Reporter's Notebook: Smoke and Mirrors in Iraq

Dana Lewis

The questions are simple ones: Is Iraq improving? Will Iraqis support the democratic process? Or is the country becoming more divided and heading for civil war?

Right now, just days away from Sunday's elections, it's hard to see through the smoke and mirrors to find the answers.

Part of the difficulty in figuring out what's what comes from the U.S. military, which always takes such an upbeat tone that you can't take everything you're told by commanders at face value.

The very essence of their mission is to stay focused, push ahead and concentrate on the positives.

One officer who stays on message is Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Hammond, who tells me, "We are winning. You gotta talk about our success."

Standing near his convoy of Humvees in the center of Baghdad, he says that in the poorest and toughest part of the Iraqi capital, Sadr City, an angry shot hasn't been fired at soldiers in almost two months because the Army spent $1 billion to get 15,000 Shiites back to work building roads and sewers.

Hammond said an Army tip line gets 40 calls from Iraqis each week.

"We get a call that someone has two cars wired with explosives in their garage ready to set them off," Hammond told me. "The next day, we raid the place and sure enough, we find the cars and explosives. That tells you people want us here."

But these anecdotes come on the day a Marine helicopter goes down, killing 31 service members, five GIs are killed in separate ambushes and a sixth is killed by a roadside bomb.

That's not all. The deadly day also saw eight car bombs explode across Iraq, political offices attacked in a half-dozen places, two schools to be used as polling stations bombed and a video released showing three kidnapped election workers pleading for their lives.

There are so many incidents, I can't fit them into my hourly updates on the FOX News Channel. Any one of them is serious enough to warrant its own news story, rather than be lumped into the daily storm of violence that sweeps across this country like a sandstorm.

Adding another layer to it all, the U.S. State Department reports that as many as five Americans are being held hostage by insurgents. Most have not been heard from for several months.

Reporters can't walk the streets, and are advised not to drive on them unless absolutely necessary. This means the story sometimes has to come to us.

May Younan Tawfik, a candidate with the Christian Independent Party, agrees to meet me in our hotel for an interview.

May carries an election pamphlet she hands out at church, because it's the only safe place to campaign for political office. The pamphlet doesn't give her name or picture, just the number of her party: 204.

Most of Iraq's older people won't dare to go out to vote on Sunday because it's too dangerous, she says.

But she believes "many young people won't hesitate."

"Sure, it's dangerous, but I am willing to die for this, and so are a lot of other people," May tells me. "We want democracy, and we want Iraq to move forward."

There are some encouraging signs on the eve of the vote. For one thing, it's a victory in and of itself that the elections are happening at all.

And the Islamic Independent Party, the main voice of the Sunnis in Iraq, announced Wednesday that while it won't participate in the election, it will take a role in writing the new constitution after the votes are counted.

That's vital, because the constitution must be written by August and then approved in a nationwide referendum.

If 75 percent of people in three provinces vote against the referendum, the constitution will have to be scuttled and a new election will take place. The Sunnis have the power to sabotage the constitutional process, but apparently they now agree to support it.

Either way, Iraq must have permanent elections in December.

So in this first real election in Iraq, it seems the Christians will cast ballots, the Shiites will vote because their spiritual leaders have said it's a religious duty and the Kurds will also go to the polls.

While Sunnis may not endorse an election that promises to end their minority domination of Iraq, some tell me it will be a step toward getting rid of American occupation and bringing back some sense of security. A small number of them will also vote.

"We will get half the population of Baghdad to vote," Brig. Gen. Hammond predicts, "and even by American voting standards, 50 percent voter turnout is pretty good."

After the elections, Iraq will face more challenges, among them getting the army to take over security affairs from the Americans, increasing water and power supplies and settling into a stable government.

That's the rosy picture.

But as I write this, the window in my room shudders from another bomb blast a few blocks away. I can't help thinking that the insurgents are unlikely to just melt away the day after the elections.

It already seems that the election will not be the defining chapter in the struggle to stabilize Iraq. Through the smoke and mirrors of Baghdad, it's hard to see far enough into the future to know what will be.