In Jaded, Perilous Capital, A Collision of Perceptions
Life in Baghdad Looks Greener Inside the Zone

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 29, 2005

BAGHDAD, July 28 -- At 11 a.m. in the Iraqi capital, the popping of automatic-weapons fire broke out from one end of a Tigris River bridge to another. Pedestrians jaded by gunfire walked for cover. It was Baghdad's equivalent of a car horn -- guards shooting into the air to clear the way for some dignitary.

Across the Tigris, gray smoke billowed over the city from a bomb. Under the bridge, ski-masked Shiite Muslim commandos cruised through checkpoints in pickups mounted with machine guns.

Nearby, a man stood in the middle of the street holding a gun to the head of another man in a car. Other drivers steered around them. No one stopped to help, or looked that carefully. After more than two years of war, Baghdad's people have learned to choose their battles, and this one didn't qualify.

On the city's streets, the daily reality involves death, random violence and routine deprivations for people who are beyond anger. But a different view has been presented in the Green Zone, the concrete-barricaded headquarters for U.S. troops, diplomats and contractors, and the interim Iraqi government. There, the situation is described as progressing toward a gradual handover from U.S. forces to Iraqi control.

During a visit to Baghdad this week by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey, said a partial troop withdrawal might begin in early spring. His assessment was repeated Thursday at a weekly briefing. "Every day you see the Iraqi people going about their lives -- sometimes under challenging circumstances -- gives confirmation we've got a good program," said the military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Donald Alston.

In statements to reporters in Iraq, the U.S. military has described the toll of the war, with regular reports on U.S. military deaths -- 1,790 so far -- and on some of the Iraqi civilian deaths. But the military has also attempted to highlight reconstruction, success against insurgents and the enthusiasm of the Iraqi people. "Iraqi, U.S. soldiers distribute frozen chickens," was the headline on a July 20 military press release.

When a bomber struck a Baghdad military recruitment center earlier this month, killing at least 10 people, Alston told reporters that the willingness of the Iraqis to keep showing up at such centers was a demonstration of their resolve. "To see these recruits come back again tomorrow or the day after these attacks, it is almost as if . . . the insurgency causing these attacks [was] giving the Iraqi youth the chance to express themselves," Alston said.

He said that Iraqis' commitment "to serving their nation" was "also a twist that is part of this particular sequence of attacks at this particular recruiting station."

Another U.S. military public affairs operation, Task Force Baghdad, issued a statement on a July 13 car bombing. The statement included this quotation: " 'The terrorists are attacking the infrastructure, the children and all of Iraq,' said one Iraqi man who preferred not to be identified. 'They are enemies of humanity without religion or any sort of ethics. They have attacked my community today and I will now take the fight to the terrorists.' "

On Sunday, the task force issued a statement about another attack in which a U.S. soldier and as many as 26 Iraqi children were killed. The statement included this quotation: " 'The terrorists are attacking the infrastructure, the ISF, and all of Iraq. They are enemies of humanity without religion or any sort of ethics. They have attacked my community today and I will now take the fight to the terrorists,' said one Iraqi man."

Several journalists pointed out the near-duplication. Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a senior military spokesman, said Thursday that the U.S. military was looking into what happened and that procedures in Task Force Baghdad's public affairs office were under review.

U.S. military public affairs officers have also accused reporters of distorting the image of the U.S. campaign in Iraq. They have charged that reporters focus on insurgent attacks and ignore military accounts of U.S. and Iraqi troops finding weapons caches, blocking bombings and catching suspected insurgents.

On his visit here Wednesday, Rumsfeld and senior commanders prodded Iraqi officials to maintain momentum toward elections that will be a prerequisite for any start of U.S. troop withdrawals. But Iraqis drafting the country's new constitution acknowledged they still had to resolve points as basic as what the country should be called and whether it should have a federal government. Iraqis face a Monday deadline for deciding whether to extend an Aug. 15 deadline for parliamentary approval of a draft constitution.

Americans said they feared postponement would heighten the perception that insurgents, rather than government officials, hold the momentum, and would discourage Iraqis. But outside the Green Zone, Iraqis are already discouraged.

"The Americans' statements are always untrue," said Ali Abed, 50, a taxi driver standing in a 1 1/2 -mile-long line for gas. "We are fed up.

"They destroyed the country, and now they say they want to leave," Abed said. "Let them go to hell, not to their home."

Many Iraqis complain about the continuing hardships here. Because of power outages that the Iraqi government blames on insurgent attacks, electrical power is turned on in Baghdad 30 minutes at a time, four times a day. "Electricity is like medicine in Iraq now," a much-repeated joke on Iraq's al-Sharqiya TV declared this week. "You get it every six hours."

The lack of electricity means no air conditioning, making sleep difficult in the summer heat, when daytime temperatures exceed 120 degrees, said Nouri Muhsen Kadhim, an engineer at an electrical supply store, who added that water shortages forced him to shower only every other day.

U.S. military operations to combat the insurgency mean roadblocks that tie up traffic for hours, Kadhim said. "God save us from the terrorists' attacks too," he said. "Aren't we human beings, with a right to live like others?

"When I was a kid, some teacher told me that we are lucky to live in Iraq, that we have two rivers and we are floating over an ocean of oil," Kadhim added. "I just want to see him now and ask him, 'Where is all that?' "

Bad as it is, comparatively few Iraqis say they want back the days before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted President Saddam Hussein. But the summer of attacks and shortages leaves them short on hope about what will happen when the Americans leave.

"The Americans want to glue together all the parts they broke, to shape it back as a real, new country. But you cannot bring back what you broke as it was before -- everyone will be able to see the break marks," said Jamal Hindawi, 42, at his Baghdad paint shop. "They just want to leave, even if everything will come apart after they go."

Correspondent Andy Mosher and special correspondent Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company