the last of about 500 foreign journalists packed to leave, it appeared that the brief political spring was blending with the Baghdad autumn.
"It was not even a Prague Spring," says one European diplomat, referring to the 1968 intellectual movement for political change in Czechoslovakia. "It was a cosmetic exercise to bolster the credibility of the country's first referendum."
But for the foreign journalists who made the 16-hour journey by road from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad, it was a rare opportunity to observe one of the world's most isolated nations.
"Proceeding from our policy of securing a free climate for correspondents," began a letter from the Ministry of Information and Culture, "we would like to confirm that tours, interviewing people, and making contracts with translators are all open for you with no restrictions whatsoever."
The government cleared four of the city's major hotels to house the visitors, hired 140 additional guides and translators, and press center director Faris Qafira and his small staff worked around the clock to meet a continual string of requests from visiting correspondents.
Official blacklists barring certain journalists from Iraq were suspended, and the usually pervasive security apparatus allowed visitors a relatively unimpeded view of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
But the breeze of glasnost in such a regimented and controlled society had jarring moments and produced many surreal images.
Five days before the referendum, the larger-than-life image of a grimacing mosaic of former President George Bush set in the lobby floor of the al-Rashid Hotel was covered with a blue rug. Bearing the caption: "Bush is a Criminal," the mosaic had been a familiar sight since it was ordered by Saddam after he was defeated by the US-led international force in 1991.
It was a quaintly awkward gesture that reflected Iraq's efforts to win support for lifting the UN's five-year-old embargo.
But the regime's efforts to create a brief Baghdad spring in one of the country's longest political winters could not obscure certain realities.
Journalists were free to ask questions, but Iraq's inhabitants, subjected for three decades to a reign of fear, were hesitant to answer them. "Nam, nam, Saddam, [yes, yes to Saddam]," was the stock response.
But a few Iraqis shared their disdain for the regime if assured anonymity. "You cannot live in a regime like this for 30 years and not be affected by it," says one professional man. "In the end, you either believe the propaganda or adopt it for your own survival."
Saddam himself appeared to hover above the experimental glasnost. His two public appearances, one to be sworn in for a seven-year term in the National Assembly and a brief walk in a Baghdad neighborhood, were kept secret from journalists.
Requests for interviews with the president were always met with the same refrain: "Only the president can decide."
Some diplomats here detect a slight loosening in the tightly controlled Iraqi press. A newspaper with a more laid-back design and more inquiring content was launched recently.
"The regime appears to have realized that it no longer needs some of the more cumbersome controls that it has had in the past," the professional man continues. "It appears to be more concerned these days with what people do and not so much with what they say."
But the four-page Baghdad Observer, the only English language newspaper, which publishes only four times a week due to a chronic shortage of newsprint, carried the same photograph of Saddam across the top half of its front page four days in a row, starting with voting day.
Last Tuesday, the day after the referendum results were announced, a large section of a crowded press conference broke into applause when Deputy Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz cracked a joke at the expense of the US. Suddenly one became aware that many of those packing the hall were Iraqi officials.