Six months before the planned transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, new political forces have been filling the vacuum left by the fall of Saddam. But a brush with the new authorities can mean a familiar encounter over identity cards and threats.
Zaid Abdul Karim cut a tall, arresting figure on the deck of the old ferry which was taking us from Dubai to southern Iraq.
Umm Qasr is the gateway for many Iraqis returning home after the war
He was amiable, urbane and full of curiosity, but when alone, he became deeply pensive, staring for long periods at the wake of the ship which was churning up the murky waters of the Gulf.
It was not until the end of the three-day journey that Zaid approached me and told me what was on his mind.
Earlier I had chatted with a whole group of Iraqis (including Zaid) who were coming home for the first time since the war.
The insurgency against the American occupation force had done little to dent their overall optimism.
"This is my dream", Zaid had told me: "When I enter Iraq I won't see any pictures of Saddam.
"The Americans - they came and removed Saddam Hussein - I would like to thank them."
Now, as we sailed slowly past the flat, mud-grey landscape of southern Iraq, Zaid said: "Mr Humphrey, my daughter - she's 15 years old - she has Thalassemia. It's a blood disease."
"I'm going back to help her. I'm very worried."
From Saddam to Ayatollahs
We left Zaid in the port of Umm Qasr.
He lived further north in Babylon, near the holy Islamic city of Kerbala, so we said we would drop by on our way to Baghdad.
The murals of Saddam had gone, but they had been replaced everywhere by faces of Islamic leaders.
In the Basra market they were selling posters of Ayatollahs as they had once been selling Saddam memorabilia.
Restaurants were banned from selling alcohol and in the mosques the Imams were recounting historic battles as if they had happened the day before and not hundreds of years ago.
They must have known it in Washington but, amazingly, by getting rid of Saddam, the Americans have seamlessly given birth to Islamic fundamentalists.
Then, heading north, it was as if the war had only ended yesterday.
Billions of dollars might have been allocated to construction but nothing was being rebuilt.
It was a totally dreadful landscape of despair: uncleared rubbish watched by the unemployed, so unmotivated that they would do nothing about it.
It was as if New Yorkers had thrown up their hands and said they were too tired to rebuild after 11 September 2001.
Blood transfusion shortage
Zaid proudly welcomed us into his house to show off a poster of David Beckham and an American flag draped over the sofa.
Fatima, his daughter, had brilliantly sparkling eyes but because of her disease, her face was pale.
She looked more like 10 than 15 years old.
"I only really feel strong after I've had a blood transfusion", she said, then smiling cheekily: "I don't tell my friends. I don't want to be boring about it".
It turned out that since 1995 the UN had been giving Fatima the key drugs she needed, but the problem was getting blood for transfusions and a bone marrow match for a transplant.
"The hospital's so much better now that Saddam's gone," said Fatima's mother.
"They used to treat Fatima like dirt, but now we can ask any questions and everyone is very nice to us."
I asked Fatima what she wanted to be when she left school and without hesitation she said: "A teacher. I want to be an Islamic teacher."
Then I asked whether she would like to come and see the holy sites of Kerbala with us. Her eyes lit up, so off we all went.
Kerbala is to the Shia Muslim what Rome is to the Catholic. The central square buzzes with worship, hawkers and tourists - many on package trips from neighbouring Iran.
Questioning the future
We had arranged to meet a leader from the Daawa party, an Islamic movement banned under Saddam, but now re-emerging as one of the biggest forces in the new Iraq.
I was keen to find out what their policies were, not from religion, but on the practical things like health, like blood transfusions for Fatima, for example.
I left Fatima to sightsee for a bit while I went to check if it was all right for her to sit in on the interview.
Abu Mohamed was a short stocky man in an ill-fitting suit. He greeted me with a smile, but his was a face of hardship and suffering."Yes of course", he said, "there's no problem in bringing the little girl".
But he did not mean a word of it. As soon as he saw Fatima in the square he backed off and turned against us.
He took no interest in her, but poured plenty of invective at me, making Fatima grip her father's hand and recoil.
"Our agreement was to meet just you, not this woman and child", he said.
Stupidly I tried to deflect things by asking what the Daawas' policy was on healthcare, but it only made matters worse - there was no policy, only threats.
"I want you to know that I'm head of security for the Daawa party", he said. "You must show me your identification. The way you're acting makes me think you're a spy."
By now Zaid's own temper was frayed. "When does any leader of Iraq give help to the normal people?" he snapped.
The police came and stopped us leaving. "Why?" we asked.
The officer shrugged. "The Daawa party is very powerful", he said. "If they tell us to do something we have to do it."
I caught Zaid's eye as he wisely manoeuvred his wife and daughter into the crowd and out of sight.
Will the next regime be better than Saddam's?
He knew what Iraq could be like if you stepped over the line.
Eventually, we negotiated our release. Both Zaid and I had witnessed the face of the new leadership. It was about power, identity cards and threats - not about the healthcare of a sick little girl.
In fact, not that much different from the regime which had been deposed.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 13 December, 2003, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.