On my first trip to Iraq, 25 years ago last month, the embassy in Amman took almost a week to find the visa approval that had been sent from Baghdad. This time they didn't find it, although it had been issued, and so it took a letter saying there was one to get on the plane in Amman, and a "fixer" at the airport here to get one issued.
The carbon paper for the forms and receipt for the $81.00 visa fee has improved, but the process itself is no less painstaking or tedious. In a perverse way it's reassuring to know some things never change.
Those that do are often for the worse, however. Streets one has driven down hundreds of times are unrecognizable. Blast walls, barricades, chicanes and checkpoints are Baghdad's biggest growth industry.
Checkpoint Two, the press drop-off for the Green Zone that houses the Interim Government, the U.S. military and embassy and aid agencies, etc. is now considered one of the most dangerous places in town, according to a security guard who has the job of escorting journalists there.
Cars now have to park well away from the old drop-off. That means a walk across a large open space to enter the barbed wire and anti-car bomb barriers which mark the route through a series of six body and ID checks. In a place that has been regularly hit by car and suicide bombs, that's understandable. The problem is that stopping so far away means the U.S. and Iraqi troops who man the guard positions are too far away to tell who we are, and as a consequence, at least two journalists were shot at this week as they arrived for a scheduled press briefing.
The main building, known as the Convention Centre, was officially handed over by the U.S.-run Combined Press Information Centre, or CPIC, to the Iraqis this week. The Americans have pulled back to outbuildings and trailers, to keep a lower profile, which is probably why the soldiers watching you be frisked and searched are Georgians, none of whom seem to speak a language known to any of us.
The Americans one does meet have changed from the button-down-collar-eager, and, it must be said, indescribably naïve bureaucrats-in-the-making who thought they were changing the world, who came in the first civilian wave after the invasion.
The new ones have a more worldly and realistic view, and hence present not just more plausible but also more efficient plans and offers of access to events, information and interviews.
They have to be more efficient because they have more of us to please. One thing that has changed for the better here is the local media. The new-found press freedom has sparked an explosion of local outlets, both print and electronic.
The three TV channels of Saddam's time (one of which was owned by his murderous son Oudai) have been replaced by eight satellite channels, with three or four more in the planning stages, and more than 10 terrestrial, only two of which belong to the government.
There are now so many microphones at major press briefings that it's hard to see the speaker.
And soon there may be another.
Al Qaeda has begun its version of a weekly newscast on the Internet and is now advertising on the Web for help putting it together. Openings exist for video production, editing and apparently correspondents. Coverage will focus on the activities of "militants" in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Chechnya and other garden spots.
And if you want to be an anchor there is no problem with looks, makeup or hairstyle. The man (presumably) who presented the last broadcast was wearing a ski mask and an explosives belt. One shudders to think what would happen if the executive producer tried to replace him.
It will be interesting to see if the program that styles itself as "the word of truth in the face of erroneous" and whose slogan is "a cry of justice in the face of wrong" will report the latest offer being attributed to militants here.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told an Egyptian newspaper that supporters of Saddam Hussein are trying to negotiate with the U.S. military. They are allegedly offering to cease their military activities in exchange for an assurance that Saddam will not be executed.
No death for enemies. Now that would be a change here.