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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 July 2005, 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK
Iraq: An upside-down place
Jon Leyne
By Jon Leyne
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

With the kidnapping and murder of Egypt's ambassador to Iraq in Baghdad this week, Jon Leyne reflects on what the US could have done to limit the scale of insurrection which surrounds them and their allies.

A US soldier searches an Iraqi at a checkpoint in central Baghdad. (Photo: Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Image)
Security checks are part of daily life in Iraq
If the insurgents do not get you, maybe the traffic police will. At least, that was my experience in Baghdad.

Our car was caught by an American military policeman wielding a speed gun, inside the secure zone that surrounds the international airport.

The officer asked the driver to show him his licence. It was only later I realised how surreal it was.

Surely, there are no driving licences in Iraq. I cannot believe the government has issued any in the past couple of years anyway.

This is an airport where the planes take off and land in a steep spiral to avoid missiles. This is an airport where the approach road is one of the most dangerous places in Iraq, the target for frequent car bomb attacks.

A few days afterwards, an American official complained to me about the traffic cops in the Green Zone, the secure area in the centre of Baghdad. "Don't they realise this place still gets mortar attacks?", she pointed out.

Slow progress

Iraqi firefighters put out a fire from a building hit by a car bomb explosion in central Baghdad.(Photo: Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images)
Despite the checks, car bombs are still able to get through
This is Iraq now, an upside-down place - so far from normality it is hard to know where to begin in describing it.

The streets are jammed with traffic, except when there is an American convoy, when everyone keeps their distance to avoid being caught in an ambush.

The electricity is off more than it is on, leaving most people to swelter in a 40-50C heat.

The water supply is frequently sabotaged by the insurgents, who seem to know exactly where to place their explosives to create maximum damage.

Westerners still cannot move around freely for fear of kidnapping.

Nevertheless, for the media in Iraq, there are always plenty of briefings explaining how much progress the coalition is making.

At one of the recent sessions, the military officer in charge of reconstruction produced a book load of statistics to show how well the reconstruction process was going. Hundreds of projects under way, electricity generation up, and so forth.

Yet Iraqis to a man and woman will tell you that their standard of life is no better, and probably worse, than under Saddam Hussein.

And Americans are asking the same question in increasing numbers. Why is nothing getting better more than two years after the invasion, when we have spent so much money and lost so many lives?

'Burnt-out shell'

Before the war there were at least six studios in operation.

A little bit of damage was done by American bombing, but the studios were completely destroyed by looting after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

They were left a burnt-out shell. Everything was stripped away, even the doors and the window frames.

It is a desolate scene even now, almost like a film set for some post-nuclear holocaust drama.

As part of Iraq's reconstruction, the Americans are paying for new studios to be built. To date, three have been finished.

So, for the cost of $50m, they have managed to get this little bit of Iraq halfway back to where it was before the war.

Yet anyone will tell you, that looting could have been prevented, if the US military had just sent one humvee and a handful of soldiers to man the gates of the complex.

Why they did not is still a mystery.

Were there not enough troops? Was it thought too risky? Or was the command simply too slow to react to what was going on?


Soldiers supporting Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr take up positions during clashes with British forces in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
Insurgents in Iraq still pose a major threat to US troops and their allies
At another briefing, a senior American official spoke about recent reported contacts the Americans have had with the rebels.

This is something that has become a very touchy subject in Iraq.

Not everyone supports the idea of negotiating with those responsible for killing scores of civilians, with those who have beheaded foreign contractors.

The American official insisted there had been no negotiations. But he did reveal that envoys did often come to them with some interesting demands.

As well as the usual rhetoric demanding American withdrawal, there were demands for pensions to be paid for former members of the military, government jobs for former members of the Baath party, more jobs for them in the Iraqi military.

Perhaps America's main job in Iraq at the moment is to correct the mistakes of the past couple of years
So I asked the official whether he thought the insurgents could be bought off with these sorts of concessions. That was now a matter for the Iraqi government, he pointed out, but he did not rule it out.

The clear implication is that a good part of this mess might have been prevented if the Americans had decided to keep the Iraqi army together, paid their pensions, and been less doctrinaire about getting rid of the Baathists after the invasion two years ago.

In other words, perhaps America's main job in Iraq at the moment is to correct the mistakes of the last couple of years.

Strangely most Iraqis remain optimistic that things will turn out all right in the long term. They realise it could take five or 10 years to see real progress.

Americans may not be so patient. But at least they can be reassured that their military police are doing their very best to impose order on a small section of Iraq's roads.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 9 July 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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