Page last updated at 10:24 GMT, Saturday, 11 October 2008 11:24 UK

Painfully slow progress in Iraq

In the week when an Iraqi MP was killed by a roadside bomb, Hugh Sykes reports from Baghdad, as continuing violence frustrates the Iraqi people's yearning for a return to normal life.

Iraq will not be right until Abdullah comes home.

Abandoned child's bike photographed by Hugh Sykes
Abdullah's abandoned bike is one of many signs of a displaced population
The last time I saw him, he was a cheerful four-year-old boy riding his little bike with stabilisers up and down the concrete path of a small, well-tended garden in Baghdad.

There were flowers, and a small lawn watered from a well. I would wave at Abdullah and he would wave cheerfully back and smile.

That was three years ago, when the extreme violence was beginning to take hold here, explosions and gunfire became increasingly routine.

Roadside bombs

Abdullah's parents decided to leave. The last I heard, they were in Jordan, and the little boy was homesick.

There is much less violence now, but Baghdad is nowhere near returning to normal: the streets are full of potholes and the traffic is clogged and backed up by check-points.

Even Baghdad's security chief acknowledges the check-points can only be partly effective against bombers, as many of them are believed to assemble their devices well within the check-point cordons.

Bombed out car photographed by Hugh Sykes
Roadside bombs continue to plague life in Baghdad
Soldiers stopping cars hand out leaflets warning drivers to check their vehicles before they set off, because of bombs which can be easily and quickly attached with magnets.

Concrete anti-blast walls still surround almost every significant building here, and stretch along streets where there are markets bringing relative safety, but turning the pavements - where the vendors' stalls are - into narrow, claustrophobic canyons.

There are numerous sandbagged machine-gun posts. There is even one looking out from the walls of the ministry of agriculture compound.

Residential districts are protected with chicanes of concrete bollards, coils of rusting razor-wire, oil drums filled with concrete, sawn-down trunks of date palm trees and more check-points, protected with sandbags.

Checkpoint photographed by Hugh Sykes
Tens of thousands have died in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003
One day, our anonymous BBC car is waved on by two policemen, but then everybody is doing urgent U-turns and heading back the way they came.

The street is cordoned off - there has been a roadside bomb. Two people are dead and two cars are wrecked - their bonnets thrown up and twisted, tyres blown out, dents in their doors from the impact of the explosion.

Shopkeepers are sweeping up glass from their front windows. One man - still in shock - rails against the American occupation. "Is this the freedom they brought us?" he asks. And he curses the bombers: "How can people call themselves Muslims and do this?"

The next day, two bombs - one in a car in a car-park, the other by the roadside - kill 16 people. They were out shopping and at least 50 more were injured, but it barely makes the news. Baghdad is getting better now, is it not?

Settling scores

It is getting better, but this could simply be the eye of the storm, like the calm circle in the middle of those dramatic satellite photographs of hurricanes.

The second stage of this hurricane could be revenge. Thousands of people have been threatened, burned, bombed and shot from their homes.

A friend told me about his uncle - men with guns came to the house and he shot at them. He was warned to leave quickly, before they came back. He left but they came back, looting his house, and setting it in on fire.

There are scores to be settled. As American forces begin to draw down, not everyone will be restrained. Grief and anger cannot just be wiped away.

And there is a new danger now from the Awakening movement - the fighters who used to support al-Qaeda in Iraq but who switched sides.

They are uneasy about the plan to absorb only 20,000 of their men into the armed forces.

The rest - about 80,000 - will be paid until they have found other work, but they risk losing their status in the community and, as one of their leaders said to me, they could become "bad people again" and re-join al-Qaeda.


But the good news is that people are growing more confident. They shop for High Definition TVs, satellite dishes, DVD players, air conditioners, and the generators to power them. Baghdad still has to endure long periods without mains electricity.

And families go out. They walk by the river, and they go to the theatre.

Scene from Jib al-Malik, Jibu
A black comedy plays to packed houses in Baghdad's main theatre

A comedy about the last five years in Iraq is playing to full houses at the National Theatre.

It is a black comedy and, in one scene, members of the Iraqi parliament are assembled in their chamber.

From offstage, there is a shout: "It's salary time". They all rush out, abandoning their agenda.

The director, Haidar Munathir, tells me: "Our politicians are political teenagers. They are overpaid and they achieve nothing".

And if Iraqis have no confidence in their politicians, the new peace has no secure foundations.

Abdullah's garden is abandoned now, overgrown and littered with broken furniture and a discarded door. There is razor-wire on the walls on each side, there are no flowers any more.

I see Abdullah in my mind's eye sometimes, coming back one day, as a teenager perhaps, and looking round, wistfully recalling the care-free times when he raced up and down on his bike, and smiled and waved.

The bike is still there, dusty and abandoned.

A cat stretches on the broken path and runs into the shadows as American Black Hawk helicopters roar past, low enough to see the airmen with machine guns at the open windows, scanning the streets below.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 11 October, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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