Iraq. Now and then

I stand inside the Al Warda supermarket in Baghdad’s Kerrada neighborhood staring at boxes of dates, but my mind races back to another time.

I used to shop here in 2003, when I shared a room at the nearby Al Hamra Hotel with photographer Bita Honarvar. We were tired of eating the canned beans and rice the hotel served in the restaurant and opted instead for chick peas, lavash bread, yogurt, Turkish biscuits and Iranian sour cherry juice at Al Warda.

Al Warda is still the luxury it was in 2003.

Back then, Iraqis felt a sense of euphoria at the fall of Saddam Hussein.

I wandered around Baghdad, writing about how satellite dishes were sprouting faster than weeds do in Atlanta — after years of darkness, Iraqis now had access to the outside world. Ra’ed Hameed told me how he’d secretly bought a satellite dish on the black market in 1999 and kept it well hidden in his house, waiting for the day he could set it up, the day when television stations beamed in from other countries would no longer be banned. He was ready, he said, to watch “those racy German movies” he’d heard about.

There were a host of new newspapers. And political parties. And real hope that a free and strong Iraq could rise from the bloodshed.

But as the U.S. occupation began, life in Baghdad deteriorated. IED — improvised explosive device — became a part of the vocabulary. Iraqis started dying every month as did American men and women in uniform. A Sunni insurgency against the Americans raged and eventually, sectarian strife between Sunni and Shiite gave rise to fears of a bloody civil war.

I last went to Iraq in 2008, as a newspaper reporter embedded with a 3rd Infantry Division battalion. Five long years later, it was emotional for me to be back in Baghdad.

There is no Hamra Hotel anymore. It closed for good after a second bombing on a January afternoon in 2010.

Electricity is still scarce — on every street I can see the jumble of wiring that connect homes to private generators when the power goes out.

Parts of Baghdad look just as shabby as they were the last time I was here. Tired from the neglect and damage that decades of conflict bring. in Kerrada, near Warda, life seemed to be springing back with new shops, restaurants and even the landscaping of public places. I see crews hard at work putting in place fresh concrete in one of Baghdad’s squares made famous by Mohammed Ghani Hikmet’s sculpture, Kahramana and the Forty Thieves.

I watch Waleed make fresh samoon bread at Zeitoon Ovens. My friend Mohammed buys six loaves for $1 and we sit at a nearby tea shop with our syrupy Iraqi chai and hot, doughy bread. Life seems normal. Almost.

I visit the Mansour Hotel, where a suicide bomber penetrated layers of security and blew himself up in the lobby in 2007. It’s all shiny and new now. I see women in pancake makeup sipping tea with their friends and overweight businessmen in suits who remind me of Saddam’s thugs who spied on people at the Al Rasheed Hotel. I take the hotel elevators all the way up to the top for a spectacular view of Baghdad rising along the banks of the Tigris. I’d seen Baghdad from a Black Hawk but never feasted on the scenery like this.

From high up, everything seems so serene, so peaceful. I can’t see the garbage and the rubble. I can’t see the sadness and suffering.

Of course, no American soldiers are left here but relics of the years of occupation are hard to miss. The U.S. military left behind a few Humvees and armored personnel carriers that are now painted in white and blue. Concrete blast walls surround the International Zone and other places with high security. In some places, Iraqis have painted tem in cheerful colors. They were no more softer to look at, really. The myriad checkpoints around Baghdad are all manned by Iraqi police now. They are a bottleneck for traffic but necessary in a city where bombings are still common. Perhaps at a checkpoint or a Shiite market or eatery. Or in the central city, as was the case Thursday when four massive explosions rocked an area not far from the fortified Green Zone.

I don’t have to wear a flak jacket or helmet anymore but the truth is that at any moment, things could go pear-shaped. That’s a term I remember former Aussie special forces guys uttering at a hostile environment training I attended in 2005.

I hope not to use that phrase on this trip to Iraq.

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