The contrast between the Baghdad I saw in 2006 and the Baghdad I saw last month seemed nothing short of miraculous.
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.
The answer was virtually none – yet. But, Iraqis assured me, it's because "real change takes time – generations."
The shock caused by the US-led toppling of the Hussein regime was just that – a shock, not an instant transformation of an entire people's psyche from that of demoralized individuals to democratic citizens. For the first time, I realized how greatly Washington overestimated Iraq's ability to weather the stormy shift – in just days! – from a totalitarian regime to a political void into which a disorganized and unprepared America stepped in to build democracy. To go from all to nothing is an unsettling shock, to put it mildly. No wonder looting and chaos erupted so quickly.
America succeeded in removing the official dictator, but the real, societal change that will remove the dictatorship from within each Iraqi heart – and prevent it from happening again – will require time and will be done by Iraqis themselves.
This change, and the promise of an Iraq as a tolerant, pluralist, open, law-bound society is not likely to grow from a political process that's absorbed by power amalgamation and interest preservation. Real change requires small, gradual shifts at the societal and individual level through improved education, and programs that focus on respect, tolerance, and religious accommodation.
Also, Iraqis need outlets and opportunities to come to terms with the traumas and injustices of the past, and to support the groups that help reintegrate the large number of victims back into society. We met many such individuals and organizations who are laying the groundwork for this long-term societal and cultural change. These unsung heroes of Iraq are working against wide-ranging and powerful forces, from a government that distrusts and seeks to control their efforts, to armed groups who directly attack them, to a lack of outside funding and support.
Although this type of grass-roots reform is at odds with the quick fixes on which American policy generally focuses, it does present the only road to permanent, lasting change.
Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari told me he likened the process to a long, hard slog up a mountain. The US helped by putting Iraq on the path that leads to the top, but Iraq was still at the bottom and needed to do the hard work of climbing. It's not a given that Iraq will stay on this path. The threat of a coup is real. Lethal bombs and attacks are increasing again. Corruption and archaic bureaucracy cripple economic growth.
As US troops gear up for their planned withdrawal, they will leave behind an Iraq that is weak, fractured, and dehumanized, but it is at least on the path. We must ensure it stays there.
Janessa Gans, president of the Euphrates Institute, was a US official in Iraq for almost two years. She's currently working on a documentary on Iraqi organizations that promote understanding, tolerance, and peace.