FOR ARAM IZAT, APRIL 9 WAS both the worst and the best night of his life. Baghdad was falling. U.S. tanks rumbled through the streets, shots and explosions split the air, and the city's skyline burned. He should have been hiding inside, like everyone else in the city, but his wife had other ideas. After nine months of pregnancy, she decided April 9 would be a good night to deliver their first son. That's how Mr. Izat ended up careening through the streets of Baghdad, waving a white sheet out the window so he wouldn't be mistaken for a Fedayeen suicide bomber.
Living near the airport, the 24-year-old hotel clerk had already experienced some of the most intense fighting of the war. He personally lost 10 friends, all civilians whose homes were destroyed in the fierce fight for Saddam International. He lived in constant fear of the errant bomb that could crash through his roof at any minute, killing his wife and unborn son. But nothing, he says, could compare with the sheer terror of running the American gantlet on the way to the hospital that night. Only the moans of his wife coming from the back seat kept him going.
By the time Mr. Izat brought little Taha home, Baghdad had grown eerily quiet. When the baby cried at night, Mr. Izat would try to console him: "Shh, the war is over. Everything is OK now."
Taha kept crying, of course, and even Mr. Izat didn't really believe that everything was truly OK. Nearly two months after Saddam was toppled, life in his capital city is both primitive and dangerous. Baghdad may have fallen on April 9, but it has failed to rise since then. It still feels like a city teetering on the edge, in constant danger of collapsing under years of neglect and weeks of fighting.
The 5 million residents of this hot, dusty capital are trying to get on with their fractured lives, but the infrastructure of 21st-century living is still in utter disarray. Tons of sewage flow untreated into the Tigris River, spreading disease and fouling the air. Telephone service-both cellular and land-based-is virtually nonexistent. Water is flowing in only half the city, and even that is rarely potable. Electricity is even rarer than drinking water: In West Baghdad, near the airport, city power flows just two to four hours a day, and never according to any sort of regular schedule.
With temperatures already topping 110 degrees, the still, sizzling air can be suffocating. That's why Mr. Izat, after working a 14-hour overnight shift at his hotel, has to trade two-hour shifts with his wife, fanning Taha with a newspaper throughout the hot daylight hours. "He thinks life is good," Mr. Izat says of his sleeping son. "He doesn't know how hard it is for the rest of us."
The Iraqi people, meanwhile, are just beginning to learn how easy life was for Saddam Hussein. Beyond the high walls and police barricades of the Palace District, the president and his cronies lived in almost unimaginable luxury. The area encompasses several square miles of prime real estate on the west bank of the Tigris River, and average Iraqis were never allowed inside. Indeed, everyone seems to have a story of a friend of a friend who disappeared after his car broke down too close to the forbidden zone. It's still closed for the time being, with American reconstruction efforts headquartered in the villas and palaces that dot the neighborhood.
That's protected the area from the looters who have plagued much of the capital, so for anyone with a press pass and an American passport, walking through the Palace District now is like being a kid on a private tour of a bombed-out Disney World. Arabesque arches with enormous brass lanterns span wide, tree-lined streets. Lavish villas stand empty and open, their gold brocade drapes flapping through smashed windows. Twisted iron gates offer glimpses of manicured gardens with carved gazebos and blue-tiled swimming pools. Today the gardens are strewn with the debris of lives suddenly stopped: furniture, bits of clothing, even a bidet. No bodies are visible, but the stench-and the swarms of aggressive black flies-suggest they are buried in the rubble.
If the Palace District was a symbol of Saddam's power, its ruins are a symbol of a greater power that he badly misread. Anti-aircraft guns along the perimeter still point into the cloudless skies, fully loaded with shells that were never fired. Despite their bluster, the regime's leaders apparently abandoned the Palace District long ago, knowing it would be an easy target for American smart bombs.
They were right. Saddam's sprawling Zakoura Palace, copied from one of the Babylonian kings that he loved to emulate, was just one of many that took a direct hit. The bomb entered behind the sky-blue dome at the center of the palace, ripping a jagged hole some 20 feet wide in the ceiling. Then it smashed through the concrete foundation, leaving a gaping crater with no visible bottom. The blast blew out every stained-glass window in the sprawling compound. Dozens of towering columns in the grand entryway were stripped of their rose-red marble, leaving only a series of ugly, twisted metal skeletons to support the sagging roof.
Throughout Baghdad, such devastation is repeated everywhere on an enormous scale. In a capital city where the regime owned almost everything, nearly every tall building served some sort of official function. That made the entire skyline a legitimate military target once the war started. Anyone who has ever been in a war zone would recognize the lunar-like craters left by thousands of mortar blasts all over town. But the damage here is on a whole different magnitude: Instead of just blowing a hole in a building's fa?ade, American cruise missiles ripped out entire floors from downtown skyscrapers, creating a kind of architectural Swiss cheese. All over the city, pedestrians can look clear through enormous high-rise buildings and see daylight on the other side.
Rebuilding the Baghdad skyline will take untold millions of dollars-and that looks to be the least of Washington's headaches. Indeed, if blowing up a regime proved unexpectedly easy, putting a society back together again appears increasingly problematic. From lights that won't stay on to looters who won't stay in, Baghdad presents a host of challenges that Washington may have underestimated. Before the war started, military planners said they wouldn't claim victory until an American general was sitting on Saddam's throne. Now, however, the bar has been raised considerably: Victory, it turns out, isn't defined by a single throne but rather by millions of toilets.
