Backstory: The art of survival

A reporter visiting Iraq for the third time reflects on deterioration and progess since 2003 - in a domino game and an art gallery's revival.

At the art gallery owned by Qasim Sebti, much has changed over the nearly three years since the US invasion - some of it good, some bad. Artists who once hung their works on the gallery's walls have been hounded with threats - or by debts - until they fled the country. A few have been killed. At the same time, however, work is progressing on an expansion of the two-story gallery's exhibit space, so that some day soon this haven might once again thrive as part of Baghdad's arts scene.

Through it all, one constant has remained: the gray and white doves that coo and peck in the gallery's courtyard. They have stood their ground, undeterred by a thinning of patrons dropping crumbs, or by nearby carbombs, or by the construction that claimed their preferred tree.

"I suppose it's some cause for hope that these symbols of peace refuse to leave this place and still claim it as their home," says Mr. Sebti, an arts patron - and an artist in his own right - whose assessment of Iraq's situation is otherwise not so optimistic. "Maybe with the same patience we, too, can have peace."

After three visits to Iraq in each of the years since the US invasion, I find these doves to be as good a symbol as any of the promise and peril the country has gone through since the spring of 2003.

Among the gains: an elected government in the place of a dictatorship, a free and vibrant press, a nascent civil society, expanded access to the world and its goods. But the losses are considerable, too: first, more than 30,000 war dead - 100,000 by some estimates - mostly civilians; heightened conflict among sectarian and ethnic groups; a loss of personal security for many families; and the effects of having become a locus of the international war on Islamic extremism.

As a reporter, I take note of and report on all these changes. But it is the images, like Sebti's covey of doves, that capture best the evolution I have seen during these annual trips.

Take, for example, the black squares on the map of Baghdad on the wall of the Monitor bureau office. The squares indicate neighborhoods, in an arc spreading across the city's west side, no longer considered safe for reporting.

When I first traveled to Iraq in the fall of 2003, no such restrictions existed. I freely roamed the country - to Fallujah or Najaf for a day trip, to Kirkuk or into the Kurdish north for longer stays, all without much worry about security.

On the other hand, the trip to and from Baghdad airport is safer. Last year, as I left Baghdad to catch a plane, US soldiers, apparently unhappy about our speed, fired warning shots at our car. After countless attacks on convoys either by roadside bombs or suicide drivers, the soldiers were taking no chances. But, like Baghdad's Haifa Street, once one of the city's most treacherous roadways, the airport road now seems to have been brought under relative control.

From my first trip to Baghdad in 2003, I have fond memories of dinners at streetside rotisserie chicken stands, at kabob and tikka restaurants, and at a cafe specializing in masgouf, a traditional dish of river fish.

But by last year, it seemed unwise for any foreigner to be too obvious in a public setting like a restaurant - caution dictated tables in rear corners. By this year, restaurants were deemed off-limits altogether. A meal gives someone working with the insurgency or a kidnapping ring too much time to organize and carry out an abduction.

Another image that sticks with me symbolizes the deepening sectarian conflict over the past year: two friends, both Shiite men, unable to play their weekly domino game at one's house because his predominately Sunni neighborhood has become too dangerous.

Many analysts believe Iraq is already in a low-intensity civil war, and that it is only the US presence keeping it from full-scale conflict. What the visitor sees are Iraqis who in their personal relationships never thought much about sectarian divisions now forced to confront them.

One man told me about entering a government ministry, and being asked his "nationality" by the guards on duty. When he said "Iraqi," they said, "You know that's not what we mean." They then asked if he was Shiite or Sunni. "That never happened to me before," he said.

Another man from Sadr City, a heavily Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, provides janitorial services at a US government facility. He says he was told by the Americans not to hire any Sunnis because they were more likely to be spies working for the insurgency.

Noticeable, too, this year is the proliferation of paramilitary security forces and militias. Many Iraqis say their fear of bombers and criminal gangs is quickly being outweighed by concerns about the often masked and heavily armed militias in the streets. "The worst part is that we just don't know who they are, or who they really are affiliated with," one said.

Such fears help explain why many Iraqis have not changed their answer to the question of when US forces should leave Iraq. "Yes they should leave," many Iraqis have been telling me since the fall of 2003, "just not quite yet."

On this trip, they echoed the same sentiment - largely because many Iraqis, accustomed to the stabilizing control of one power figure (be it Saddam Hussein or the US military), are worried about the vacuum a departure will create.

One sobering change in Baghdad is the proliferation of blast walls in response to car bombings. The high concrete barriers create corridors that restrict views and scream, "You are in a war zone."

On the other hand, a hopeful sign this year is the marked increase in construction projects. Higher wages for public servants and US reconstruction money are finally coursing through the economy. It is creating a demand for new stores, houses, and apartments. In contrast to the bombed-out ministry buildings that mar the cityscape, the new and refurbished structures are a tangible sign of progress.

Sebti's expanded gallery typifies the trend. Despite the artist's intense opposition to "the Americans' war" - he recalls bitterly how four members of his family were killed last year by US soldiers at a checkpoint in a case of mistaken identity - he now sees the opportunity to build on Iraq's positive changes.

He plans to tour the US with an exhibit of Iraqi art in 2006 to show "we are more than a war." But his big event will come in late January, he says, when the gallery, repainted midnight blue, will open "with a big party of music and art - to tell the Iraqis to have hope for the future."

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