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AP Blog: The Story of Iraq, Told in One Day

May 15, 2006 GMT

AP Correspondent at Large Robert H. Reid covers Iraq for The Associated Press and has been a periodic visitor to the country since 1982.


Sunday, May 14, 2006, 6:30 p.m. local


Two suicide drivers blow up their vehicles at the main checkpoint leading to Baghdad’s airport, killing 14 people. Across town, Iraqi politicians are in a huff, threatening to walk out of talks on forming a new government which is supposed to end the violence.

The juxtaposition of events Sunday dramatically illustrates what’s wrong with Iraq, and why fixing it won’t be easy. Sunday’s events underscore the need for a new national unity government. But U.S. diplomats and senior military officials acknowledge that such a government will be only a first step in a long process to heal Iraq’s wounds.

Last December’s elections, like the one nearly a year before, did not bring Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds together. In fact, they institutionalized the differences. Shiites by and large voted for Shiite candidates, Sunnis for Sunnis and Kurds for Kurds. Those candidates ran on a platform of defending their community’s interest, regardless from the occasional sloganeering about national unity.

One party _ led by ex-Prime Minister Ayad Allawi _ did present itself as nonsectarian and inclusive, with Shiites and Sunnis represented in its ranks. It ended up with only 25 of the 275 seats. The various religious and ethnic parties captured a percentage of seats roughly equal to their community’s share of the national population.

Now the political process has shifted into formation of a new Cabinet, the final and most difficult stage in establishing a government of national unity. In Cabinet talks, however, the Iraqi politicians are doing what politicians do everywhere _ defend the interests of the people who put them in power. Shiites want to make sure Shiites get as many top posts as possible _ and the same for the Sunnis and Kurds.

Each of the parties gives lip-service to the goal of including all major religious and ethnic groups in the Cabinet. But the question is in what numbers and in what posts. The Shiites argue that they won the biggest number of parliament seats, and that entitles them to the lion’s share of power. That’s democracy, the Shiites maintain.

Sunni Arabs, many of whom still refuse to accept the idea that Iraq has an overwhelming Shiite majority, insist that without a major role in government, Sunni leaders will never convince fellow Sunnis to abandon the insurgency. Those who accept this argument believe the Shiites are being shortsighted by insisting on strictly following electoral results.

Divisions within the Shiite camp are an added complication. The Shiite bloc is an alliance of seven major parties. Each of those parties wants a share of the ministries and top posts allocated to the Shiites. One of the parties, Fadhila, walked out of the Cabinet talks after it appeared it would lose the oil ministry -- albeit to a fellow Shiite.

Much of the strident bickering is simply a negotiating tactic. But it also reflects fundamental divisions within Iraqi society, which must be healed before there can be real progress in restoring stability so that American and foreign troops can go home. Cutting some last-minute deals to form a Cabinet won’t heal those rifts. They will only buy time.

One American general, speaking on condition of anonymity because the situation is so sensitive, said it will take six months to see whether the new government will succeed.

``The process of state- and nation-building and reconciliation take a long time,″ U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told The Associated Press last month. ``At the same time, I blame myself″ for having ``not done a good job of explaining the complexity to the American people.″

In the meantime, the killing goes on.

_ Robert H. Reid


Friday, May 12, 2006, 6 p.m. local


Since it was opened in 1982, the 18-story Palestine Hotel has become a metaphor for Iraq. Battered but still standing, a monument to dashed hopes and lost opportunities. A shell of what it once was, but a frame that could be made better.

On my first trip to Baghdad, in November 1982, it was the city’s newest hapening place. At the start of the Arab weekend, the hotel lobby was bustling with activity. Overdressed matrons with flashy gold necklaces draped from their necks lounged on the plush sofas. Squealing children scampered about. Small knots of men huddled in the corners, fingering prayer beads as they chat about the events of the day.

Fast-forward to October 24, 2005 _ and back to the Palestine, now almost deserted except for a handful of journalists, American soldiers and security guards. I’m standing in the hallway, a deafening explosion shakes the building. Clouds of white smoke rush into the hallway. Adrenalin pumping, people shouting, security guards scampering up and down the hall checking to see if anyone is hurt.

A suicide bomber had attacked, detonating his cement truck just inside the blast walls surrounding the Palestine and the Sheraton across the street. Had it not been for those barriers and automatic fire from American soldiers, the bomber might well have brought down the hotel. When the dust cleared, both hotels were intact, damaged but not destroyed.

Back in 1982, the hotel was known as the Palestine Meridien, run by a French chain and built in the heyday of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It may have lacked the glitter of the nearby Sheraton. But it was comfortable in a nouveau riche sort of way. The mattress was soft, the hot water plentiful. From the rooftop restaurant, patrons could sip drinks and gaze out on all of Baghdad, the storied city of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, fabled capital of the Muslim caliphate, poised for new glory days fueled by oil.

Or so it seemed at the time. And why not? Oil was flowing, and business was booming. The war with Iran, then in its third year, seemed distant, although the front lines were less than 100 miles to the east. Saddam was at the height of his powers _ and his ruthlessness. But for those who steered clear of politics, life was good.

I had come to Baghdad along with about a dozen other journalist at the invitation of Saddam’s government, which wanted to spruce up Iraq’s image in the Western media. Saddam needed help from the Americans and the Europeans in his war with Iran, and he needed good press to get it.

The West needed Saddam to hold back Islamic fervor from Iran. The Americans and their allies feared Islamic revolution more than just another Arab dictator in a region full of Arab dictators. The thinking was that selling him weapons would help keep the Iranians at bay, while getting back some of those billions of dollars flowing into Iraq and other oil-producing countries.

