A Somber Return


A familiar blast of hot air hit me as I stepped off the plane in Baghdad. It seemed for a moment as if I'd never left Iraq. The arid, dusty wind that sucks your lungs dry. The cumbersome (or reassuring?) weight of body armor while riding into town from the airport along roads littered with debris from IED blasts.

But many things have changed since 2005, the last time I worked in Iraq. The old, familiar Humvee has morphed into a demented, humpbacked narwhal on wheels, surmounted by an elaborate super-structure enveloping the gunner on the roof. Protruding out front is a device that looks like a square ping-pong paddle with a long, attenuated handle. Called a WARLOCK, it emits electronic countermeasures to block signals that can trigger IEDs.

The Green Zone is a lot less green (meaning a lot less secure) these days. Inside this fortified enclave, rocket attacks killed four foreign contractors late last week. It was the third straight day of rocket or mortar attacks on the Green Zone (officially the "International Zone" or IZ). "Compared to your last stay here, things are worse and worse and worse," one Iraqi friend told me.

The day after I arrived, a video showing Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, circulated on the Internet. His tone was triumphal and sarcastic. He mocked the Bush administration's claim that its new Baghdad security plan was a success. And he evoked the suicide bombing of Parliament on April 12: "Lest Bush worry, I congratulate him on the success of his security plan, and I invite him on the occasion for a glass of juice, but in the cafeteria of the Iraqi parliament in the middle of the Green Zone!"

I should have been--indeed I was--happy to catch up with old friends and colleagues, some of whom were with me in Baghdad during the U.S. "shock and awe" bombing campaign, when we'd hunkered down in the Palestine Hotel and prayed for the Marines to show up.

But returning to Baghdad has been a somber experience. Sunday a 29-year-old freelance photographer on assignment for Russian NEWSWEEK, Dmitry Chebotayev, died along with six U.S. soldiers when an IED detonated underneath their vehicle in Diyala. (Russian NEWSWEEK is a foreign-language partner of our magazine.) Altogether that day, eight American troops were killed in roadside bomb attacks--one of the highest single-day death tolls so far this year.

This could be just the beginning of a surge in casualties, to go along with the surge in U.S. troops. "All of us believe that in the next 90 days, you'll probably see an increase in American casualties because we are taking the fight to the enemy," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Army's Task Force Marine, said to reporters on Sunday. "This is the only way we can win the fight."

The most sobering thing about all this, to me anyway, is that Baghdad was once a sort of cosmopolitan city--at least by the standards of 1990, when I first reported from here on the eve of the war to liberate Kuwait. Before Desert Storm, before economic sanctions, Iraq was a relatively modern place (so different from Afghanistan, which was virtually medieval before the Taliban's ouster in 2001). Now Iraqis feel like they're headed back to the Stone Age. "People are using more mule carts now, to carry things like propane tanks, than they did in 1990," said one Iraqi colleague. "We're going backwards." He chuckled when he said it, but in his eyes I could see the anguish and the pain.