Maj. David Hylton is working around the clock to make sure those toilets flush again soon. As the Army's principal staff officer for civilian-military affairs, he knows as well as anyone the huge task that lies ahead. Among other things, he and his colleagues are trying to control crime, distribute food, protect hospitals, open schools, restore phone service, pick up garbage, treat sewage, repair roads and bridges, pay public employees-and, of course, get the power and water flowing again.
"What we're realizing is that Iraq doesn't produce enough power for Baghdad," Maj. Hylton says. "Saddam used to forcibly black out other cities to keep the lights on here." Then, in the war's closing days, he allegedly blacked out his own capital by sabotaging the city's power plants. When American troops arrived, the plants were completely cold-that is, the giant turbines had stopped turning altogether. Soldiers had to first repair the physical damage, then "jump start" the turbines in a process similar to jumping a dead car battery.
And that was just the beginning. Even when the plants are fully operational, pumping out some 2,000 megawatts per day (versus about 800 megawatts now), that electricity still must be delivered somehow. Many of the high-tension power lines ringing the city were damaged during the war, as were the smaller lines that carry the power into neighborhoods and individual homes and businesses. Maj. Hylton says the high-tension lines should be fixed by early June, but there seems to be no firm deadline for repairing the smaller lines. The job is simply huge, as is the task of explaining to blacked-out Baghdadis why they still have no power. Word on the street is that Kuwait's lights were back on 48 hours after the first Bush kicked Saddam out of that country. Why, they want to know, can't the United States do the same for them?
But Maj. Hylton insists things are improving faster than word can filter down to the street-or back to the United States, for that matter. "We're fighting a CNN war again," he laments. "CNN reports it, so we have to react to it." For example, in the first 10 days after Baghdad fell, Maj. Hylton received a steady stream of panicky e-mails from Washington: The National Museum is being looted; what are we doing about it? In fact, a tank had already been posted outside the museum for a week by that time, and pieces were actually finding their way back in rather than out. Admittedly, the tank was too little, too late, but to the beleaguered troops in Baghdad, the whole scenario shows how things on the ground often look better than they do on the airwaves.
"Sensational reporting definitely makes the situation look worse than it really is," Maj. Hylton says. Moments earlier, three public-affairs officers had just been complaining that they could have been home by now were it not for news reports that kept focusing on scattered violence rather than widespread peace and quiet. Members of the 3rd Infantry Division (3rd ID) were the first ones into Iraq and should have been the first out. Instead, their deployment drags on and on as the Pentagon looks to its most experienced troops to restore order. "We're tired," says one sergeant, covering the name embroidered on his chest. "It wears on you here. You can see it in the guys' faces. They need to go home; it's been too long."
Are they really needed? Five separate attacks on U.S. military patrols in recent days raised fears of an organized uprising-and dashed the hopes of the most optimistic 3rd ID members, who'd predicted they might be packing up within 10 days. The pictures of burned-out Bradleys on the evening news were horrific, but the images from the streets-little boys clustered excitedly around U.S. soldiers, heavily veiled women flashing peace signs at the troops-often seem like a total contradiction.
If the present is uncertain, however, the future is even more so. Today's Iraqis have no experience in self-government, so the danger of demagoguery, sectarian strife, or even civil war looms large. The so-called Sadr Group, followers of a slain Shiite leader, is organizing aggressively in Saddam City and causing concern among both Christians and Sunni Muslims. Wahhabism, the violent Islamist movement most closely associated with Osama bin Laden, is also vying for influence, and several different Iranian factions have sent mullahs into Iraq to mobilize the faithful.
To U.S. military planners, the mounting Shiite activism means troops may have to stay on in Iraq longer than expected. After all, one of the justifications for the war was to free the Iraqi people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. If a fascist tyrant is replaced by an Islamist one, the Bush administration will be hard-pressed to claim any sort of lasting victory-either military or moral-in Iraq.
In Baghdad, of course, such political calculus is the last thing on anyone's mind. Iraqis are still busy mourning their dead and trying their best to stay alive from one difficult day to the next. There's no denying that people here are tired of living in the dark, walking blocks for a bucket of water, or queuing overnight for a tank of gasoline. Yet despite hardships that would be unimaginable to the average American, the attitude among the residents of Baghdad might best be described as hopeful exasperation. People don't understand how they could still be without power two months after Saddam's ouster, but they can bear the present because of their hopes for the future. "At least we are free," says Firas Sulieman, a taxi driver who once did maintenance in one of Saddam's palaces. "Iraq is dark, but free. Soon we will have both freedom and lights. This will be a very happy day."
That sort of expression is heard often in Baghdad-and almost nowhere else in the Arab world. While Muslims outside Iraq see the war as an unmitigated disaster and a thinly disguised grab for oil, the people who actually lived through the bombing tend to take a different view. They know their future is dangerous and uncertain, but that's an improvement over the future they would have faced under Saddam and his sons. To many Iraqis, even the slimmest chance of peace and prosperity is reason enough to hope-and forgive.
Mohammed Ibrahim, a former Iraqi soldier, eyes one of the American GIs occupying his city. Mr. Ibrahim deserted Saddam's army midway through the war after coalition bombing decimated his unit at the missile launcher they were assigned to protect. He lost many friends in the attack and never expected he'd make it out alive. When the ground started exploding just 10 feet away from him, "I think I am dying," he recalls, clapping his hands twice in the Arabic symbol for finished. "I am sure of it."
Mr. Ibrahim says, "When I see these American soldiers I think, 'They are the ones who killed my friends.' I can't help it. But what will I do, attack them? They were following orders, the same like I was. And they freed us from Saddam Hussein; that we cannot forget. The cost was high for this, but we hope it will make a better life for us, the ones who are still alive.
"We hope that is why they have come," he says, pointing again to the nearby soldier, "and not for the oil."