My last entry spoke of the Palestine Hotel as a sanctuary. It is, though a fragile one at that.
Near the war's end, the U.S. military took a pot shot at the hotel, killing one journalist. Today, it is surrounded by concrete barricades that stretch a block in all directions. We usually get frisked twice before arriving at the front door.
You feel secure enough from the small arms fire that crackle at night. But not from the bigger stuff. On our last night, just before we turned in, the hotel shook from several explosions. We thought maybe a bomb had detonated, and it sounded and felt close.
I ran to the lobby where a group of reporters from CNN and various news outlets had already arrived, with helmets and armored vests. They headed out to check on the damage. I tagged along. After a couple blocks, we were stopped by a middle-aged, blonde-haired American in civilian clothes who put up his hands and warned us to shut off the cameras.
He told us that the insurgents had lobbed several mortars at the Baghdad Hotel down the street. There had been no direct hits, and no casualties.
At least one shell had fallen into a garden; another splashed into the nearby Tigris River.
We could have stayed and badgered this guy for access. But he seemed truthful, and there were no helicopters hovering or ambulances rushing to the scene.
If it was just another off-target mortar attack, and no one wanted to stand around and risk another attack. So we trooped back to the hotel for an uneasy rest.
We woke early the next morning and met our translator at 7 a.m. for the ride out of Baghdad.
We had no problems with bandits or traffic accidents. Our only hassle along the way was getting stuck for about 45 minutes behind a large truck that just couldn't seem to make it up and over a ramp on a narrow bridge spanning the Tigris.
The driver had to make four separate runs at the ramp, with a huge snarl of traffic having to back up and give him room to get up a head of speed. Finally, he made it over.
After the traffic jams of Baghdad, this relatively lightly traveled route was a welcome change. But an evening rain had left much of the road coated in treacherous mud, which made for difficult driving. It was easy to fishtail out of control. We passed by more flat open land, with the few villages along the highway -- a sorry mix of mud and trash and rundown homes.
It took us about four hours to reach our next destination, the Shiite Muslim town of Qal'at Sukkar. This is a farming community of some 30,000 people that the Marines swept through in their spring drive to Baghdad. There were hardly any firefights in town, so it survived relatively intact except for a few chunks out of a minaret, where a sniper tried to fire on the troops.
A family is graciously hosting us. We sleep on comfortable mats in a room covered with Persian rugs, and our room also doubles as place for meals and long hours of conversation. After so much time at the military bases and the Palestine Hotel, this time has been a real privilege.
The town is like many -- the school is run down, the streets are filled with gray water from kitchens and even the soccer field is largely flooded and unusable.
After years of suffering under the rule of Saddam Hussein, the people here are certainly glad to be rid of him. That joy is tempered by the frustrations of insecurity and joblessness. And people here, like those we met elsewhere in our travels, are eager to see a functioning government and reconstruction.
In some places in the south, this frustration has boiled over. Within the past week, another southern town was the scene of several days of protests over the lack of jobs, with British troops killing a half dozen Iraqis.
This afternoon, I met Ya'arub Na'ama Al-Zaabi, who is secretary of the local chapter of the Iraq National Association for Human Rights. The group was set up last spring to try to gain compensation for the victims of Saddam Hussein's rule, and also those families who have suffered under the U.S. invasion due to detentions or wartime casualties.
He works out of a bare bones one-room office that opens up to a roundabout near the police station. It is a one of 14 such offices that Al-Zaabi says his association -- financed with donations from Iraqis -- scattered about the south. This group is financed from local donations, and has not formed any ties to international organizations, he said.
The Qal'at Sukkar local chapter has list of some 200 families who had relatives killed or imprisoned under Saddam Hussein's rule, and that probably is just a small fraction of the total number in this town.
He also has compiled a list of about 55 prisoners of war. Some fought on behalf of the Iraqi Army. Others were released after further investigation found no evidence to support their detention, according to U.S. military statements that Al-Zaabi showed to me.
The questions of when - or if - these people will receive compensation has yet to be resolved. Al-Zaabi says he hopes that the new Iraqi government, scheduled to be formed following June elections, will offer this compensation.
Perhaps there will be a legal process that moves through the courts. One possible source of cash could be the billions of dollars that Saddam Hussein is thought to have stashed abroad. Of course, investigators would first have to track it down, and secure this money.
"We hope something like this can happen," Al-Zaabi said. "All this money it belong to the Iraqi people."