Baghdad, A Decade Later

Mar 19, 2013
Originally published on March 19, 2013 10:00 am

Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, NPR is looking at where the country stands now. NPR's Kelly McEvers recently visited Baghdad and offered this take on how the Iraqi capital feels today.

I think the single word that would best describe Baghdad these days is traffic. It can take hours just to get from one place to another. And I guess that's both good and bad.

Good because it means people are out, going to work, leading normal lives. They feel safe enough to be in the streets, to be in their cars. On the weekends, the parks are full of families picnicking. People stroll the streets, shopping. There's even a mall in Baghdad now.

But the traffic is also a bad thing, mainly because it's caused by checkpoints. All around the city and on the roads between Baghdad and other cities, soldiers stop and search cars for explosives, in hopes of preventing the violent attacks that still take place.

The structures are pretty ad hoc, and the Iraqi soldiers who man them look like their American counterparts: night-vision goggles on their heads, knee pads, sunglasses, American rifles, even the American Humvees that are now the property of the Iraqi army.

Unlike the Americans, the Iraqis decorate their checkpoints with plastic flowers. One way to greet the soldiers when you stop is to call them "flowers" — or "good men," or "gold."

On many days, as you drive around Baghdad, you can squint your eyes and pretend there was never a war. But as soon as you stop at one of these checkpoints you are reminded all over again.

Behind The Bombings

Overall, the violence in Iraq is still way down. There are many Latin American countries that have a higher murder rate than Iraq.

But still there are brazen attacks that target police, soldiers, government workers, even civilians — many of them Shiite pilgrims on their way to religious ceremonies.

On Tuesday, the 10th anniversary of the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a series of coordinated explosions — mostly in Shiite areas — ripped through Baghdad, killing more than 50 people.

The attacks could be targeted hits, revenge killings, a settling of old scores from the sectarian war, or even a way to resolve a political dispute.

Or, more likely, they are the work of al-Qaida in Iraq, known as the Islamic State of Iraq. This is not the organization of Osama bin Laden. U.S. officials say that umbrella group is at its weakest point in 10 years.

Rather, ISI is a local "franchise" of al-Qaida, like those in North Africa, Yemen and now Syria. While those groups tend to morph and adapt to local conditions, ISI still apparently believes that the path to an Islamic state in Iraq is to unleash violence against civilians as a way to divide and destabilize the country. So far, that tactic is not winning any hearts and minds.

What Remains To Be Done

Iraq has elections. Iraqis can criticize their politicians. One of my favorite places to go is the Iraqi parliament, where on any given day, Iraqis from every corner of the country engage in heated debates.

Some analysts say Iraq offers a model of democracy in a region still struggling with how to throw off dictators and install elected governments. They point to Iraq's inclusive government, made up of the country's main groups: Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.

But many worry this alliance might be falling apart, with mass protests in Iraq's Sunni heartland, and widespread accusations that the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is becoming more authoritarian.

These days, the major question might not be whether Iraq is a model for the rest of the region, as the U.S. once envisioned, but whether Iraq's fragile democracy can hold, as the region splits along sectarian lines.

Iraq now is the second-largest oil exporter in the world, after Saudi Arabia. It could use this revenue to develop the country, but most Iraqis agree there is much work to be done.

Iraqis still don't have electricity 24 hours a day. Water, sewage and roads have yet to come back online. The health care system has been decimated. Iraq's once-celebrated doctors have fled; many have yet to return home.

Few Iraqis doubt that much of the oil revenue ends up with corrupt officials. We regularly hear stories about Iraqi politicians buying not just one apartment building in London, but a whole row of them.

Many Iraqis say the old ruling clique was simply replaced with a new one. "We got rid of one Saddam," goes the familiar saying. "Now we have thousands of Saddams."

All this raises questions about whether 10 years of blood and treasure were worth the cost. Hundreds of billions of dollars were spent. More than 4,000 Americans were killed. More than 100,000 Iraqis died, and millions more were displaced.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So that's one account of how the war began. Let's talk about Iraq now.

NPR's Kelly McEvers was with the last American soldiers as they left Iraq in December 2011. She has recently visited the country again. She's on the line from Beirut.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Hi, Kelly.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: So how would you describe Iraq today?

MCEVERS: You know, I think the single word that would describe at least Baghdad these days, is traffic. You can spend hours and hours just to get from one neighborhood to another. And I guess that's both good and bad, right? It's good because it means people are out. You know, 10 years later, people are going to work. They're starting to lead normal lives. They feel safe enough to be in the streets and their cars. On the weekends the parks are full of families going to picnics again. There's even a mall in Baghdad now.

But it's also, I guess, it's a bad thing, because the traffic in some part is a result of checkpoints. Everywhere you look, inside Baghdad and between Baghdad and other cities in Iraq, there are checkpoints. Iraqi soldiers have set up these, you know, some of them are pretty makeshift affairs but, you know - and to look at them, I mean they're wearing camouflage, they've got their night vision goggles, their American rifles - some of them are even using old American Humvees. So, you know, they're checking cars to try to stop some of the violence that does still continue in Iraq today. So on some days where you can kind of squint your eyes closed and pretend that the war never happened because things are kind of normal, then you hit one of these checkpoints, you're constantly reminded of it.

INSKEEP: You did mention that violence continues. What kind of violence is it?

MCEVERS: Well, you know, we have to say that and for the most part it is way down, if you just look at the sheer numbers. I mean now there are many Latin American countries that have higher murder rates than Iraq. But, yes, we still see these brazen attacks, car bombs and homemade bombs targeting police, soldiers, government workers and a lot of time civilians - oftentimes Shiite pilgrims on their way to religious ceremonies. Just this morning, we saw several attacks across Baghdad in Shiite neighborhoods.

It's usually one of two things, they're either targeted hits, like revenge killings maybe, left over from the sectarian conflict, political disputes, or the sort of al-Qaida branch of Iraq, known as the Islamic State of Iraq. This is not the Osama bin Laden organization. This is one of these more local franchises, like you see in Yemen and North Africa, now even Syria. You know, this is an organization that still hell-bent on establishing an Islamic state in Iraq and using violence to do it.

INSKEEP: Well, Kelly, let me ask about one other thing. As the United States moved into Iraq, of course, the U.S. said it was seeking to eliminate the danger of weapons of mass destruction - as we heard from Hans Blix, there weren't any. But American officials also talked about establishing a democracy that would be a beacon for that region. Did it happen?

MCEVERS: You know, Iraq has elections. Iraqis can criticize their politicians. One of my favorite places to go is the Iraqi parliament. On any given day you can see robust debates going on, among members of parliament from all walks of life, every corner of Iraq. Is Iraq a model in the region? Some say yes, because it has an inclusive government of all the three main factions. You've got Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites sitting together; but lately that alliance is in a lot of trouble. You've got massive protests in the Sunni heartland of Western Iraq. You've got widespread accusations that the Shiite prime minister is becoming a new kind of dictator, a new Saddam. So I think the major question, as the rest of the region does kind of split along the sectarian lines, is will Iraq be able to hold? And is Iraq really the kind of democracy, the kind of government that the U.S. wanted? I mean it's one now that is much more closely aligned with Iran than anyone else.

INSKEEP: NPR's Kelly McEvers, reflecting on her time covering the war in Iraq and its aftermath. Kelly, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome.

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