"Do you wake up in the morning thinking this day you might be killed?" I asked Dr. Aiham al-Sammarae (search).
It was an indelicate but reasonable question. He is a minister in the new Iraqi government. A hundred top Iraqi officials have been killed by militants since the fall of Saddam Hussein (search), according to one account. Just in the last week, a governor of an important Iraqi city and several other officials have been assassinated, the convoys of the justice and foreign ministers have been attacked and buildings associated with the prime minister have been rocketed.
His answer was incredibly matter-of-fact: "Yes. I am always saying this day is my last day." (Al-Sammarae's own home was fired upon while he was inside. His guards fired back and caught three of the attackers.)
Incredibly though, al-Sammarae isn't calling it quits. Good thing for the Iraqis. This returned Iraqi exile (former resident of Oak Brook, Illinois) has one of the most important jobs in Iraq's government right now, heading the Department of Electricity. With Baghdad temperatures regularly soaring over 120 degrees and saboteurs trying to smash up the energy infrastructure, the pressure is on. He knows: "I have to work harder to succeed," he told me.
During my latest tour of Iraq, I met many people like that: brave and hard-working Iraqis, Americans and others, trying to make this "new" Iraq work, often against huge odds, often with varying degrees of optimism. Here are some of their stories:
— Dr. Hakki Razouki. He's the director of Baghdad's al-Yarmouk hospital (search), one of the biggest in hospitals town. It's close to an area of the city often targeted by terrorists, so the hospital gets much more than its share of mutilated victims of horror. Razouki walked me through long, crowded wards, showed me dilapidated machinery left over from the cunning and corrupt regime of Saddam, opened medicine cabinets barely half-stocked with supplies of varying usefulness.
He didn't stop moving during the few minutes he shared with me. I got the feeling that if he did pause, a few more people would die. All the doctors and aides I saw around him were literally working at a "fever" pitch. He also didn't stop complaining. But it wasn't so much a whine as a heartfelt plea of a professional who wanted his remarkable staff to be better equipped.
"The Iraqi people need these things to live," Dr. Razouki told me.
— Lt. Col. Charles Sexton. Sexton is the tough-talking commander of the 1st A.D.'s 1st Battalion 36th Infantry Regiment, which was recently charged with patrolling a stretch of a highway that had been dubbed the "road of death." The route linking the Baghdad airport with the city has earned its ominous name because it has seen more terror attacks than most highways see traffic jams. On the day I was out with his men, it was hot, dusty and windy — basically as unpleasant as you can imagine. Col. Sexton's men were hunkering down in sweltering Bradley vehicles or tromping along the highway, looking for killers.
"Make sure you tell the folks about what my guys are going through," the fatherly Sexton instructed me. In fact, what his "guys" had done, aside from sweating gallons and gallons of Gatorade, was reduce the number of attacks on the road from a horrible high of 40 a day ... to at most one or two.
— A young Baghdad mother of two. She doesn't work but she has a full-time job: worrying about her children and her husband (I won't identify her for this report — she's got enough to be concerned with). While officials are being assassinated and foreigners are getting kidnapped, regular Iraqis are targeted as well, mostly by criminals for monetary gain. The woman told me about one family whose child was held by thugs. Another elderly man was scooped up for a hoped-for ransom. And she received at least one or two suspicious calls concerning her own children.
The woman told me about the anguish she feels when she hears the terror bombs detonating, her struggle to run a household when electricity can go out at any time, her desire to enjoy a night on the town with her friends, like she did before the war. And while she's been holding it together in Baghdad, she told me she's thinking about leaving the country with her kids to stay with relatives abroad, at least until things settle down.
Her outlook explains why Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's tough talk about security is resonating so deeply these days with the Iraqi people. Allawi understands that safety is the No. 1 concern of all Iraqis. He also seems eager to provide it for the people of Iraq. I was there in small government office last month when sovereignty was finally handed over from Paul Bremer to Allawi and his leadership team. Bremer appeared a bit tired (and relieved). The prime minister looked like he couldn't wait to get started.
