It was late June and the searing heat of summer was taking hold when finally, after weeks of searching, I found what I had been looking for. Over several days I met a group of extraordinary young Iraqis who - without anger, fear or hatred - were beginning to shape the outlines of a bright future for their country.
The first was a Shi'a Muslim whom Ba'athist thugs tried to execute in a mass grave in March 1991. Miraculously he had escaped and crawled to freedom. He was now working with a handful of human rights lawyers in the town of Hilla, where they were drawing up the evidence to begin trials of those responsible for the killings. They were calm where others would have been vengeful, committed where others would have balked at the scale of the task ahead.
For weeks I had chronicled endless lootings, killings, betrayals, broken promises and tragic misunderstandings, the grotesque accoutrements of a modern military occupation. Nothing else I had seen in Iraq since America's war spoke to me with such hope as these men and their promise of a reasoned, moral reckoning that would drag their country away from the legacy of three decades of dictatorship towards a brighter future. I left believing that against all the odds there was still a chance Iraq would succeed.
Nearly two months later, I have returned to Iraq and so much has changed. A wave of fury and despair among Iraqis has drowned out the few voices that filled me with hope. Those of my Iraqi friends who clung resolutely to their optimistic dreams are finally losing heart. They shrug their shoulders and begin to list the unrelenting failures of the new Iraq.
Iraqi men carry their dead brother in a casket, in Baghdad August 25, 2003. Approximately 20 men are killed each day in Baghdad in gun-related incidents. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
It is not that the power supply has still not improved. It has worsened. Four months after television screens across the world showed the victorious toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdous Square, power cuts are more frequent, not less. In many Baghdad homes the water that flows from the taps is brackish and undrinkable. Water treatment plants, short of electricity and poisoned by their own rusting pipes, are failing.
How could a country, the Iraqis ask, that spent $9bn (£5.73bn) a month fighting the war against Saddam not restore the power supply to a city within four months? When I was here in June, I listened to Paul Bremer, the American administrator of Iraq, insist that there was now more electricity being supplied than under Saddam. The Iraqis scoffed at his exaggeration. Now when American officials promise that prewar supply really will be restored by the end of next month few believe them.
Two months ago eager aid workers were arriving in droves, filling empty hotel rooms and beginning dozens of long overdue projects. After last week's bombing at the UN headquarters in eastern Baghdad, those same young people are hurrying to leave. Many UN staff, some deeply traumatized by what they have suffered, have already gone. At the weekend the Red Cross, an organization with a reputation for enduring the riskiest of environments, from Afghanistan to Chechnya, announced it would drastically reduce its staffing. Yesterday Oxfam pulled out too. Who could make the unenviable judgment to stay on and complete the work that is so desperately needed when the risks are so great?
The US military were the first to suffer from the growing security nightmare. To begin with the army was reluctant to admit how many attacks it was facing. Now officers talk of more than a dozen incidents every day. British soldiers in the Shi'a south, which was at first thought to be less hostile to the occupation, are now as much targets as their American allies. Several aid workers have been killed or had their cars stolen at gunpoint.
British diplomats, who once spoke proudly of working from the grassy lawns of their old embassy with its wonderful views over the bank of the Tigris, have been forced to retreat inside the "secure zone," a vast and heavily guarded complex hidden behind rows of barbed wire and concrete blocks that includes Saddam's old Republican Palace, a convention center and the Rashid hotel, once famous for its a mosaic in the lobby floor that showed a grinning George Bush senior above the words "Bush is criminal".
Now US patrols in many of the most troubled areas of Baghdad appear to have been markedly reduced. Once, convoys of Humvees would roll down the high street in Karrada, past dozens of shops burgeoning with cheap fridges, air conditioners and televisions. Soldiers would stop to eat in some of the more crowded restaurants, but no longer. Better to cut patrols than to lose men, the commanders decided. Security outside US military bases is tighter and more paranoid than ever. A sign outside a recruiting station for the new Iraqi army warns people not to stop, stand or park near the entrance. The advice is given bluntly: "Violators are subject to deadly force."
Officials working at the coalition provisional authority, the civilian administration ensconced in Saddam's palace, used to slip away to meet Iraqis across town or to chat to journalists by a hotel pool. Now officials have been told they should not leave their "secure zone" without several close-protection bodyguards and at least two armored four-wheel drives. Few bother chancing it at all.
There are, it should be said, improvements. International flights are restarting. Internet cafes have sprung up everywhere. Many shopkeepers and a handful of bold Iraqi businessmen are profiting from a new freedom of trade. Some of the telephone networks destroyed during the war are working again. Old signposts have been replaced with freshly painted notice boards. More Iraqi police are on the streets, directing traffic or standing at busy junctions. Yet although crime levels are notoriously hard to gauge ordinary Iraqis still cite the lack of security as their overwhelming fear. Richer families have begun employing armed bodyguards outside their villas.
Down in Hilla the human rights lawyers are still methodically working their way through their cases. I am cheered to see that one of the bold young lawyers I met in June has been rewarded with a seat on the 25-member governing council, the group of Iraqis charged with beginning the job of government. Yet it is desperately sad that six weeks after council members began their work, disputes and personal rivalries have meant they have achieved barely anything at all. Iraq is not lost yet: it is just that the optimists are harder and harder to find.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003