Baghdad Babylon Hope and Despair in Divided Iraq

By in Iraq

Part 2: The Whole Story

The world has become deaf to the word “peace” -- at least when conversations turn to Iraq. It is as if the world were blind to the possibility that the situation in this country straddling the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers could be anything different from the constant stream of increasingly devastating films of the latest car bombings. For most people, Iraq has become nothing but a series of attacks, a collection of images of bombings and victims, a tale of failure, a book about historical guilt and a symbol of the moral decline of the United States of America.

But the real story in Iraq cannot be summed up in short news clips and quick, shaky television images. Body counts and names of the dead tell only part of the story of Iraq today. Research for this story took me on a three-week journey throughout the country, my fourth trip to Iraq in as many years. Under the protection of the US military, it led us to the northern city of Mosul and its suburbs, to Ramadi and to Baghdad. The military did not choose our destinations, SPIEGEL did. Apart from a few technical and strategic details, nothing was censored.

The trip included nighttime helicopter flights across villages and cities, journeys in Humvees through landscapes of burned-out buildings, rides in an armored personnel carrier through war zones and walks through both enemy territory and peaceful markets. This kind of travel is the only way for a Western journalist to work in Iraq. Without a military escort, reporting can only take place from afar, from the relative safety of well-guarded hotel rooms. Of course, hotel rooms aren't the best vantage point from which to grasp the true complexity of the situation. At no point during this journey, even in places where there was gunfire or bombs had recently exploded, were the images entirely consistent.

Car Bombs Here, New Schools There

In Iraq today, car bombs are detonated here while new schools are being built there. And as new hotels open in one part of the country, terrorists lob bombs into wedding parties elsewhere. Some Iraqis are buying new refrigerators, toasters and video games, while others smuggle explosives into the country and sabotage oil pipelines. Children play the violin or the trumpet in music competitions while, only a few blocks away, men from Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia attach sticks of dynamite to their bodies to bomb themselves into paradise on busy city squares. The Iraq of today is not a single place that is easy to understand -- it is a country mired in contradictions.

In some parts of the country, especially Baghdad, the situation is even worse than was feared, and in others, it is much better than anyone could have hoped. Traveling through Iraq, four years, four months and a few days after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 20, 2003, one encounters a country undergoing radical change, not just a country in decline, not just a country falling apart, but also not a country that has been saved.

The situation is so complicated that even the leaders of Operation Iraqi Freedom are sometimes at a loss for words and can do little more than shrug their shoulders. General David Petraeus even has to suppress a nervous laugh when he talks about the immense task he faces.

Commanding the Surge

Petraeus is the commander of a multinational force in Iraq, which is no longer particularly multinational. He commands about 160,000 American soldiers, the size of the current force after the troop "surge" ordered by US President George W. Bush, which was completed a few weeks ago.

The word "surge" seems fitting. It suggests that this is the United States’ final push, its last chance to succeed. If this newly revamped force fails to achieve the elusive goal coalition forces have been pursuing unsuccessfully all along -- to stabilize and pacify Iraq -- then the entire operation will be a miserable failure. Iraq will collapse, and the United States will face humiliating defeat and a disgraceful withdrawal that could impact political stability throughout the world.

Petraeus has just finished up a phone call with a Turkish military official and he is running late. Instead of meeting at his Camp Victory headquarters at the Baghdad Airport, we go to Petraeus' office in former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's palace in the Green Zone, the sealed-off section of the city reserved for the Americans, the Iraqi government and their guests.

The Green Zone, officially known as the "International Zone," has become a forbidden city inside the Iraqi capital, surrounded by high concrete walls and accessible only after traversing through an obstacle course of checkpoints.

Both visitors and residents must present their badges at every street corner, where NATO wire and stone barriers dominate the scenery. There are 15 different color-coded identification badges for Green Zone residents, each providing a different level of access privileges. Like a fortress, the new, clay-colored US embassy building (the world's largest) dominates this labyrinth of walls and guard posts, which resembles an open-air bunker more and more every day. The embassy, still empty, stands behind miles of walls reminiscent of urban scenes behind the former Iron Curtain.

It's cold in Petraeus' office. Marines guard his rooms in the palace, which are located behind a series of reinforced doors. A pair of crossed flags stands behind his desk. Petraeus takes a few cans of Diet Pepsi and Sprite from the refrigerator and serves them himself. When he began his tenure here in January, just after the US president appointed and promoted him to become a four-star general, he wrote in an e-mail that the job would be "tough, but not impossible," and that "no one can be interested in a failed Iraq."

Now he sits in a chair in front of a couch, talking about his experiences here. In the first year of the war, Petraeus led the 101st Airborne Division up to Mosul. Then he developed a doctrine on fighting insurgents. Now he leads an entire army. He has placed one of his boots on the low coffee table, a quiet, slim man whose name will appear in the history books.

This September, Patraeus will present his report on the situation in Iraq to the US Congress in Washington, where he must explain the military options. His appearance will come in the middle of an election, and Washington's political and media spin machine will eagerly twist his sentences and dissect his every word, taking his statements out of context and turning them into ammunition for their theories and counter-theories. Petraeus has nothing to gain from this game. No matter what he ultimately says, everyone in Washington -- friends and foes alike -- will end up quoting him.


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