As we left Baghdad, I told Nate Rawlings he had experienced more of Iraq in nine days than most American soldiers had in a couple of yearlong rotations. I meant that literally. From the spring of 2004, when the first battle of Fallujah broke out, to the fall of 2007, when the Sunni Awakening began to make an impact, most soldiers could not venture beyond the narrow confines of the area they were patrolling: one or two towns, a single Baghdad neighborhood or perhaps just one stretch of highway in Anbar province.
It says a great deal about how far Iraq has come that we were able to drive pretty much anywhere in Baghdad, visit the former Triangle of Death and spend entire days in the heart of Anbar. And all that in a beat-up station wagon, without armed guards. (See TIME's video on soldiers leaving Iraq.)
There were other changes too. All over Baghdad, I saw scores and scores of spanking-new shops and restaurants, many of them crowded with customers. Several car dealerships have popped up in my old neighborhood of Jadriyah. I still can't get over the fact that one of them was selling a blood-red Mustang. Virtually every evening, the parks along the Tigris were teeming with people. The flight in from Jordan was full, and the folks I saw flying out of the country were not carrying giant suitcases stuffed to bursting point — a telltale sign of emigration I saw all too often in 2006 and 2007, when hundreds of thousands fled to neighboring countries.
There were several car bombs during our stay, and if we needed reminding that the city is still quite dangerous, there were checkpoints everywhere. Within the Baghdad city limits, I don't think we ever went more than a few hundred yards without seeing soldiers or policemen. (In contrast, I counted just four sightings of American military vehicles outside the greatly diminished Green Zone.)
But while my eyes were seeing progress, my ears were hearing another story entirely. Virtually every Iraqi we met complained bitterly about how bad things were: the security situation was deteriorating, there were no jobs, the government was corrupt and inept, basic services (electricity, water, sewage) were terrible and the future looked bleak. (See TIME's video "Back to Baghdad: A Journalist and a Soldier Return.")
What explains this dichotomy? It's tempting to conclude that Iraqis, having endured incredible trauma over much of the past seven years, are now suffering from a collective posttraumatic stress disorder — they're simply unable to let go of their anxieties and recognize that the worst may be over.
But there are less fanciful explanations too. While there may be massive unemployment (I was given estimates from 25% to 49%), it's also true that those who do have jobs are getting paid much better than they used to. Before the war, I met a schoolteacher in Baghdad who was making $2 a month and worked as a busboy in a restaurant to make ends meet. Many Iraqis subsisted on free rations from the state — a fixed quantity of rice, sugar, oil and other essentials supplied by the government every month. People still get their free rations, but now a schoolteacher can hope to make upwards of $350 a month. This means there's some spending money — which explains the shops and restaurants. (Comment on this story.)
The end of Saddam also allowed people to travel abroad for employment and removed the restrictions on sending money home. Many Baghdad families have one or more members who work abroad. Some are recent emigrants, others fled in the 1980s and '90s. Most send home money to support their families.
Another innovation since the end of the dictatorship is unemployment benefits: jobless Iraqis now get some money from the state. The sums can be small (sometimes barely $100 a month), and the bureaucracy is terribly inefficient at paying on time. But for large families where several members are jobless, the income, in addition to the rations, is a godsend. (See Part 1: "Remembrance of Patrols Past.")
There's an underground economy, of course: part-time work and jobs off the books. Even those who work legitimate jobs often don't pay income tax: the collection mechanism is no more efficient than any other government department.
Finally, it helps that the Iraqi economy has escaped the rampant inflation that often accompanies war. Yes, prices have risen, but there was never a period when they doubled or trebled every month. Remarkably, the Iraqi dinar has held steady against the U.S. dollar, even gaining a little.
None of this is to suggest that Iraqis have it wrong when they say the future is bleak. You might feel that way too if your country's political elite were as incompetent as Iraq's. The country now holds the world's record in the amount of time it's taken after a general election to form a new government. The seven months of negotiations between political parties have been characterized by total shamelessness and indifference to public opinion. My colleague Ali al-Shaheen joked that if every nation on earth sent its worst politician to the Iraqi parliament, "it would immediately become half as corrupt and twice as efficient." Now that I think of it, he may not have been joking.
You might say, "Well, lots of countries have inept, venal governments. If terrible politicians are Iraq's biggest problem now, then the rest of us don't need to worry about it quite so much." But bad leadership could easily push Iraq back into the hell I saw in 2006-07. That would make a waste of tens of thousands of lives (more than 4,000 of them American) and hundreds of billions of dollars (it's too depressing to even think how many of those were American).
So while I'm delighted Ali and I were able to show Rawlings as much of Iraq as we did, I cannot with any degree of certainty promise that his next trip will be so inspiring.
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2025243,00.html#ixzz12RYKlpD1