Baghdad today, on the eve of provincial elections, feels like it has emerged from several years of horrendous violence, but do not be misled. Every Iraqi I've spoken with feels it is tenuous, the still-fragile lull too young to trust.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provides recent statistics showing that more Iraqis continue to flee their country than are returning. Two studies show the number of dead Iraqis to be between 1.2-1.4 million, and the number of those displaced to be nearly five million, or one in six Iraqis. During 2006 and 2008, scores of bodies were found on the streets of Baghdad and fished from the Tigris River as death squads and sectarian militias raged. All but one of my Iraqi friends and translators have either fled the country, or been killed. It is nearly impossible to meet a family that has not had a family member killed or wounded.
Only within the last half-year has violence lessened, and street life returned to something akin to "normal," which means that as opposed to 50-250 Iraqi being slaughtered each day, now it is an average of one, sometimes two dozen per day.
The relative lull has allowed me to travel around Baghdad with relative ease, eat at restaurants, and even conduct interviews on the street; all of which was unheard of during my last visits to Iraq. I've been taking stock of what has changed, and what hasn't.
One of the first things I noted that has not changed did not occur in Iraq. Rather, when arriving in Amman, Jordan and exiting the airplane, I strode into customs to find a Jordanian man holding up a Blackwater USA sign, to be met by four rough looking middle-aged men. The next day, whilst flying into Baghdad, the commercial jet did a "soft-spiral" descent into Baghdad airport, unlike the hard corkscrew descent that they all did when I was last in Iraq, so as not to be shot at by resistance fighters just outside of the airport perimeter.
The infrastructure remains in shambles. The generator at my hotel is running more than it is shut off. Throughout Baghdad, there an average of four hours of electricity per 24 hours, and people left with no choice but to drink tap water, when it runs - water heavily contaminated by waterborne diseases, fuel, sewage and sediment. Jobs are scarce, and people are suffering greatly. The anger about this seethes just beneath the surface everywhere I turn.
Previously, while these conditions were similar, there was still some hope that things might improve. That hope has shifted into a resignation of what is. A surrender into a daily life of trying to find enough money to buy food.
"In 2004 it cost me $1 to fill my car," my interpreter Ali told me yesterday as we drove to Fallujah. "Today it now costs $35. It used to be in Iraq a family could easily live off $500 for two months. Today we are lucky if that lasts a week, because the prices of everything have gone so high."
Beggars are present at most intersections. Where they are not, Iraqi children walk between the rows of cars carrying cigarettes, fruit, or sweets to sell to drivers stuck in the ever-present traffic.
Salah Salman, a day laborer in Sadr City I spoke with the other day, raged against the upcoming elections which are set for January 31. He spoke with me while we stood near a street strewn with garbage near a busy traffic circle.
"I'll not be voting for anyone. We cannot trust any of the candidates, just like during the elections of 2005. What have they done for us? What services have they provided our country? They have achieved nothing for us!"
Like the 2005 elections (and most elections across the globe, for that matter), there are thousands of politicians running on various platforms, from unifying Iraq, to bringing electricity, to improving security, to promoting reconciliation. Most Iraqis I have spoken with about the elections are not holding out much hope.
"New thieves will replace the current thieves," an Iraqi refugee in Amman told me before I flew into Baghdad.
Obvious differences are present. The most evident reason for the decline in US military casualties in Iraq over the last year is that there are clearly far fewer patrols being carried out by US forces, whereas before patrols roamed the streets incessantly. The patrols I do see are carried out in the new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, which are mine-resistant beasts that slowly crawl through the congested streets of Baghdad.
Instead, Iraqi security forces abound. Speeding through the streets with blaring sirens are Iraqi Police in huge, brand new Ford and Chevrolet trucks, which have clearly found their new market since the US has tired of the gas-guzzling behemoths. Further, Iraqi military abound, roaming around in brand new Humvees of the ilk traded in by the US military's upgrade to MRAPs. So much security is deployed on the streets of Baghdad it is impossible to travel more than 15 minutes without finding another checkpoint. To live in Baghdad, like it is to live in many other Iraqi cities, is to live in a police state.
Contractors are visible flying overhead, often in their two-person Kiowa helicopters. They are running the security at the airport and in the Green Zone, which has been called the International Zone for some time now. The mercenary company Triple Canopy employs former Central American death squad members and various nationals from Uganda, a now mostly de-colonized country, to check ID badges at the countless checkpoints I walked through to obtain my mandatory press card inside the heavily fortified compound. Thus, the changing of the face is complete - Iraqi security forces and private contractor mercenaries are now the face of the US occupation of Iraq.
The political divides across the country run deep, and this thin, fresh, external skin of the lull in overall violence camouflages the plight of the average Iraqi. Prices of everything from bottled water to tomatoes have skyrocketed, while jobs have become increasingly scarce. While the major US news outlets have downgraded their staff in Iraq, or pulled out entirely because they feel Iraq is no longer an important story, for most Iraqis who remain here, there is no other option. Flee with no money and become a refugee, or remain and try to survive.
Will the elections bring a lasting stability? Or will groups who feel entitled to power that don't obtain it democratically resort again to violence that will shred what is left of this shattered country?
We shall soon find out.