April 14, 2008 TIME's former bureau chief finds Iraq's capital has changed in many ways, mostly for the better. But the gains that have been made are fragile
By Bobby Ghosh, Baghdad
Andalus Abdel-Rahim Hammadi, a Baghdad school-bus driver, has this much in common with John McCain: both men gambled on the U.S. military's "surge" in Iraq long before it looked like a sure thing. If the Arizona Senator risked his presidential ambitions on it, the stakes for Hammadi were higher: his life and the lives of his wife and two young children. Last summer, as the final batch of 30,000 additional American troops requisitioned by General David Petraeus was arriving in Iraq, the bus driver and his family left their refuge in Syria to return home. It had been nearly two years since they fled their neighborhood, al-Dora, after al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorists killed the wife and son of Hammadi's brother. His friends and fellow refugees in Damascus warned him that Baghdad was still too dangerous, with dozens being killed daily in sectarian tit-for-tat attacks. But Hammadi, 46, was counting on the increased U.S. troop presence to calm things down. "Nobody can stand against the power of the American military," he says. "I thought that once they increased their forces, the [terrorists] would not stand a chance."
Going back to al-Dora was out of the question: it would be six months before al-Qaeda in Iraq would be driven from the neighborhood. But in nearby Saydiyah, Hammadi found a family heading in the opposite direction--to Syria--and offered to live in their house as an unpaid caretaker. He borrowed some money to buy a dilapidated minibus. Ferrying kids to and from school brought him a meager $10 a day, but it was better than living off handouts from cousins in Damascus. His wife Shada, 30, supplemented the family income by baking bread and selling it in the neighborhood. The couple were happy their children Ibrahim, 5, and Sajda, 4, would be able to grow up "as Iraqis, not as refugees," Shada says.
The Hammadis were settling into their new life when I left Baghdad last fall after spending the best part of five years covering Iraq. Unlike the bus driver, I was far from sanguine about the surge; I had seen too many military plans promise much and deliver little. But by the end of the year, Hammadi's optimism was looking prescient. Sunni insurgents I had known for years--men who had sworn blood oaths to fight the "occupier" until their dying breath--were joining forces with the Americans to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. The vehemently anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had agreed to a cease-fire with the U.S. military, and his ill-disciplined militia, the Mahdi Army, seemed to be keeping its end of the bargain.
All these factors contributed to a steep drop in the frequency of insurgent attacks and suicide bombings, along with the rates of U.S. and Iraqi casualties. But remarkable as they are, the statistics don't tell you about the lives of ordinary Iraqis like the Hammadis. So in mid-March, I returned for a two-week visit to get a firsthand feel for the changes. It seemed the perfect time to take soundings: the fifth anniversary of the start of the war and a little more than a year since the start of the surge. The New Baghdad
The first sign of change comes when I board the Royal Jordanian Airlines flight from Amman. It's an Airbus A320, and that is good news. It means the flight will not end with the heart-stopping corkscrew landing that characterized all my previous arrivals in smaller, more nimble aircraft. If Royal Jordanian is willing to use a large jetliner, it can only mean that the likelihood of a missile attack has greatly diminished.
Driving into Baghdad from the airport, I see other changes. In commercial districts, more shops and businesses are open than there were a year ago. Shoppers are taking the time to haggle with vegetable vendors--a contrast to the furtive, hurried transactions I remember. There are no queues at the gas stations. Baghdad even sounds different. In my first two days, I hear no explosions or gunfire. At the TIME bureau in the Jadriyah district, we get four to six hours of electricity a day, up from just two hours. This means there are long spells when you can hear the sounds of the city--traffic, the calls to prayer--instead of the constant roar of generators.
And the city looks different too. In our neighborhood, there are several new restaurants and kebab stands. Here and there, apartment buildings have received a fresh coat of paint. Even the concrete walls that crisscross much of Baghdad, erected by the U.S. military to protect neighborhoods from sectarian militias, have been prettified. The government has paid artists to paint huge, brightly colored murals on the walls, so a drive now takes you past bucolic scenes of farmers planting rice, fishermen in the marshes, peasants dancing in verdant valleys. The walls give Baghdad a somewhat disjointed feel, making it less a city than a series of contiguous fortresses.
Still, they have served their purpose.
Within the walls, many Sunni neighborhoods that were once the focal points of sectarian violence are now policed by armed locals organized by the U.S. into Awakening Councils--or Sahwa, in Arabic. Many are former insurgents who are happy to accept salaries ($300 per month, paid by the U.S., not the Iraqi government) from the men they once hoped to kill. They are nominally under American supervision but increasingly operate with a high degree of autonomy. The Sahwa are one part vigilante and two parts mafiosi, but like the walls, they too serve a purpose. In Sahwa-protected neighborhoods like al-Dora, Adhamiyah and Amariyah, sectarian killings are way down. Pax Americana
But perhaps the most remarkable change of all is in how Baghdadis view the U.S. military presence. A year ago, Hammadi was in a minority: most Iraqis living outside the Green Zone saw the Americans as the main cause of their country's problems. Now, says Ali al-Dabbagh, spokesman for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, all the credit for the decline in violence is going to the U.S. military: "People think the Americans are like Superman, who can do anything."
I had been skeptical about the military's claim that its troops were being treated as friends and confidants in once hostile neighborhoods--it sounded too much like the promises of Iraqis' greeting coalition forces with sweets and songs after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But colleagues recently embedded with U.S. troops in Baghdad tell stories of soldiers being received with smiles and waves, even cups of tea. Driving through the city, I watch Iraqis react when an American convoy rumbles past: not many smiles and waves, but there's certainly much less scowling and cursing. Inevitably, though, the success of the surge is creating a culture of dependence on American troops. Madeeha Hasan Odhaib, a neighborhood councilor who works with displaced and homeless Iraqis, tells me about the aftermath of a recent suicide bombing. When the Iraqi security forces arrived on the scene, the families of the victims snubbed them. "They said, 'We'll wait to talk to the Americans, because they are the ones really in charge here,'" says Odhaib. The families figured they'd have a better chance of getting compensation from the U.S. than from the Iraqi bureaucracy.
