A newcomer's impressions of Baghdad

Thursday, March 6, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) -- The Iraqi parliament building is a former convention center, a place that might host a high school graduation or a health fair in the United States - if somebody cleared the barbed wire and sand bags from the gate.

Walking recently into the dressed-up conference room where lawmakers debate the future of their embryonic democracy, you couldn't help but notice the cheap ceiling tiles in the hallway outside or the wires hanging through the spaces between them.

Set aside the bombings and the daily body count for a moment.

What has also made a deep impression, as a first-time visitor to Baghdad, is how much Iraq reveals itself as a giant work in progress. It's most vivid in the gulf between what is reality for Iraqis and what others would regard as the baseline for a working society - where citizens are generally safe and can count on basic services.

Sometimes this disconnect presents itself in obvious ways, like when there's a big explosion in the distance - and no one stops what they're doing or even looks up. But often they are mere subtleties, as when the treadmill stops in the middle of a workout for a moment because the power just kicked over from the national system to a generator.

The examples are so plentiful that even a newcomer like me can't miss them.

I'm on a short-term assignment in Baghdad, more like a long visit, really. All my friends asked why I accepted the offer. There isn't a succinct answer: curiosity, story of the decade, because the idea scared me, because somebody asked and I could swing it. They all figure into why I came here.

What I've gotten out of it is an appreciation for the Iraqis, and how far they have to go.

Take a short drive with me through Baghdad.

Feel the capital's rutted roads, see the blast walls blocking the side streets off main thoroughfares. The homes we're passing, even in nicer neighborhoods, look worn. Something else sticks out - dirt, dust and garbage. It hadn't registered at first, but now it makes sense: Nobody sends a street cleaner out twice a week in a war zone.

If anything, the Green Zone is worse when it comes to civic beauty. It's a completely disorienting place to a rookie, with roads running through a maze of gray blast walls. It's as if somebody moved all the state prisons into the same neighborhood.

Outside those walls, electricity is iffy. The statistics - an estimated 7.3 hours of service a day in Baghdad - give the picture. But the meaning is given depth and personality when an Iraqi greets you one morning and comments about a pleasant surprise: In his neighborhood, power was on all night.

Electricity Minister Karim Waheed didn't have that kind of luck recently. Watching a closed-circuit feed of a news conference in which he described the state of the nation's grid, Waheed's face suddenly froze on the TV screen.

Then came word from the technicians in The Associated Press' Baghdad bureau. Power had cut out at the site of the news conference.

Waheed, by the way, told the AP that a massive bomb was defused in early February right outside his ministry - which brings us to security.

The numbers speak for themselves. Baghdad is much safer than it was in the bad old days of 2007. But safer is not safe.

Any major checkpoint will tell you that. The weapons table can look like the newest-latest display at a gun show.

Other examples are painful. A colleague and Baghdad native told me this story, prompted by one of our incoming reports. Authorities recently took down barriers that closed off a street in the Karradah neighborhood in central Baghdad. They'd gone up after a car bomb was detonated in a parking lot along the road last year.

Soon after the barriers came down, the extremists were back - another car bomb, same parking lot. The toll from the AP count of Feb. 22: three dead, seven wounded. Two of those killed were 13 and 14 years old, police said.

It will take more to improve the situation than the occasional lecture from an American politician about Iraq's need to start taking responsibility for itself. But there's plenty to critique about a government that just barely works in the eyes of many Iraqis.

A fistful of cabinet posts stand vacant because of political disagreements.

Parliament in February passed three key measures aimed at rebuilding trust among Iraq's dysfunctional family of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Yet the bills were not brought before lawmakers one by one. Instead, they were bundled together because no side trusted the others to keep their word and approve each one separately.

Then, after all the haggling, the nation's presidential council rejected one of the measures, a bill that set provincial elections for Oct. 1.

It's still uncertain what will become of that draft law. As soon as lawmakers had passed it the first time they went on a five-week break - which, of course, shows that they have learned something about the 11th hour maneuvering in more mature democracies.

The Iraqis certainly know something about the resiliency. Five years of war this month and yet parents still take the family out for a weekend stroll. Squealing kids play tag and ride their bikes. Millions of Iraqis still get up and go to work, where they make a living and laugh with their friends.

If there's a reason to have hope for this country, it's them.

He may be the government's mouthpiece, but spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh didn't have it far wrong at a recent news conference with the Army Corps of Engineers. The assessment was that the nation's damaged infrastructure can't possibly be fixed completely.

"We work with what we have," al-Dabbagh said. "We have no other option but to try this and succeed."

At a private club in town, they're trying.

Baghdad's elite used to come here, mingling with foreign diplomats around the swimming pool and in the restaurant. There was an outdoor movie screen. After sunset, when the pounding heat broke, members watched films here. It must have been nice.

The movie court is overgrown these days, and the projection room is trashed.

But every now and then, over at the tennis courts, a passer-by can see a few silly, optimistic people coming back to play.

In perfect spring sunshine they stop their lives to volley a Day-Glo ball on the faded, earthen courts.


John Affleck is on temporary assignment in the AP's Baghdad bureau.

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