The Palestine was a microcosm of Saddam’s Iraq _ calm on the surface but with corruption and tension just beneath the surface. Some of those men lolling about the lobby worked for the secret police, keeping an eye on everyone and listening in on private conversations. Need money? Call room service and order something from the Sri Lankan employee, referred to jokingly as ``the Sri Lankan National Bank.″ Soon he would appear, tray in hand. But food wasn’t the purpose of the visit. Once inside the room, he closed the door, turned up the radio to drown out listening devices, lifted his pant’s leg and produced wads of black market cash strapped to his calf.

About 15 years later, I returned to the Palestine. The ``Meridien″ name was gone due to international sanctions imposed after Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. Gone, too, were many of the customers. Sanctions kept foreign businessmen away, and few Iraqis had spare cash for a night on the town. Still, the hotel was functioning, and the staff smiled as patrons strolled inside to escape the broiling heat.

Customers flowed back in 2003, a mixed blessing for the Iraqi staff. It was the eve of war and Western journalists feared the Rasheed Hotel would become a target because of Saddam regime bomb shelters nearby. Most of the journalists checked into the Palestine, which offered a clear view of the Republican Palace and other government buildings that were bombed in the ``shock and awe″ air campaign.

From the rooftop of the Palestine, television crews recorded the arrival of American tanks, maneuvering across the Tigris River in what’s now called the Green Zone. Saddam’s information minister stood on the roof, assuring reporters that U.S. troops were nowhere near the city. Two journalists died in the Palestine when an American tank shell slammed into the hotel on April 8, 2003. The next day, journalists watched from the Palestine as U.S. Marines hauled down the statue of Saddam at the traffic circle behind the hotel to the cheers of thousands of jubilant Iraqis.

Three years later, the euphoria is gone, sapped by car bombings, explosions, gunfire and shadowy death squads. Gone too are virtually all the Palestine’s guests. Whole floors are empty. The rooftop bar is long closed. The presence of blast walls, armed security guards and American troops don’t do much to encourage business. The compound looks more like Fort Apache, an island of relative safety for a handful of journalists living in what the U.S. military refers to as the ``red zone.″

Beyond the walls, Iraqi soldiers fire weapons in the air from time to time to clear traffic jams around the circle where Saddam’s statue once stood. From the balconies of the Palestine, you can stare at the long lines at the local gasoline station _ or the cafe across the street where insurgents keep an eye on traffic in and out of the hotel. The once well manicured banks of the Tigris are so overgrown with weeds that they obscure a swing set, a relic of bygone days when the area was a park. Outdoor fish restaurants that once lined the banks are now rusting shells.

As for the Palestine, workmen have almost finished repairing the damage from the October truck bombing. The hotel gift shop, whose glass walls were shattered in the blast, is open again, restocked with Iraqi handicrafts. The glass has been replaced in the lobby, too, and the computer terminals are back online in the Business Center.

Trouble is, there’s no business. But if the war ends and peace returns, maybe someday.

Robert H. Reid


AP Correspondent Antonio Castaneda is embedded with the Army’s 1st Battalion, 187th Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.


WEDNESDAY, May 3, 11:33 p.m. local


To stay or go that was the question I pondered in the bathroom as explosions rumbled outside.

In many cities across Iraq, large explosions are common part of life. Many times the explosions are what troops call ``controlled dets,″ or detonations of captured weapons by explosives experts. But many other times the blasts can be mortar attack or roadside bomb attacks and it’s often hard to tell what’s causing the explosion.

This time I was on a base outside the city of Beiji, where attacks have spiked in the last week. I heard three explosions in a row, which made me think it was a mortar attack. But the blasts could have also been ``daisy chained″ roadside bombs, or explosives strung out on a road in an attempt to hit multiple vehicles at once. I simply didn’t know, and I wasn’t going to find out in this stall.

I heard a soldier outside mutter an expletive, which supported the case that it was a mortar attack. I wondered if I should get out and go to my trailer or to the bunker outside.

The same thing happened last week when I was taking a shower in a trailer in the violent Dora neighborhood in south Baghdad. A series of explosions shook the shower trailer I was in, and I could feel a gush of air. I suspected that the explosions were controlled they were a little too loud and close by to be mortars so I bet correctly and safely continued lathering my hair.

Even in these conditions, most people press on with their lives, hoping that they can skirt by the violence for yet another day.

I’ve seen kids walk to school in Baghdad as automatic weapons shoot just a few blocks away. Yesterday, I spoke to a man and his young son just minutes after their passing car was accidentally shot up after a roadside bomb exploded near a U.S. patrol. The man calmly talked to soldiers and his young boy smiled with chocolate smeared around his lips. The boy’s candy bar was still on the floorboard, now surrounded by shards of glass from a shattered windshield.

I wonder how people elsewhere would have appeared just minutes after surviving such an attack. Other bystanders came by and casually lifted their shirts to show shrapnel wounds. If anything, Iraqis are certainly a resilient people.

American soldiers and civilians also quickly acclimate to the environment. I’ve slept through several mortar attacks, or abruptly woken up and dozed off seconds later. Sometimes all you can do is hope and pray that no one was hurt out there.

As for the bathroom, I stayed inside for a moment and then strolled to my trailer a few minutes later. No one was outside to query, so I just chalked it up as another blast of unknown origin.

As I write this, another blast was heard in the distance, rattling my windows. This time I stayed in my trailer and continued listening to a Tom Waits song on my laptop.

_Antonio Castaneda