On my first trip to Baghdad, about nine years ago, it was not possible to fly into the city. Iraq was under a strict embargo, imposed by the United Nations after the first Gulf War. Anyone who wanted to come into the city had to travel by road. My route started in Amman, Jordan, across the border into Iraq, and about a 400-mile trip to the capital city.
Over the next several years, I returned on other assignments to report on the showdown with Saddam over weapons of mass destruction, led by U.N. weapons inspectors. Western reporters were always accompanied by one of Saddam's "minders," who worked for the Ministry of Information.
On the streets and in the tea shops, average Iraqis would speak to you — but not freely, fearing that any political statements they made would be reported back to Iraqi security forces. Saddam's penchant for retribution was widely known and feared.
It was a political system defined by repression. But Western reporters could walk the streets and even travel through the countryside without fear of improvised explosive devices or kidnapping or random violence. I'll never forget a memorable trip to Babylon, where government tour guides showed us the footprint of the Tower of Babel and the ruins of King Nebuchadnezzar's palace.
Then came the war. I arrived in April 2003 to witness the beginning of the city's transformation from a place dominated by Saddam and his Baathist party to what U.S. officials promised would be a beachhead of democracy in the region. Our hotel overlooked the plaza where, days earlier, Saddam's statue had been pulled down. All over the city, we saw defaced pictures of the man who had ruled this place with an iron fist. Iraqis told us they were pleased with what the U.S. had done.
My final visit before this year was in August 2003. It was the beginning of a new time of trouble — I covered an attack on the Jordanian Embassy. No one was hurt, but it turned out that the attack was a practice run. The next time terrorists struck, they hit the United Nations compound, killing the Secretary-General's special representative and more than 20 other people.
Despite the emerging violence, Iraqis were willing to speak on camera about their hopes, their dreams, their concerns. One word I heard over and over was "security." Even in 2003, Iraqis didn't feel secure and were beginning to feel unhappy about the lack of electric power and clean water. They were also concerned about the destruction of government agencies that had provided thousands of jobs.
Despite those troubles, it was still possible for Western news teams to travel the streets of Baghdad — to go out to dinner, to shop and even to visit locations outside the city. I traveled with CBS News teams to Fallujah and Ramadi, the so-called "Triangle of Death," known to be a Sunni stronghold of Saddam loyalists. We also traveled to the U.S. military base at Ramadi to interview American soldiers.
Today, we can fly into Baghdad on a regularly scheduled airline. But movement in the city is more dangerous than ever. The Amman-Baghdad highway that I traveled before the war is too dangerous. There are more checkpoints than ever. Western journalists are warned to keep to our hotels and never travel alone.
Three years ago, if I heard an explosion, I would assume it was U.S. forces blowing up a cache of weapons or ammunition. Today, I assume the sound of an explosion is another deadly suicide car bomb. Back in 2003, if there was occasional gunfire, I would have assumed it was U.S. forces shooting it out with a militant Saddam supporter. Today, the gunfire is much more frequent — and could be a standoff between militia groups or Sunni vs. Shia jihadists.
U.S. military leaders say it will ultimately be up to the Iraqis to find a political solution. But as sectarian violence and reprisals escalate, it is difficult to know how Iraqis bent on violence can be stopped.