One of my last visits with Amal Murad Ali, almost exactly a year ago, was cut short by an explosion. She and I were huddled in the dank basement of her antiques shop, across from Baghdad's Palestine Hotel, waiting for the fighting to stop, when a huge blast shook the building. She stayed behind; I ran out to get the story. An American tank shell had hit the hotel, killing two Western journalists. The next day, joyous Iraqis tore down Saddam Hussein's statue a few blocks away. My friend, a Shiite, wasn't there, but I told her all about it soon afterward. She ate up every word.
We didn't meet again until last week. I was back in Baghdad for the anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and I tracked Ali down. She's doing well, renting her old house to Western journalists for a hefty $5,500 a month. But she worries about the city's unsafe streets, especially the threat of terrorist attacks. Not that she regrets being free. "Of course things are better than they were under Saddam," she said, and she began reminiscing about the glorious sound of U.S. tanks rolling down her street last spring.
A deafening blast interrupted her. Outside, a plume of black smoke was rising a few blocks away. "Oh, no," Ali kept saying. "Oh, no!" She was helpless with panic until her grown son Nadel appeared, unscathed, and reported that the Mount Lebanon Hotel, a few blocks away, had been destroyed. "Now you see what's happening in our country," Ali told me.
A year after the invasion, Iraqis are still at war--not only on the streets but within themselves. I've talked to dozens of old Iraqi acquaintances, and everyone is torn. No matter how impatient they may be for America to get out, they dread the chaos and violence they're sure would follow. Former civil servants, thrilled to be rid of Saddam, still miss the dull but secure jobs they had under his Stalinist regime. Sunnis demand democracy, but balk at being ruled by the Shiite majority. Everyone calls for justice, but no one wants any family members to answer for their roles in the regime.
The numbers say life is getting better. Roughly $3.5 billion in infrastructure projects are underway, and others worth an additional $18.5 billion are planned. Unemployment is fully 40 percent lower than it was before the war. Iraq now has 250,000 mobile-phone users, compared with zero before Saddam's fall. Nevertheless, people have been impatient from day one. "Iraqis wanted things to be better straightaway," says Andy Bearpark, the Coalition Provisional Authority's operations and infrastructure chief. "They asked, 'Why can't you provide electricity 24/7 right now?' People have even accused us of stealing electricity and sending it back to Texas."
Whatever goes wrong, Americans are blamed. That includes the Mount Lebanon blast, which killed seven people and injured 41. I got there quickly--too quickly. Billowing smoke, flames and rubble were everywhere. Iraqi police and U.S. soldiers had yet to impose order on the crowd, and people were distraught. A dazed man was holding a young girl's limp body; a bloodied man was being half-carried by friends. Members of the crowd began jostling my photographer and pushed me to the ground. "America is responsible!" someone shouted. An English-speaking Iraqi man appeared from nowhere. "You've got to get out of here," he said. "They'll kill you."
Many Iraqis can hardly sort out their own thoughts. I call on a barbershop owner, Kaees al-Sharat, who regaled me a year ago with plans of building a sauna, a massage room, a Jacuzzi. His dreams are on hold. "The Americans promised to turn Iraq into a second Japan, but they still haven't achieved anything," he grumbles. A year ago he watched Saddam's statue come down in Firdos Square, just outside his shop. "I felt sad," he admits. "I still don't know why. Maybe because foreigners had invaded my country." He pauses, then adds: "Saddam was unjust. But at least he was an Iraqi."
Such misgivings may fade when the country officially regains its sovereignty in June. "Things will improve," predicts Luaay al-Salih. He was my secret ally during the grim, wartime days at the Palestine Hotel, where he was front-office manager. These days the place is jumping. Occupancy, at 80 percent, is double what it was under Saddam. Staff salaries have tripled. The lobby has been spruced up, and al-Salih has been promoted to chief of personnel and security.
But that's not what makes him happiest about life these days. "Freedom is the best thing," he insists. "Under Saddam, I was always afraid intelligence agents would make a bad report on me. I was afraid of being killed." Saddam's Mukhabarat, or secret police, were always there, eavesdropping on phone calls and keeping tabs on foreign guests. As the dictatorship teetered, dozens of them took rooms at the Palestine and stashed their weapons behind the front desk. "The regime is finished," al-Salih quietly told me one evening last year. Saddam's spies had taken their guns and vanished into the night. The Marines came the next day.
One of my anniversary visits is to Ahmed Makki al-Obeidi, the husband of Huda Ammash, the only woman on the Coalition's most-wanted list. Al-Obeidi sits in his once luxurious living room, its gilt-trimmed furniture shrouded with sheets and old drapes. Ammash isn't there. The petite U.S.-educated microbiologist has been in prison since May 5, accused of masterminding Saddam's biowar program. "We could have fled, but she didn't want to be a fugitive," says al-Obeidi. "She said, 'I'm innocent. Why run?' "
The Coalition has allowed him to see his jailed wife twice. "She looks 20 years older," he says. "Her hair is totally gray." He says his big hope is that her case will be tried by Iraqis, not Americans. "She was never accused of anything by Iraqis, only by the Americans," says al-Obeidi. He says she was particularly upset to hear that Coalition soldiers who searched the couple's home took all her family snapshots and albums. "These were her whole life," he says. "Someday she'll come out of prison, and she wants these things back."
Every Iraqi seems to have found something to hope for. In a recent ABC News poll, most Iraqis predicted that their lives will be better a year from now. Some say things can't get much worse. Civilians--foreign and Iraqi--are being killed every day. Besides those killed in the Mount Lebanon bombing, a single week's dead included two U.S. CPA employees, four American Baptist missionaries, two European engineers, three Iraqi reporters and several Iraqi translators working for Americans--all gunned down by insurgents. And a day after the bombing, U.S. soldiers mistakenly killed two Iraqi journalists from the Dubai-based satellite-TV station Al-Arabiya at the scene of a rocket attack.
On Friday, the anniversary of the war's beginning, Colin Powell appeared in Baghdad for a surprise press briefing. The secretary of State got a surprise of his own when one Iraqi journalist stood up, read a statement denouncing the Al-Arabiya deaths and declared: "There are too many innocent victims among the Iraqi people... because of American policies that have proved a failure." With that, two dozen Iraqi reporters left the room. Powell kept his poise. He said he respected the journalists' right to express their views--"something that could not have happened at an earlier time in Iraq." Speaking privately later in the day, a senior Coalition official called the walkout "a celebration of democracy." He added: "That's what we came here to fight for, so that those guys could organize themselves and walk out. Under Saddam, anyone who did that would've had their tongues cut out--if they were lucky." Freedom is a great thing. So is peace, and no one knows when that will come.