It was one of those good news/bad news offers. The good news is you get to go to Iraq to do something more than the typical schedule of live shots. The bad news is you get to go to Iraq and do more than the typical schedule of live shots. Meaning: You put yourself in as much harm's way as nearly possible to find out how people not trying to cause harm are living.
You see the point is, we, out of necessity in the business, have to cover the suicide bomb attacks, insurgent raids, and door-kicking which get most of the headlines in the Iraq story. But there is this whole mass of people in Iraq who, IN SPITE of the trouble, are getting on with their lives. And, in many cases, making their lives better than when tyrant Saddam was around.
So, for five weeks this summer, producer Grace Cutler, cameraman John Templeton, myself and others crisscrossed the country to see how folks were faring.
Watch "Winning Iraq: The Untold Story” — Saturday, 9pm / mid ET
One of the first stops was only a few blocks from where we were staying at the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad in the Haifa Street area. For months it had been one of the most dangerous places in all of Iraq. Insurgents turned the main avenue through this residential area into a bloody stream of violence. But it had since been "cleansed' of bad guys by the U.S. military, and more importantly, the new Iraqi Army. In fact, this was the first piece of "turf" handed over to the folks that essentially are our ticket out of Iraq.
I walked around the place with the Iraqi military man in charge, Brigadeer General Jaleel Khalaf Shwayel. He had been in Saddam's military up until the early '90s when Saddam realized that the Shiite might actually be counterproductive to his efforts. The folks there seemed genuinely reassured by his presence and that of his troops.
I was a bit unsure when I asked to walk around the warren of back alleys away from the main boulevard to meet with folks. We did that. It went well. The General then turned to me and informed me that was the first time they had dared do that. Gulp.
We also went to the other side of the Tigris River, to Sadr City, which was maybe the worst place to live in Saddam's time. A ghetto of 2 million Shiites in Baghdad that Saddam decided to let live and rot in their own refuse and sewage. As you can imagine, this abused population remains an angry lot. Even towards their liberators. Not as angry as before, but we still got a bunch of rocks hurled at our Humvee as we moved around the area with Lt. Col. Wood.
He was showing us his good works, supported by the locals, aimed at fixing up the infrastructure there. The bad side of this: He lost his life when his convoy ran over a roadside bomb a few months after we met him. Another guy trying to do good.
In the days to come we would go to places where most TV crews choose not to tread — To find out what real Iraqis are thinking. Like along Main Street in the Karada district of Baghdad. Lined with appliance stores on both sides, it looks like an open air Circuit City. Sales are brisk, or the boxes and boxes of appliances wouldn't be there. But we had to be brisk too. As we chatted with shoppers a tank from a responsible U.S. Army unit lurked nearby keeping watch. Not exactly a day out at the mall.
The Iraqi Stock Exchange was an even bigger eye opener. On the day we were there the single trading room was packed with brokers shouting out their buy and sell orders. Investors and company owners look on from the sidelines and bark out comments. If anybody thought the Iraqi economy was stuck in the insurgent mud, all they need to take is 10 minutes in this place to change their mind.
I even met Iraq's "Money Honey," a female stockbroker whose looks match her hot trading skills. In the back of my mind though there was a terrible thought. All it would take is one guy with explosives strapped around his waist to send this market crashing harder than 1929.
Then there was the Iraqi couple Saif and Zaynab we spent time with. They got married while we were preparing the documentary. They are a part of a new wedding boom sweeping the country. There are more than double the number of wedded couples now than before the war. A sign of hope? Perhaps. A sign that these folks are tired of waiting for the terrorists to stop bombing. Absolutely. You can't keep true love down. Not even improvised explosive devices can.
We checked in with the couple a few months after we taped them and found out that the lovely Zaynabe had been badly hurt in a car accident. Nothing to do with Zarqawi and company. Funny life, eh?
In the weeks following we moved away from Baghdad and that's where the logistical fun really started. Our next stop was up to the northern area of Kurdistan. In the old days (pre-war and just post-war) you could drive it in about five to six hours. If a foreigner did that now he'd be writing his death warrant. So we decided to fly. To help patronize a burgeoning Iraqi economy, we decided to take the just ramping-up Iraqi Airways.
The trip from Baghdad to Erbil went off without a hitch. But after a shoot in Kurdistan we were stuck in Erbil for three days waiting for an Iraqi Air flight back. Their skies are not quite as friendly as you'd like.
As for Kurdistan: Wow! I had been there several times and it had always been a pretty relaxing break from the ugliness of Saddam and post-Saddam Iraq. Now it is nothing short of a boom town with construction cranes everywhere and shops and restaurants doing sizzling business.
The secret? In one word...security. The Kurds have a tradition for looking out for themselves. Their peshmerga fighters, who dueled with Saddam's boys, are some of the heartiest guerilla warriors in the world. They have their corner of Iraq nailed down. If a card-carrying Al Qaeda type wandered in there, he would be quickly shown the door.
Needless to say, we took advantage of the U.S. military to fly us out of Erbil. We went via the northern city of Mosul and stayed for a night at one of the U.S. bases there. We actually stayed at the same place where a suicide bomber wandered into a mess hall and left a scene of carnage. Frankly, it made you think a few times whenever you entered a public spot.
And then down to Basra in the south. Another incredible surprise. The British run things there. The Shiites are in the overwhelming majority and peace reigns. We spent a night out strolling along the waterfront in the city, sharing some fun moments with families who feel free and easy. Eating ice cream, riding a Ferris wheel, laughing and joking, and enjoying life. The British soldiers accompanying us were super laid back by American standards — the approach dubbed "softly-softly"
But nothing is simple in Iraq. The coming weeks would show that peace comes at a price. When we were there we already saw a disconcertingly large number of Iranian posters around town touting the virtues of the latest Ayatollah. After we were there British soldiers were targeted, an American journalist was killed, the police there were infiltrated by Shiite militia groups, and the Iranian influence is stronger and deadlier than imagined.
The timing of this documentary is actually quite appropriate. While we shot it over the summer, it’s airing in the middle of the biggest debate yet about the worth of our efforts in Iraq. I like to think we don't take sides in this report. That it s not a justification for the war. It’s more of a way to show the true nature of a country that is more than just a laundry list of explosions.
It reminds me of the days when I was producing the weekend news in New York. It was back in the '80s when crime was rampant. Every Sunday morning I'd come in and read the police blotter — which usually contained about a dozen murders from the night before. Well, New York was more than that then. And Iraq is more than a bunch of bombs now.
The program is entitled “Winning Iraq: The Untold Story.” I had to be "won over" to go along with that title. Again, I thought it sounded like we were taking sides. But the real intent of the title is to talk about Iraqis themselves, "winning" in the face of some tough odds. And "winning" without one of the worst leaders that ever ran a country lording it over them.
Will it all work out? Wherever you stand on the debate on the war, you have to hope so, for the sake of the people in Iraq who had no say in how things went one way or another. In the documentary on Saturday night, you'll meet a whole bunch of these people. And we promise you that you won't see a single press conference by a politician bloviating, as my colleague Bill O'Reilly would say. I invite you to tune in. I promise you it’s a side of Iraq you won't see anywhere else — it needs to be seen.
Greg Palkot is a foreign correspondent for FOX News Channel based in Paris, France.