It was a shock today to see Saddam Hussein's old Ministry of Information, on the West side of the Tigris in central Baghdad. In more recent times, the building has been known as the headquarters of the Baghdad Provinical Council. Until October 25, that is, when the building was shattered in one of three massive suicide bombings that killed 155 Iraqis.
It's been seven years since I've been to Baghdad--I don't count two quick in-and-out visits in the protective bubble accompanying secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice in 2004 and 2006 respectively--and the city is utterly transformed, both physically and in less obvious ways. In between, there's been a U.S. invasion, an insurgency, unspeakable violence, and Iraq's halting attempts at democratic politics. A lifetime--several lifetimes--in other words.
The idea of a terrorist bombing against a government building in dowtown Baghdad was virtually unthinkable under Saddam's regime. There was violence aplenty, to be sure, but almost all of it emanated from a single source--Saddam--who slaughtered Shi'ites, gassed and displaced Kurds, and jailed, tortured and murdered anyone deemed to be even a remote threat. Such was Saddam's cult that it used to be said that you could not be in any public place in Iraq without seeing his image somewhere. And, I can tell you, it was damn near true.
The pendulum between chaos and dictatorship is one that is all too familiar to the modern Middle East. It's been either the strong-man dictator or the failing state. Today, as 2009 edges toward a close, Iraq seems to be flailing about somewhere in the middle--closer to disorder, with authoritarian tendencies revealing themselves quite a bit, and with Iraqis trying to see if they can make democratic politics work. The latter is no sure bet.
And the blocky white Ministry of Information building--imagine a really ugly government building a tad in the old socialist style, and you got it--is evidence that Iraq's state remains anemic. One end is buckled and mangled from the explosion. Terrorists, probably from Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), have been systematically targeting the pillars of government, and are expected to keep doing so.
I have a soft spot in my heart for the Information Ministry, although I can't imagine why. It was the place where the few Western reporters in Saddam Hussein's Iraq would go to get the endless permissions needed to operate in the country, and find a local assistant/translator and driver (who doubled as spying eyes for the regime) to work with. (I don't blame them. They had no choice). For the privilege, we handed over large sums of U.S. hard currency and waited endlessly, smoking cigarettes (I smoked backed then) in the dingy press area.
One thing hasn't changed in 7 years. America's attention wavers. While the United States still has 120,000 servicemen and servicewomen here, and has invested enormous blood and treasure, it's hard to find Iraq on U.S. TV screens or newspaper front pages unless there's a terrorist spectacular. In December 1998, I was in Baghdad covering President Bill Clinton's four-day bombing campaign, called Operation Desert Fox, in response to Saddam's refusal to allow full U.N. weapons inspections. In the middle of this huge event, what did we see on CNN as we sat, waiting, on the Information Ministry's first floor? The Clinton impeachment debate, and the suprise admission by Republican House Speaker-elect Robert Livingston that he, too, had had an extramarital affair.