Cover Story

'Dark, but free'

Iraq's infrastructure remains shattered and residents of Baghdad face daily hardships that would be unimaginable to the average American. But Iraqis say they can bear the present because of their hopes for the future

Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

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."

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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.

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