Today, I got an unexpected glimpse of the New Iraq, post-Saddam Hussein. I came upon 50 men and women and children standing along a busy avenue near the entrance to the U.S.-controlled Green Zone.
They were protesting, something they were quick to confirm was unthinkable during Saddam's iron-fisted rule, but now they said it was necessary to draw attention to their plight.
They represented poor families who had moved into modest brick apartments that Saddam had kept as a kind of guest complex just outside the Green Zone. These apartments were now their homes, and they said they had gotten the approval of the U.S.-led coalition government to stay in them. And they were very angry when Baghdad's police began to try to roust them from their new home.
Some protestors said the apartments held many sick and elderly people who had had nowhere else to go. Yet the police appeared determined to throw them out.
"They, (the police) are looking for gunslingers by day but by night they are the gunslingers," said Sabba Yousif, a 25-year-old college student who lives in the complex with his family. The police were threatening to kick them out this weekend.
The families made a big banner that summarized their plight in English. It ended with a plea to Paul Bremer - the top American official here in Baghdad - to intercede on their behalf.
"You are kindly requested to consider our circumstances as soon as possible with due respect and appreciation," the banner read.
While we watched the protestors, there were no signs of Bremer. But we did see a bunch of police and Ministry of Interior cars roll by. The protestors fearlessly crowded around the vehicles and jeered. "If you do something like this, we will fight you," cried one man.
The police inside smiled sheepishly, and kept driving.
Life goes on
Elsewhere, our Baghdad driver and translator is a former government official who showed us the various bombed out buildings from the collapse of the old regime. There is still all sorts of rubble that has yet to be cleared away, and also major buildings that were burned by looters and now are just multi-story eyesores.
But there is plenty of commerce on the streets of Baghdad. All over town, we spotted sidewalk sales offering everything from bananas to the latest Panasonic videos. Our translator said it's another story at night, when the fear of crime is still a huge concern and drives Baghdad residents into their homes in far greater numbers than in pre-war days.
Despite the constant threats, dangers and deaths, Baghdad is a resilient big city. Life goes on, even during conflict.
The restaurants are busy. Baghad knows its kabobs and grilled chickens. We had some really savory fare over the last few days, along with fresh-baked flat breads served up in gigantic circles the size of extra-large dinner plates.