But for many Baghdadis, there is now a new anxiety: What happens when the Americans go? "If Petraeus leaves, or if he sends home 50,000 soldiers, will the peace survive? I don't think so," says Mithal Alussi, a secular member of parliament with a reputation for straight talking. For all the changes I see and hear, what remains unchanged from a year ago is the mood. My friends and colleagues all warn me against reading too much into the signs of progress. They point out that this is not the first time things have seemed to get a little better, only to turn bad again. They remind me of dashed hopes after the two general elections in 2005, after the death of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi and after any number of unkept promises by al-Maliki.
Many believe the surge has reached the limits of its possibilities. The statistics of violence have been climbing since the start of the year, and there are indications that the Shi'ite death squads are back on the hunt: after a gap of several months, mutilated bodies of Sunnis are again turning up in garbage dumps. The government suppresses death-toll and crime statistics, but that only fuels rumors of new sectarian atrocities. Hammadi, a Sunni, believes Shi'ite "agents" have been casing out Saydiyah, identifying residents who, like him, routinely venture out of the safety cordon provided by the local Sahwa. "Once we're outside, they can grab us easily," he says. He has forbidden Shada and the kids from straying more than 100 yds. (90 m) from home--denting her business, which depended on her being able to deliver bread door to door.
If Sunnis worry about the return of the death squads, Shi'ites complain that the Sahwa are turning into criminal gangs protected by their U.S. paymasters. And there are fears that the former insurgents will grow more lawless as the government drags its feet on inducting some Sahwa fighters into the uniformed forces. "It is naive to think they will all become lawful citizens," says al-Dabbagh, the government spokesman.
With so much tension under the surface, it's hardly surprising that many Baghdadis are bracing for a turn for the worse. Odhaib says she senses an unease everywhere. "I just know it ... something terrible is about to happen." In the Green Zone, Alussi feels it too: "In a minute, in a second ... just like that, we can fall into hell again."
My second week back, we almost did.
Return of the Rogues First came a daily barrage of mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone. In previous years, the rockets were usually fired from the west by Sunni insurgents. Now they come from the eastern part of the city, where the Mahdi Army is strongest. But U.S. officials seem reluctant to blame the Mahdi Army directly, probably because that would risk ending the cease-fire with al-Sadr's militia. So the finger is pointed at unspecified "rogue elements" operating outside al-Sadr's control and supposedly with the help of Iranian agents. In Sadr City, such claims are greeted with hoots of derision. "We fire the rockets, and the Americans cannot find us," a Mahdi Army fighter named Fattah tells me. "There will be more attacks--you'll see."
While the Americans were coddling al-Sadr, al-Maliki abruptly decided to confront him. The Prime Minister has been casting around for a military victory he could claim for his government rather than the U.S. military. On March 24, he made a surprise trip to the southern city of Basra and announced he was personally going to supervise an assault on the Mahdi Army, which vies with two other Shi'ite militias for supremacy there. It was the largest Iraqi military exercise since the fall of Saddam, involving 30,000 soldiers and policemen. The U.S. military, keen to showcase the growing competence of the Iraqi forces, allowed them to take the lead. Big mistake. The operation was a shambles. After a day's intense fighting, Iraqi commanders acknowledged that they had underestimated the strength of the Mahdi Army. With superior knowledge of Basra's backstreets and alleyways, the militia was able to outflank al-Maliki's forces. On March 26, the Prime Minister announced he was giving the militias 72 hours to disarm. Before the deadline expired, government representatives began negotiating a cease-fire with al-Sadr. Al-Maliki was left looking toothless and foolish; al-Sadr, stronger, more dangerous than ever.
For Sunnis, al-Sadr's continued clout is a warning and a provocation. In the district of Adhamiyah, a Sahwa fighter named Mahmoud (like his Mahdi Army counterpart, he gave only his first name) tells me there can be no reconciliation between the sects "as long as Muqtada is alive." Then he makes a grim prediction: "Right now, the Americans want us to fight against al-Qaeda, and that's fine. But we know the real fight will be in the future, with the Mahdi Army. We are getting ready for it." Fattah, in Sadr City, is preparing for the same fight. "The Americans protect the [Sahwa] for the moment, but we know who they are; we have lists," he says. "When the time comes, we will know what to do with them."
The Baghdadis caught between these extremes know that the only thing standing in the way of another sectarian conflagration is the U.S. military. This may explain why every Iraqi who offers me a view on American politics seems to be praying for a McCain victory. A 100-year American military presence, of which McCain once spoke, may seem a bit much; I suspect most Iraqis would be happy with five.
As I leave Baghdad, I reflect that for all the success of the surge, it has not exorcized Iraq's sectarian demons. Behind the painted walls, the murderous rage I saw in 2006 and '07 continues to fester. The Mahdi Army may have ceased fire, and Sunni insurgents may pose as friends of America, but both are just waiting. Unless Americans have a major change of heart about maintaining a substantial and aggressive military presence in Iraq, all the gains of the past year will amount to nothing.
Hammadi and his family have already lost faith. Terrified that he will be kidnapped and killed by a Shi'ite death squad, he is thinking of selling his bus and staying close to home. But with neither he nor Shada making any money, the Hammadis can't hope to stay in Saydiyah very long. There's a good chance they will take the kids and return to Damascus. Shada isn't looking forward to living on charity. Still, "better to be refugees and alive," she says softly, "than to be dead."