Almost a year after the last American troops departed Iraq, Baghdad is changing. It is still tired and worn down after decades of dictatorship, sanctions and war. But outside the checkpoints and the blast walls that demarcate the International Zone where the American embassy sits, and most Americans and Iraqi politicians live, Iraqis are reclaiming their city.
U.S. efforts to reconstruct and develop Iraq have in many instances failed. Almost a decade after the initial shock and awe, Iraqis still lack steady electricity and drink tap water at their own risk, while poor drainage still leaves sewage running down streets when winter rains come. Still, not all was for naught: two successful projects – keeping the oil industry running and issuance of a new currency – have enabled Iraq to meet its payroll and jump start the economy.
Baghdad may lag behind the rest of Iraq – security and foreign investment have fueled an economic boom not only in Iraqi Kurdistan, but also across southern Iraq – but even the capital city's moribund economy is sparking to life. Korean and Japanese car dealerships dot Karrada and Baghdad's other central neighborhoods. Students lounge around and gossip at the University of Baghdad – a virtual ghost town at the height of the insurgency. Traffic lights are again working, even if Iraqis consider red lights strictly optional. Across the city, Baghdadis of all religious practices have started to return to restaurants. And new restaurants have sprung up to cater to them. Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians, all gather at the Lebanese Club, a two-year-old restaurant that brings live music to the banks of the Tigris. Old standbys like the Latakia Restaurant have recently expanded. As in the 1970s, families have once again returned to outdoor restaurants on Abu Nawas Street for carp barbequed in the traditional Iraqi fashion. Beer and whiskey are available, albeit from surreptitious vendors who say the police raids they face have less to do with imposing religious values and more to do with disputes over who should receive their bribes.
The first major Iraqi government projects will soon come online. A Tigris River water intake and purification plant should supply most of the city with clean drinking water within months. Crews are also actively landscaping, tree planting, and laying garden paths alongside the 25-kilometer Army Canal. The result will be a park that transforms Baghdad's social and cultural landscape.
Accusations Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has become a dictator are exaggerated. Certainly, he has sought to consolidate power in order to govern, but his authority still pales beside that of other Middle Eastern leaders, and adheres more to rule of law than his neighbors in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, Syria and even Turkey. It certainly is a healthy sign that Maliki's portrait remains conspicuously absent from public space. Unlike Masoud Barzani, his counterpart in Iraqi Kurdistan, Maliki understands Iraqis fought to bring Saddam's portrait down, not simply to replace it with another personality cult. Regardless, rather than second guess Maliki's rule, a better strategy would be to promote free elections in 2014. Returning the "independent" to the now-partisan Independent High Electoral Commission would be a good place to start.
Other problems abound. Oil prices subsidize a bloated state sector. Employees sit idle; most ministries could function with a fraction of their staff. Banking is rudimentary and corruption is endemic. Iraqis tell a joke about Maliki at the White House. "How much money does the average American make per year?" Maliki enquires. "$48,000" responds Obama, "but it only costs $11,000 to live." "What do they do with the extra $37,000?" Maliki asks. "Well, we're a democracy so I don't ask," Obama says. Obama then turns the tables on Maliki. "We make on average $3,900 per year," Maliki says," but it costs $5,000 to live." "Where do Iraqis get the extra $1,100?" Obama asks. "I don't ask," Maliki explains, "because we're a democracy!"
It is unfair to label Maliki an Iranian puppet. Iraqis do embrace their Shiism openly, and billboards of grand ayatollahs abound. When it comes to the relationship between Arabs and Persians, nationalism trumps sectarian solidarity. During the Iran-Iraq War, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiite conscripts fought their Iranian co-religionists; they did not defect to the Iranian side. Many Iraqis cheer the collapse of the Iranian currency not only for the blow it strikes to Iranian arrogance, but also for the opportunities it provides to buy low in Tehran and sell high in Baghdad.
Nor does Maliki's arrest and trial of Tariq al-Hashemi make Maliki a dictator or Iranian stooge. Iraqis – including from competitor Ayad Allawi's own Iraqiya list – acknowledge Hashemi's likely guilt; the justices who passed sentence came from a variety of political backgrounds. Rather than rally around a politician with blood on his hands, many Iraqis sought consistency: Iraqis accuse Muqtada al-Sadr and Masrour Barzani, among others, of the same crimes and hope that they will also stand trial.
Maliki is a realist, however: With U.S. forces gone, he can no longer play Tehran and Washington off each other to preserve his own independent freedom of action. Iraqi negotiators said that no matter what they offered, the Obama administration would not take yes for an answer when it came to maintaining residual American presence.
Iraq is too important to ignore or forget. Constant American pressure has kept Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq under house arrest, even after Iraqi courts ordered him released from prison. American pressure too has helped Maliki stand up to Iran and force down Syria-bound Iranian planes for inspection to ensure they are not carrying sanctions-busting arms to Bashar al-Assad's murderous regime.
Fear of the future looms in Baghdad, but so does excitement at the possibility that Iraq could emerge from the morass in which it now sits. Russians and Chinese are already pouring in to be a part of the future, but Americans are falling behind. Too many Americans appear willing to sacrifice Iraq's future upon the altar of their own antagonism toward George W. Bush. That would not only be tragic for Iraqis, but also for American national security.