When I first arrived in Baghdad in October of 2003, it was shortly before one of those milestones reporters use to try to fashion history into a linear narrative of progress or failure – just as I used the official withdrawal of US forces from Iraq’s cities today (more on that here).
Sure, I had missed the "shock and awe" phase of the invasion, the looting that followed, and the immense confusion of the early days of the US occupation. But early fall 2003 was a wonderful time to be in Baghdad and I could roam the country, find trends, and chronicle whatever order was about to emerge. It didn’t hurt that the worst of the summer heat was gone.
The cafes were filled with Iraqis, who were both bewildered and excited by the changes. There was mazgouf – heavily seasoned carp grilled over an open fire – to be had on the banks of the Tigris. At the ice cream parlor closest to our hotel in the upper-middle class Karradah neighborhood, US soldiers were in the habit of pulling over their humvees for a soft-serve.
Fallujah: Known for kebabs, not urban warfare
Our driver, Adnan, was as enthusiastic about food as I was: If a reporting trip took us within about 60 miles of Fallujah, we were in range of what he would loudly proclaim to be the best kebab joint in Iraq. Our Chevy would turn like a meat-seeking missile toward a city that just six months later would become the scene of the worst urban combat confronted by US forces since Vietnam.
There had been a few horrific incidents, including the truck bomb that killed about 20 UN employees in Baghdad in August, including Sergio Viera de Mello (read our past profile here), the polished Brazilian diplomat who I’d come to admire when we were both in East Timor and who was widely seen as a future Secretary General.
Flack? That’s what reporters called a government spokesman. Kevlar? Well, I had a sun-visor.
But the violence at that time seemed marginal, manageable. And in early October, the US military seemed to agree when it pushed back the nighttime curfew until midnight. Car jackings and lootings were way down. Proud Baghdadis had taken to cafés with gusto.
Nightlife with a touch of cardamom
My first story from Baghdad – I wince to think about it now – was the return of nightlife to a safer city. My favorite spot was the ramshackle Beiruti, a white rambling café on stilts over the Tigris. As I wrote then, “Shortly before 11 tonight at the Beiruti, the closest thing to gunfire is the satisfied slap of domino tiles on the tables, and the shouts of men delighted to have rolled double-sixes at backgammon.”
I quoted a proud young man, Ali Abdul Latief. “We'd stay out until dawn if we could,'' the ex-soldier told me. Looking out at the moonlight on the river, he said: "This is one of the most beautiful countries in the world."
And so we turn to today’s far more important milestone – a milestone, nonetheless that comes more than two years before the scheduled withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. The sectarian fighting that killed so many thousands, the car bombs that killed street peddlers and soldiers indiscriminately, the loss of dear friends, all happened in between.
Jill Carroll kidnapping and other senseless violence
There was our translator, Allan Enwiyah, who was murdered when Jill Carroll was abducted. Haider, one of our two security guards, killed for who knows what reason near his home on his day off. Marla Ruzicka, the young humanitarian aid worker killed by a car bomb targeting a US convoy on the road to the airport. Gailan Ramiz, the urbane Iraqi professor with the Oxford-Harvard pedigree, who was killed by US troops when they raided his house, in the mistaken belief that he was an insurgent.
Where are we now? Violence in Baghdad – and in Iraq more generally – are about at the levels they were when I was so taken by Iraq’s rough-around-the-edges cafe society. The sectarian divisions that so many Iraqis denied were present (we were as eager to believe this comforting fiction as the Iraqis themselves) remain. There are worrying signs that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite leader who has flirted with theocratic ideas in the past, may not be willing or able to do the hard work of reconciliation.
Today must be a great day to be in Baghdad – just as it was when I first arrived there.