BAGHDAD, Iraq—The first car bomb of the day went off just as I was pulling my curtains open at about 7:30 a.m. The guards I could see standing below didn't even turn around to look for the source of the noise. On the previous day, at least 11 people had been murdered at Baghdad University and a crowd of would-be pilgrims, or hajis, torn apart by a suicide-murderer.
I never got to find out what this latest explosion had destroyed or who it had slaughtered. But up close, a pattern emerges that isn't evident at a distance: The violence in the capital isn't always as random and nihilistic as it looks. The Shiite militias are "cleansing" a whole southern belt of the city so as to have unfettered connection to their strongholds in the south of the country, and the crude demographic numbers are on their side in this horrible exercise. Some Sunnis now regret having set a precedent and given an "insurgent" excuse for this. I was told of a leader of the (Sunni) Iraqi Islamic Party who has even called for more U.S. troops to be sent here to guarantee law and order. But, as with Beirut, it is unlikely that anything will stop the confessional violence as long as either side thinks there is anything to be gained from it.
The distance between hope and despair, meanwhile, is measurable in vertiginous minutes. I flew to Baghdad from the northern city of Erbil, by the ordinary means of buying a local Iraqi Airlines ticket, boarding a plane that made a stop in Sulaymaniyah, and landing at the former Saddam Hussein International Airport. The whole exercise was almost weirdly normal. The plane was full of ordinary citizens carrying plastic hold-alls, with cheerful, unveiled hostesses handing out snacks and drinks. The terminal was quiet, and the airport road (which used to be known as "Route Irish" and was the scene of incessant mayhem) is these days considered fairly safe and has been stabilized by the Iraqi army. I stopped to be photographed with a unit of this force, a group of cheerful and professional young men. But as I waved goodbye to them, my Kurdish driver said, "Army pretty good. Police no good at all." And, indeed, the sight of a police uniform is one of the least reassuring in the whole of Iraq. It is often no more than the disguise for religious fascism or organized crime or (as was revealed yet again in Basra last week) for both.
Up and down the switchback one goes. At a party in the Green Zone featuring various politicians and intellectuals, I was told of the heartening success of the negotiations on oil revenues, with all parties agreeing in principle to share this national resource among the regions and provinces. On more or less the same day, a move in parliament to create a cross-party bloc of national unity was undone by Shiite hard-liners. In the morning, I was shown a proposal for the opening of an American University of Sulaymaniyah, offering degree courses in a wide range of subjects to students regardless of ethnic or religious origin. By the evening, I was being told of an exodus of qualified Iraqis to Jordan that now almost exceeds the number of educated people fleeing the country under Saddam Hussein.
A young Marine officer stationed in one of the toughest parts of a very tough province, a man known to me for his hostility to bullshit, insists that American forces are "kicking the shit out of al-Qaida" in his district. But soon after hearing this cheering news, I was told by a veteran journalist who sympathizes with the coalition that there is now insurgent infiltration nibbling at the edges of the very Green Zone itself, the Emerald City within which the illusion of normality can be maintained for days at a time.
It isn't so much a matter of deciding who or what to believe, because both may be simultaneously correct. Security has been "handed back" to Iraqis in Najaf. Good. In other provinces where this has happened, the reign of Khomeini-type gangs has been the consequence. The electoral discomfiture of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was considered encouraging by everyone I spoke with. Good. The arrest of Iranian diplomats, guests of the Iraqi government, on charges of aiding the violence, was the next piece of news to come my way. So it goes. NewsweekInternational carries a report of a boom in the wider Iraqi economy. Journeying back north to relatively flourishing Erbil, where there hasn't been a terrorist attack for almost three years, I found that electric power still wasn't on for more than two hours at a time.
If there is a flickering pulse that holds any of this together, it is kept going by two sources. The first is the astonishing actual and potential wealth of the country. The budget negotiations, which were occupying all parties during my visit, were to discuss the allocation of more than $41 billion. This is not a paper figure: New oil fields are being prospected in parts of the country that haven't been explored yet, and there is no reason in principle why Iraq could not be one of the most prosperous countries on earth. For the moment, feuding sects use their control over ministries to enrich their own supporters, but even the most blinkered tribalist can glimpse the idea that a shared country would be more beneficial to each than a shattered one. The second source of life is the presence of the coalition, where yet again even the most hard-line factionalist will admit that as bad as things are, they would be instantly worse (and instantly worse for his own group) in the case of a withdrawal. These facts are stubborn: The idea that we could even consider abandoning such a keystone state, and so many decent people, to the forces of the faith-based is as inhumane as it is unrealistic.