ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
NPR's John Burnett is just back from a trip to Iraq. It was a return visit for Burnett. He first went to Baghdad in 2003 when he was embedded with the First Marine Division during the invasion. Since then, more than 3,700 U.S. troops and at least tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in the war.
This is John Burnett's Reporter's Notebook: Then and Now.
JOHN BURNETT: In April of 2003, it seemed like Operation Iraqi Freedom was following the script. U.S. troops had charged across 350 miles of hostile desert in one of the swiftest military operations in history.
The regime of Saddam Hussein had imploded. Baghdadis walked the streets of their shattered capital in a daze, some dubious, others jubilant at the sight of U.S. soldiers and Marines in their desert uniforms.
In Sadr City, the Shiite ghetto that had, only days before, changed its name from Saddam City, a mob of Iraqis surrounded a Humvee full of Marines.
(Soundbite of chanting)
Unidentified Group: Yes, yes, Bush. Yes, yes, Bush. Yes, yes, Bush.
BURNETT: In liberated Baghdad, optimism seemed infectious. Here, in order, are Major General James "Mad Dog" Mattis, Lance Corporal Daniel Wilson and Iraqi journalist Ali Abdel-Amir, who had just returned from exile in Jordan.
Major General JAMES "MAD DOG" MATTIS (U.S. Marine Corps): It must be pretty bad with Marines and soldiers driving through your capital city. I can't imagine he has much command and control when you take over his country and you drink his liquor, you know? Doesn't much matter.
Lance Corporal DANIEL WILSON (Deputy Current Operations Officer, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force): People are really relieved, you can see it in their eyes and their faces, you know? They all got their white flags. All giving us thumbs up everywhere we go. I'm really, really happy. It feels like the war is wrapping up. It really does.
Mr. ALI ABDEL-AMIR (Journalist): I am so glad because I am in my homeland again. I'm still believe we have our hope again without that devilish dictator called Saddam Hussein.
(Soundbite of chanting)
Unidentified Group: Yes, yes, Bush. Yes, yes, Bush...
BURNETT: Where are those revelers today, and what would they say? Saba Saleem Hussein(ph) is a 45-year-old jahili bookseller in Sadr City.
Mr. SABA SALEEM HUSSEIN (Bookseller, Sadr City): (Through translator) In 2003, I brought one of my relatives a picture of President Bush to post on the wall of his house. He claimed that Bush helped get rid of Saddam. Now, I swear it, every day, he stomps on the picture of Bush with his shoes because he has lost two sons. And during Saddam's time, he lost nothing. Isn't it strange?
BURNETT: After four years of barbarism and sectarianism, needless to say, Iraq is a different place today. An Army sergeant major in the Sledgehammer Heavy Brigade Combat team stationed south of Baghdad spoke off the record over powdered eggs one morning in a lonely combat outpost. It was his first tour back since taking part in the invasion. I thought things would be better, he said, exasperation evident in his voice. I mean, what have we accomplished?
Unidentified Man #1: Okay. We usually do a prayer before we roll out. You guys are more than welcome to join us. Let's bring it in. Lord God, we thank you. We thank you, Father, for each day that's come by that you kept us safe. Father God, we ask you to be our eyes on the road. Keep us vigilant. Oh, God, protect us all. Protect all the (unintelligible).
BURNETT: The convoy of the 1st Battalion 501st Infantry Regiment prays before a mission last month. They've lost 24 soldiers since March, mainly to roadside bombs. They're in charge of a particularly violent AO, or area of operation, along the Euphrates, south of Baghdad.
Sergeant Franklin Cooper is a 23-year-old infantryman.
Sergeant FRANKLIN COOPER (U.S. Army): In our AO, especially with the Shia population that they're the type of people - they'll shake your hands, talk good things to you, and then as soon as you leave their house, they'll call their buddies down the road and be like, hey, they're coming your way. And that's when the convoy gets hit with an IED or small arms fire. They're appreciative to our faces, but behind us, it's kind of like, go home.
BURNETT: Four years ago, Americans could go to kebab cafes and tea stands in Baghdad. Today, that would be suicide. Westerners are high-valued targets. Today, the streets of the capital are a labyrinth of concrete blast barriers, barbed wire and security checkpoints. Things aren't much better inside the Green Zone, the heavily fortified enclave where U.S. and many Iraqi government offices are located. Peruvian security contractors check credentials of purposeful men and women in armored SUVs who are determined to rebuild the country.
Ann Pilata(ph) is a petite, tanned DOD civil servant and, unofficially, the longest, continually serving U.S. employee in Iraq. As secretary to a general, she's been there for 49 months. She went home to Washington for only one week last September. Like others in the Zone, she's honed her black humor.
Ms. ANNE PILATA (Secretary): Who would want to give up a day with mortars or - I mean, it's just too good. It really is. And I love it here. And it's been a life-changing experience for me, and it's one that I would not trade for anything in the world. Nothing.
BURNETT: Life in the four square-mile international zone has gotten much dangerous as insurgents refine their targeting. Pilata says it's hardest for the newcomers.
Ms. PILATA: You have to get used to the mortars and the rockets that hit. I have learned that the friends you make here are the friends you keep for life. I've also lost friends that I've made here - about 12, which is quite a lot in four years.
BURNETT: She's found her own personal escape.
Ms. PILATA: So I have a little, like, three or four-foot wading pool that I blow up, and when I have some time off, I lay on the lounge chair, put my feet in the wading pool, and I read my book by my trailer with the sandbags and -but it's almost like you're on the beach because you have the palm trees and you have your little pool and - it's great.
BURNETT: Iraqis are also prisoners in their homes and neighborhoods. They never imagined it would turn out this way. Zena(ph), who would give only her first name, is deputy chief at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a small non-profit that works to reduce sectarian conflict in Iraqi society. Zena says she was present at the iconic beginning in Firdos Square.
ZENA (Deputy Chief, U.S. Institute of Peace): Even when the statue fell down, I was there and have a look at it. We stood there for about seven hours.
BURNETT: She recalls that moment 52 months ago and remembers what she was thinking when the great bronze figure of Saddam keeled over.
ZENA: What we hoped is that now the country's going to be opened. We were forbidden to travel so we could get out of the country whenever we want. These little things you'll think, okay, I'm going to have my own civil rights, human rights that everybody has. Well, I'm going to have a beautiful country. I don't know, a different kind of system that, you know, everybody is equal.
BURNETT: And describe your life now.
ZENA: When I look at Baghdad now and it's my own city. I've been born here in Baghdad...
BURNETT: Zena chokes up. She can't continue. Later, she tells a story that suggests the worst and best of Baghdad in the summer of 2007.
Kidnappers took a 17-year-old boy that her whole apartment complex knew. He came from a good family but not wealthy, and they couldn't pay. So his father stood in the courtyard of the buildings and cried out for help to raise the ransom. Then he want door-to-door, collecting dinars. Zena gave the equivalent of $35. Together, the apartment community raised the money to buy the boy back.
John Burnett, NPR News.