In Baghdad, Capital Vistas Gradually Shrink With Insecurity
Friday, November 25, 2005
BAGHDAD -- Five months after the fall of Baghdad, I went to Iraq with Colin Powell. It was the first visit by a secretary of state in half a century, and although he moved under heavy security, there was an optimistic, forward-looking feel to the trip.
Much has changed about Iraq in the intervening two years. And visits by America's secretary of state -- first Powell, then Condoleezza Rice -- have proved to be a microcosm of America's intervention here.
On our first trip, in mid-September 2003, the State Department entourage and diplomatic press corps stayed for two full nights at the legendary al Rashid Hotel, the high-rise once heavily bugged by Saddam Hussein's security goons. Iraqi vendors in the hotel arcade sold military paraphernalia and souvenirs from the old regime. Medals that Hussein once bestowed on his troops went for 10 bucks -- or less, if you bargained enough.
Back then, we could tool around the Iraqi capital. With a New York Times colleague, I walked through the concrete barriers down the lonely lane that linked the protected Green Zone to the rest of Baghdad. U.S. troops stationed along the route didn't stop us.
Much of the downtown commercial area was shuttered. We stopped by the national museum, looted and closed. We drove by the infamous Information Ministry, a bombed-out shell. We saw government buildings stripped in the postwar chaos, leaving not a chair or telephone or filing cabinet, much less government records.
We also wandered freely around Hussein's favorite Republican Palace, the headquarters for the new U.S.-led occupation government. We marveled at the marble halls. We stopped to gawk at Hussein's gilded throne in a hall festooned with frescoes of giant missiles blasting into the sky.
Back then, Powell would leave the Green Zone -- surrounded by a security "bubble" -- for meetings with Shiite, Kurd and Sunni government officials, and then dinner with a prominent Shiite cleric.
At a news conference in the Green Zone's convention center, Powell was upbeat, citing a city council meeting he had just attended where a new generation of Iraqi leaders debated everything from the environment to the role of women in the city's life.
I asked Powell if he had seen a fair representation of what was happening since he had not left the security bubble in Baghdad or met with anyone unhappy with the U.S. presence.
"There is just a great deal that is happening in this country, whether it's the formation of PTAs in local schools, whether it's our brigade commanders giving $500 to each school in their district as long as that school comes up with a PTA, something unheard of here before. . . . That's grass-roots democracy in action."
* * *
My second trip to Baghdad, on July 30, 2004, some 15 months after the fall of the city, was a secret. This time, the press corps traveling with Powell couldn't report it until after we'd landed.