The last time I was here, during the final years of Saddam Hussein's nearly 25-year-long reign, no one was happy and everyone was scared.
In the hospitals, babies died of malnutrition, and a perpetual shortage of antibiotics meant many deaths that could have been prevented. International sanctions had devastated the economy -- jobs were disappearing, infant mortality was rising, ragged street children were everywhere. I met former doctors and lawyers hawking cigarettes on corners or driving cabs. Auction houses sold the furniture of middle-class families that had declined into poverty.
On the streets of Baghdad, I was dogged by a government "minder," and people ducked into doorways rather than talk to me. Innocent questions provoked looks of terror but little information. Criticizing the president was punishable by death. Hussein's secret police and army were dreaded. And for good reason.
In northern Iraq on a previous trip, I had visited a village where 33 men and boys, virtually all the males in the village, had been lined up, shot and killed by Hussein's soldiers as part of the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds. I spoke with one of a handful of survivors, who had been shot but was able to hide behind a tree as his brother and nephew bled to death nearby.
Last week, I arrived back in Iraq for the first time in six years, and the transformation was extraordinary. On the streets of Baghdad and Al-Hilla, people were eager to speak, often gathering in small groups to hear my questions and offer answers. A furniture salesman told me that now, people were buying back furniture rather than selling it. Political parties -- banned during my last visit -- have offices visible throughout the city. It is now easy to set up interviews, and many of those I've interviewed have been harsh in their recollections of Hussein, whom they described as a tyrant and a criminal.
Iraq is a difficult country to understand, a difficult place for a foreigner to come to know, particularly if one's visits are short and one's Arabic limited. On my earlier visit, I was also hampered by the powerful government propaganda machine. My taciturn minder, an employee of Hussein's government, served as my translator, tour guide and shadow, reporting to his superiors on my movements and my questions. Virtually everything I saw that was interesting or real I saw by sneaking away from him.
My most recent trip was a propaganda mission as well, but this time led by the new rulers of Iraq, the United States government. I was invited by the office of the secretary of Defense as part of a government effort to get its side of the story out. President Bush and his advisors say the truth in Iraq is being distorted by a liberal media "filtering" out all the good stories in order to present only the bad. They've decided to go over the heads of the reporters in Baghdad and talk directly to more sympathetic journalists and opinion makers in the U.S.
The original invitation I received went, overwhelmingly, to people perceived as friendly to the administration's position. Among the 20 or so people invited for a three-day visit to Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul (to be paid for by the invitees or their employers) were conservative columnists George Will, Fred Barnes and William Safire, as well as several generals and representatives of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, Americans for Tax Reform and the American Conservative Union. Among the dozen or so who ultimately attended were an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, a speechwriter for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and a former press secretary for Nancy Reagan and the first President Bush (whose resume said, mysteriously, that she had also done "international crisis work" for Crayola Co.). Only a handful of Democrats were on the trip.
The administration's message was pounded into us relentlessly: The war has been a success, and any postwar obstacles were no more than speed bumps. Do not allow the news accounts of suicide bombings, mortar attacks, insurgents and downed helicopters to distract you from the main story: the freedom of an oppressed people and the rebirth of their country as a modern democracy. On our first day, we met L. Paul Bremer III, who directs the American occupation of Iraq from one of Hussein's old palaces. He held out his hand, smiled and said, "Welcome to free Iraq."
In free Iraq, Bremer explained, U.S. troops were working overtime to rebuild the country from the ground up. The U.S. accomplishments cited by Bremer were impressive: 1,260 schools renovated and reopened in time for the beginning of the term in October, 90% of the health clinics reopened, 12,000 tons of pharmaceuticals brought into the country, $300 million worth of jobs created. Oil production is up to a rate of 1.9 billion barrels per year.
Yes, there's an insurgency, and yes, every death must be mourned, we were told, but America's mission is not being threatened. Resistance to U.S. occupation is restricted to a small group of malcontents in the narrow Sunni Triangle formed by Baghdad, Tikrit and Ramadi. "It's like Richard Wagner's music," said Brig. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who commands the 30,000 soldiers of the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad. "It isn't as bad as it sounds."
Above all, we were told, the defeatist television images beamed into American living rooms must not force America to back down, as it did in Vietnam and Somalia. "Saddam had his guys read 'Black Hawk Down,' " said Col. Steve Hicks. "They believe that if they hit us hard enough, we'll leave."
At the end of a couple of days on the tour -- and after several days on my own in Baghdad and Tikrit -- I was persuaded that the administration's case has a good deal of merit. There's no question that people in Baghdad are freer. There's no denying that most people are happy to see the end of a terrifying, violent, criminal dictatorship. And it is probably true that the deaths of a couple of hundred soldiers out of a fighting force of 139,000 coalition troops is not enough to cripple our effort.
But the administration's view lacks nuance. To dismiss the insecurity in Iraq today as "tactically insignificant," as one official did, is to miss the point. On the streets, disorder, lawlessness and insurrection claim lives daily -- and many more Iraqis die than Americans. Coalition forces operate from heavily fortified palaces and bases that make much of Baghdad off limits. Checkpoints and barriers abound, and armored vehicles patrol by night.
Altercations between soldiers and Iraqis are a daily occurrence, and relations are fraying. "They raid our homes in a barbaric, animalistic way, blasting down the doors with explosives and kicking in the gates," said Mohammed Hashem, a 35-year-old Sunni Muslim who works at a mosque in the Baghdad neighborhood of Adamiya. "Now, the American soldiers are hated by all parts of the community." Iraqis are frustrated at the pace of reconstruction, and few trust U.S. intentions. I found no one with anything kind to say about the U.S.-installed Governing Council, which is seen as a puppet organization.
Perhaps even more disturbing to Iraqis are the general lawlessness and chaos that have been epidemic since the end of the war. Although some data suggest it is beginning to decline, a postwar crime wave has left Iraqis disappointed and angry at the Americans who are supposed to be in charge. Carjackings, kidnappings, murder and robbery are common in the city. Electricity shortages continue. Much garbage that lined the streets after the war has been removed, finally, but much remains. "Any government would be better than this," said Khaled el-Adani, a 46-year-old Baghdad shop owner. "Now, we're living in a vacuum."
One of the worrisome things about the U.S. government's efforts to oversell its case is that in the months ahead, the public relations battle will become more and more intertwined with the upcoming presidential election. If the insurgency continues, if Iraq is not made measurably better and happier and freer and safer and more self-sufficient as the election draws closer, there will be growing pressure on the Bush administration to make decisions about Iraq's future based on political considerations.
Presidential politics are already palpable here. In the village of Al-Hilla, a young political appointee who worked on the last Bush campaign is spokeswoman for the Coalition Provisional Authority. In Baghdad, presidential politics are a common subject of discussion at the authority's offices. In a meeting in Al-Hilla, a Shiite Muslim cleric, Farqad al-Qizawini, who has worked closely with the Americans, ended his presentation to those of us on the government tour by saying: "I am asking you all for one more thing, and this is very important -- to reelect President George Bush."
The administration has the right to make sure that Americans understand before next November why the president initiated this war and why he thinks he was right to do so. But decisions about the war itself should rise above politics. Calculations about whether to stay or leave, about troop deployment, about when Iraq is ready to govern itself, are decisions that must not be made based on how they would affect the U.S. election.
Whether or not one supported the U.S. decision to go to war, there is no question that Iraq now has the opportunity to become a much better place than it was. Even the minder who watched me for the government during my last trip has a new life: He is a translator for the Times bureau, no longer beholden to his government, no longer withholding the news and no longer quite so taciturn.