US TROOPS AT CHECKPOINT
Hadi Mizban  /  AP
US troops frisk motorists at a mobile checkpoint in Baghdad, Iraq before dawn Friday March 12, 2004. US troops and Iraqis working for the Coalition forces are the target of almost daily attacks by insurgents. (AP Photo/Hadi MIzban)
By Producer
NBC News
updated 3/19/2004 3:41:27 PM ET 2004-03-19T20:41:27

A year later, the visual difference in Baghdad is stark.

Tall cement barriers reminiscent of the Berlin Wall surround the remaining standing structures of government. The Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Health are among the casualties.

Barbed wires, armed guards, and checkpoints greet visitors at the entrances of police stations, army bases, and even hotels. Saddam's former palace, now occupied by the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, looks like a maximum-security prison.

But the biggest change is the variety of voices and opinions expressed by the citizens. There is a buzz in the air.

Prior to the war, there was only the uniformity of fear — now it is a mixture of expectations and disappointments.

Walking down an alley of the bazaar in the center of the old city of Baghdad, evidence of its ancient roots are ever present.

Colorful tiles line the archways to a small mosque. Tiny stalls selling all manner of stationary goods fill the passageway. A cigarette vendor slouches in the entrance to the alley watching the midday sun gleam in the distance.

Security headaches
The Al Shah Bandar coffee shop stands at the edge of the book market. An old-style meeting place, the room is filled with retirees in dapper suits, well coiffed, sitting on old wooden benches, sipping lemon tea, puffing on water pipe hookahs and reading their favorite newspapers. Black-and-white pictures from the days of the Ottoman Empire adorn the walls.

Adnan Al T'ee is in a deep conversation with his friends. Al T'ee worked as the director of the Import Section for the Ministry of Interior. He has traveled extensively and speaks German and halting English. He retired in 1987.

The subject of the discussion recently was the plan for elections in Iraq. Under the recently agreed interim constitution, elections are to be held by the end of the year.

"I am against elections right now,” Al T’ee said. “It will lead to another dictatorship. We need a coalition government that will respect the rights of all minorities."

Ahmed Taha  /  NBC News
Men gather in Al Shah Bandar coffee shop.
Al T’ee was dressed in a gray pin-stripped suit and a bright-red tie. He fidgeted with his orange scarf. A pure white cotton skullcap sat comfortably on his head.

He chose his words carefully. “We started to believe our dreams will come true when the war started. Our quality of life was going to improve. We would have more public services. We would become a more prosperous society. We are still in the state of expectation."

Some of Al T'ee's friends nodded in agreement.

Al T'ee has received only a small portion of his pension since the end of the war. "This chaos we live in has been created by the lack of security. The CPA should have provided us with better security," he said.

Al T'ee doesn't fear a civil war, despite the political instability. "As a society we are too interconnected with family ties," he said. "I am a Shiite and my wife a Sunni. My son is married to Kurd. We are all intertwined."

Despite all the difficulties — the bombings, the nightly rattle of machine-gun fire, the inter-ethnic political posturing — Al T'ee is upbeat.

"We acquired the first step toward democracy, the ability to express ourselves freely and I am optimistic."

A woman's role
A heavy Iraqi police presence outside the offices of the Iraqi Governing Council underlines the transformation in the postwar era.

In another radical change, a conference by the National Council for Women was recently held in Iraq. Leading the conference was Dr. Rajaa Al Kuzai, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. 

Al Kuzai practiced medicine in the southern town of Diwaniya, some 100 miles from the capital. In May of last year she was asked to create a woman's organization by the city council. After a few meetings in Diwaniya she found herself face to face with Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq and the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Unsure of what was going on, Al Kuzai kept answering Bremer's questions.

"Suddenly, Mr. Bremer said to me, 'Congratulations,you have the job.' I was very surprised and replied, 'What job?' He told me that I have a seat on the [Governing] Council. I told him I have to ask my family before I can accept. Of course, when I talked to my husband he told me that I have been saving Iraqi lives all these years, now I have a chance to save Iraq."

Slideshow: Year of conflict Al Kuzai, dressed in a smart black suit, her head covered with a bright purple headscarf and her face showing a hint of make up, sat up when she her heard the term "occupation" used in a question.

"Occupation, not occupation. Liberation, we were liberated from the tyrant Saddam!" 

She straightened herself up and continued, "You have to understand that before the liberation our future was gloomy. We could not make any plans. But now we feel tomorrow will be bright.

"We still have many problems. We need to educate and train women. They have been so humiliated during the last regime. We need to find them work so they can support themselves and their families. We need to provide them with a better life and a better future."

The doctor who never thought of going into politics is planning to stand for office when elections take place.

"Somehow I have become a symbol for Iraqi women. I need to continue my participation in this process as an encouragement for other Iraqi women to join politics," she said.

Between the ire of the conservatives from her community for joining the Governing Council and the assassination of a council colleague, Akila Al Hashimi, last September, Al Kuzai relies on bodyguards for her safety. "We have no choice but to fulfill our duty, otherwise the Americans will never leave."

Sadr City
"We were looking forward to this day," said Hussien Ali Shaheed said. "We knew getting rid of Saddam's regime would be to our advantage. Today I can walk around Baghdad freely and not fear dawn visitors."

Hussien Ali Shaheed stood by his modest house in Sadr City. Formerly Saddam City, it was renamed for a respected Shiite leader who was killed by Saddam. The neighborhood stills bears scars from years of neglect. Trash-strewn streets and alleyways house most of the capital's Shiite population.

Many of its inhabitants migrated to the capital after the government confiscated their farms.

Hussien Ali Shaheed
Ahmed Taha  /  NBC News
Hussien Ali Shaheed teaches in a Baghdad school.

Shaheed, a college graduate, teaches English in the local school. Prior to the war he earned 3,000 Iraqi dinars, about $1.50 a month. Today his finances have improved; his monthly pay has increased to over $150 a month.

Shaheed described how, in the past, if he wandered into some neighborhoods, he could be stopped and interrogated by the feared secret police, the Mukhabarat.

If they did not like his answers, they would swoop down to his house in the early hours of the morning and whisk him away. Some people never returned from those dawn visits.

"We are fed up with wars and struggles. It is time to rebuilt Iraq,” Shaheed said.

In a gesture of the hospitality that is renown in this part of the world, Shaheed brought in a tray of sodas. "A true advantage of liberation,” he said, flashing a smile. “Before the war, a soda was a luxury for me and my family."

He would like the opportunity to travel abroad to continue his studies and return to help his fellow Iraqis. "In Saddam's time even dreaming was forbidden," he said.

"But now I am optimistic about the future." Shaheed insisted that the only suitable way to fulfill that future is through a secular democratic government. He wants an American presence to help stabilize Iraq, but he also wants the "Americans not to be afraid of Iraqis."

"We are in a transitional phase and the security will only improve,” Shaheed said.

To emphasize the point, he added, "I can now buy a computer, a car or a television set.

"But I have bought something very important. Something I have dreamt about for years: a plot of land so I can build my own house."

Babek Behnam is an NBC News producer on assignment in Baghdad.

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