The Magazine

Meanwhile, Back in Baghdad

From the March 21, 2005 issue: Life in sovereign Iraq.

Mar 21, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 25 • By DAN SENOR
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THE RECENT SUICIDE BOMBING in the southern Iraqi city of Al Hilla was, sadly, nothing new. Watching the news here with Iraqi friends, I thought I knew what would happen next, since it had happened often enough before I left Iraq eight months ago, when the United States handed over sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government. Then, the Iraqis standing around the bank of televisions in our offices would have turned to me, the representative American, asking why we could not get security under control.

This time, however, the same Iraqi friends ignored me and instead participated in a protest: the first Iraqi-organized mass public protest, some 2,000 strong, in the 23 months since the fall of Saddam's regime. "The Americans" were no longer an address for frustration or salvation. Welcome to postelection Iraq.

And there are many more barometers of a new Iraqi mood, even as tens of thousands of foreign troops remain in the country and the brutal violence continues.

* Checkpoints and security--Last summer, most military checkpoints in Baghdad were manned by American soldiers. Iraqis were the first to deplore this "humiliation." But every checkpoint I've been through on this trip has been staffed by Iraqi soldiers.

Now American troops are increasingly behind the scenes, there to help if things get dicey. For most Iraqis, the checkpoint experience has become one of interface with their fellow citizens in uniform--an enormous psychological and symbolic change. A senior Defense Department official here discussed taking this process to the next step by employing Iraqi-only military patrols in the major cities.

Last year, Iraq's prime minister, deputy prime minister, and president were guarded by U.S. Special Forces. When these politicians appeared on local television, a ring of plainclothes Americans was often in the camera shot. At that time, Prime Minister Allawi visited the scenes of suicide bombings to project a strong "large and in charge" image. This effort was hampered by visuals of the tight circle of Americans who were keeping him alive. Now Iraqis have been trained to do the job--another important change.

As for the Iraqi security services, when I passed a recruiting facility in Baghdad, the line went on as far as the eye could see. It looked like a suicide bombing waiting to happen. But Iraqis have not been deterred. As the CENTCOM commander, General Abizaid, put it, "Each time an Iraqi soldier is killed, another steps up to take his place. And since the handover of sovereignty, more Iraqis have died in the line of duty in Iraq than Americans."

When I repeated this story to a Western reporter, he cynically responded: "Well that just shows you how desperate they are for jobs." Perhaps. But then how does one explain more than 8 million Iraqis who risked their lives, not for a job, but to vote?

As for Iraqi security performance, I asked U.S. troops in Baghdad for feedback. Some was glowing, some restrained, but none disparaging. At a minimum, there was real respect on the part our troops for Iraqis risking their lives for their own country. And while everyone agrees that Iraqi forces still have a way to go, their elite teams--like SWAT, emergency response, and counterinsurgency--are performing exceptionally well. They have been fully participating and are often taking the lead in complex and dangerous operations.

* The Iraqi press--Iraqi politicians are being scrutinized by a free press. This has been going on for some time: Recall that the Oil-for-Food scandal was first exposed by a post-Saddam Iraqi newspaper. When I stopped by the International Press Center, Iraqi journalists--men and women--were busy filing stories about the horse-trading between the political parties. When the election results were officially announced, Iraqis crowded around television sets in cafés all over Baghdad, watching the news.

The Arab satellite channels themselves are going through a transformation. While Iraqis claim that Al Jazeera continues to be "the mouthpiece of the insurgency," its chief competitor, Al Arabiyah, has gotten serious about reporting news beyond the violence, notwithstanding some sensationalism from time to time.

On Election Day, Al Arabiyah had correspondents go live at polling places in six cities, north to south. When fence-sitting Iraqis tuned in that morning to decide whether to take the risk to vote, Al Arabiyah reported voter momentum rather than terrorist attacks. Momentum begets momentum.

Interestingly, Al Jazeera does not hold the dominant position in Iraq that it maintains in other Arab markets. It did launch about eight years ahead of Al Arabiyah, which emerged just before the Iraq war. But because Saddam had outlawed satellite dishes, both channels arrived at the same time in the homes of most Iraqis.