And, in fact, in the weeks following the handover, I witnessed a genuine change on the streets of Baghdad. Gone were the regular trundling patrols of Bradleys and Humvees. The blast walls and sand-filled Hesco barriers are still all around the city. But Iraqis have taken the place of American troops. When a mortar blew up a few blocks from our FOX News office I watched for an hour as Iraqi police and emergency vehicles came to the rescue.
The level of violence appears to be holding steady. Sirens continue to fill the nights in Baghdad. When I left a few days ago, car bomb attacks rocked the country, just as they had when I arrived a month earlier.
The Iraqi security forces are not quite up to speed when it comes to restoring order. In one case, what should have been a routine Iraqi patrol through a Baghdad neighborhood turned into a deadly rout by anti-government elements. U.S. military stepped in to help fight the guerrillas.
But on a positive note, the government of Iraq is actually doing something. And the loud pessimism I heard from several quarters when I first arrived in the country last month has at least be replaced by a careful optimism.
This focus of the people on Iraq's future was also illustrated by Saddam's appearance during my stay. In a bold and somewhat risky move, Allawi decided to haul Saddam and his cronies into the dock a scant two days after the Iraqis gained sovereignty. I had crawled around the former dictator's "spider hole" hideout near Tikrit last December, so I — like just about everyone in Iraq — was curious to see how the guy was getting on.
I'd say members of FOX News' local Iraqi staff were "transfixed" by the video of Saddam's appearance, but that would be an understatement. After all, this was the man who had completely dominated their lives for so long. He actually scored some points that day. His cocky replies to the investigating judge reading the list of charges against him were bound to impress some. One Iraqi with whom I spoke said Saddam's mere presence served as a reminder of an era when people didn't have to worry about improvised explosive devices planted in their gardens.
But the appearance also reminded the Iraqis (if they really needed it) of Saddam's vicious reign. It also reminded people that the former dictator and his gang of crusty cronies were firmly in the clutches of the new Iraqi government and their U.S.-led military allies.
And as quickly as he came, Saddam was gone. Not to be seen again, I am told, for maybe a year and half until the beginning of his trial. Out of sight, out of the headlines and the news, and out of the minds of many in Iraq as they quickly returned to the task at hand: making the country a better place.
The risks ahead for the country are huge. Several doomsday scenarios loom in the back of Iraqis' minds: continuing and worsening terror from inside and out; civil war between a variety of factions; the formation of religious, political or ethnic fiefdoms; or the ascent of a government like Saddam's.
My own opinion, for what it's worth, is that Iraqis will pull through. It will be messy, but there are enough smart people around and enough resources in the country to make it happen. It is going to take longer than expected, cost more in money and lives than was predicted, and the end product won't quite look like the model democracy that was envisaged. But there are too many people with an incentive to succeed to let the country flounder.
People like Electricity Minister al-Sammarae who is hard at work, but only in between wise-cracks. You see, he also has a sense of humor. But it's more Borscht Belt than Babylonian. I asked him which Muslim sect he and his wife belonged to. He brushed off the question quickly, saying: "One of us is Sunni ... the other is Shiite. We're Sushi!"
When I asked him what his wife, taking care of the kids in Illinois for the time being, thought of his efforts, I expected to hear a recitation of some brave words from his "better half." Instead, he looked at me with a half-grin like some kid who had just got caught skipping school and confided, "She's pissed!"
But he'll continue to put up with harangues from the home front in order to see that his life's vision of a free and functioning Iraq is achieved. He has no choice.
"It's like being with a group of guys and you're trying to do something, like climb up a mountain," he said. "You can't tell the guys in the middle, 'Oh, I'm tired, I'm going to leave you.' You already committed to them to go all the way up."
Keep on climbing, Dr. al-Sammarae.