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.

Petros Giannakouris/AP
On Cue: Iraqi boys rack them up as a US soldier passes on a foot patrol with Iraqi soldiers in the Karkh area of Baghdad. Many Iraqis see signs of progress in the gradual resumption of mundane activities in the city – from rebuilding sidewalks to the ability to linger outside an ice-cream store.
Howard LaFranchi
A Baghdad Evening in the Park: As dusk brought cooler temperatures, Haidar Karim (l.) sat at a table in Abu Nawas Park with uncle Walid Nahem. The two were going over Haidar’s ninth-grade English lesson.
Happy to be out: Rawaa Fadhel and his fiancée strolled in Abu Nawa Park recently. 'For three or four years, we have stayed in our houses,' he said.
Baghdad Tent City: Reporter Howard LaFranchi talked with Abbas Alibi, who left Sadr City amid recent violence.

Walid Nahem sits at a small iron table with his nephew Haidar Karim, green grass under their feet, before them an expansive view of the fabled Tigris River silently wending its way through the Iraqi capital.

It's still light enough to read Haidar's ninth-grade English lesson book, opened to a chapter on letter writing. But the heat and glare of Baghdad's daytime sun are gone, leaving a diffused light that puts the date palms and low-slung buildings on the opposite bank in impressionistic relief, while taking the edge off the concrete walls and bomb-scarred buildings also in view.

It is this preferred time of day that has brought Mr. Nahem and Haidar out to Abu Nawas Park, a newly reopened and refurbished stretch of riverfront greenery, flower beds, playgrounds, and soccer fields.

"Taking your lesson books outside to the fresh air is like a tradition in Iraq, and now we feel that, at least in this place, it is safe and possible to do this again," says Nahem, a security guard. As families stroll and children squeal at swings and slides, Nahem says this tentative return to old ways is cause for cautious optimism. "God willing, it means all Iraq is getting better, that security is coming back," he says. "I think there's a chance this can be true."

Lingering outside the ice-cream shop

For a reporter last here a year ago, during perhaps the deepest of Iraq's despair, there is a palpable change: visible in such mundane things as sidewalk rebuilding projects and people lingering outside a favorite ice-cream shop, audible in the tone of families returning to neighborhoods they'd fled in fear.

Iraq is a different place now: The grip of horrendous daily violence has loosened; the government is showing some signs of being one. And Iraqis – once among the best educated, best fed, and most widely traveled people in the region, practitioners of a river- and desert-fashioned joy of living – dare to hope.

"Here we can taste again the flavor of life," says Rawaa Fadhel, on his second visit in as many weeks to Abu Nawas Park with his fiancée. "For three or four years, we have stayed in our houses and lived with this pressure," says the employee of a Pepsi bottling plant. "When I go back to my neighborhood, I will feel like my hands are tied again. But six months ago, we didn't even have this," he says of the park, "so it's a sign of progress."

Over the past month, I covered Iraq's stories. Some – like Sadr City's turmoil, a spike in US military deaths, and Iran's growing influence – were variations on ones I'd covered since first coming here after the 2003 invasion. Others – a look at one of Baghdad's new walled neighborhoods, Iraqi impressions of the huge US Embassy about to open here, or questions about the capabilities of Iraq's half-million-strong security forces – more emblematic of this year.

But in many of these stories, common themes emerged: a tentative sense of better security, relief over an improved economy, and manifestations of the cogs of bureaucracy starting to turn again.

New this year, I found, was a widespread assumption of rampant government corruption. That was fed by a general knowledge of the windfall the government is reaping from soaring oil prices, coupled with an impatience for government services to improve faster. A recurring explanation for everything from a continuing electricity shortage to lack of parliamentary action on long-awaited oil-revenue legislation was a silent gesture of a hand first raised so the fingers could make the universal sign of money and then slipped into a pocket.

As one man in Saidiyah told me, "The struggles now are a little less about guns and more about power and money. But as these struggles go on, politics has stopped." Positioning for the fall's provincial elections appears to have taken precedence over national reconciliation.

Yet while little political progress has been made, the government has advanced its sovereignty over areas it did not control a year ago. This started in late March, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hastily launched an offensive targeting Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra – apparently with little warning to the Americans. The poorly planned offensive exposed Iran's heavy influence in Iraq, after the Iranians helped broker a cease-fire.

Still, it is seen as a triumph for Mr. Maliki. Basra, a port city known for a strong cultural heritage and a joyful, open-air lifestyle, is living again after having fallen increasingly under the yoke of Shiite extremists.

In Baghdad's Sadr City, many residents told me they hoped that they, too, could be freed from the grip of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. By the time of my recent departure from Baghdad, the Iraqi Army was moving in, without a fight, to parts of Sadr City it had never controlled.

Love-hate view of US forces

Still strong this year were signs of an enduring love-hate relationship with the US military presence. Justified or not, people still fear that, without the Americans, whatever has come together will fall apart. But some Iraqis said the Americans were enabling a do-nothing tendency in the government, while others said there would be no sovereign Iraq with the Americans, still more than 130,000 strong, appearing to run the show.

I had heard it in 2003 from a Shiite woman selling some of her prized wedding jewelry in Baghdad's old Shiite Khadimiyah neighborhood. "Yes, the Americans should leave, just not yet," she said. I heard the same sentiment now, in the much newer and mixed neighborhood of Saidiyah. Residents, who had lived through daily killings at the height of sectarian violence last year, feared that the progress they were seeing would vanish if the American soldiers camped in their midst picked up and left.

An artist sees gains

Despite such worries, the sense of budding progress is broadly based. Artist Qasim Sabti is one Iraqi who exemplifies this still-fragile optimism. His speech is peppered with references to a ruined country, and his artwork depicts the desert landscapes of his youth now torn by barriers, concrete blast walls, and rifle shot.

But he has a stack of files on his desk that tells him things are changing. "For the first time in five years, we have a government that is putting up some money so our young artists don't have to either starve or leave," he says. At his Hewar Gallery, which never closed amid the violence, he recently organized an exhibit of 85 female artists.

As president of the Iraqi Council of the Arts, Mr. Sabti reviews the applications of artists seeking government stipends. "It won't be much money," he says, "but at least it's something that says there is a government that is remembering the cultural dimension of a country's life."

Over five weeks, I witnessed sometimes-amusing signs of a changing Iraq. As I stood in the security-check line to enter the Iraqi parliament building in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, I watched a US soldier undergo a full search and even be asked to remove his body armor – much to the amusement of the Iraqis in line. Just a few years ago, it was US soldiers who controlled this same building, and Iraqis who entered under great suspicion.

Then there was the scene at the gates of Prime Minister Maliki's residence, in a lush corner of the Green Zone called "little Venice" for its meandering waterways.

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.

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."

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