BAGHDAD -- It's hard to juxtapose President Bush's Tuesday speech on Iraq with the realities on the ground in Baghdad.
I've found the security situation worse than on my last visit in January. The ray of hope provided by Iraqi elections has waned. Iraqis go to work, shop, take university exams, but their daily lives are defined by the violence of an insurgency that doesn't end.
More than two years after Baghdad fell, my plane still had to make a dizzying corkscrew landing to avoid a potential missile. Neither U.S. nor Iraqi troops have yet figured out how to protect the 10 miles of road from the airport to the city center.
My driver sped along the six-lane road, which is flanked by bungalows and palm trees of Sunni residential neighborhoods known to harbor insurgents. Cars sometimes come hurtling out of side streets to open fire on convoys. On a wide, gravelly area of median strip, where airport workers park, a huge car bomb exploded a couple of weeks ago.
Iraqis have developed rules of defensive driving. Rule No. 1: Never drive too close to military or civilian convoys because you might get incinerated if a car bomber attacks. Or some jittery shooter in the convoy might kill you by mistake. When we see a military convoy, my driver brakes, and proceeds very slowly to avoid coming close.
Rule No. 2: Vary your route if you think someone might want to kidnap or kill you. Likely victims include anyone with money, Iraqi Christians, academics, doctors, anyone involved in politics, clerics, Iraqi police or Iraqi military, and anyone working with Americans, journalists, and foreigners.
Of the many Iraqis I know, there isn't one whose friends or family haven't been touched by postwar violence -- at the hands of terrorists, insurgents, kidnap gangs, shoot-em-up Western security contractors, or nervous U.S. soldiers. My wonderful translator, a young doctor named Yasser Salihee, was shot dead by U.S. soldiers on Friday as he drove on an errand.
Violence also helps produce the next most oppressive factor in Iraqis' lives: the lack of electricity. The national electricity grid's average daily output is still falling below prewar levels, due to degraded infrastructure, poor U.S. planning for the postwar, and sabotage.
Temperatures have already soared above 110 degrees and will rise to 130 or higher by August. Electricity in Baghdad is two hours on, four hours off. The rich can afford generators. The middle class buy small generators for $200 that power a fan and a couple of light bulbs.
But many ordinary Baghdadis have no air conditioning, no fans, refrigeration, elevators, lights, or water, which depends on electricity for pumps. And they have no television to distract them from their troubles.
A driver I know named Amer described how his family copes: The men sleep on the roof (women can't because it's too exposed). They buy ice for the refrigerator, use candles and store water in barrels, and try to keep the children occupied in the dark.
I thought of Amer as I listened to President Bush say we must stand firm because "Iraq is a central front in the war on terror." The sad truth is that Iraq became a mecca for foreign terrorists after the war, because of lack of U.S. planning for the postwar and huge mistakes during occupation.
The Iraqi people are paying for those mistakes -- for the U.S. failure to establish postwar order, which let an insurgency grow, and for the disbanding of the old Iraqi army, which left the Iraqis with no means of defense. The administration also failed to fashion a policy to woo alienated Sunnis, who make up the bulk of those attacking U.S. soldiers.
It will be years at best before the new Iraqi army is capable of securing the country. Only a political process that brings Sunnis into the government stands a chance of undercutting the insurgency. The prognosis for this process is uncertain.
But until Iraqis reach a formula for domestic peace, any swift American pullout will plunge Iraq into even worse chaos. "God help the Iraqis if America pulls out too soon," one Iraqi told me, "but God help the Americans if they stay in Iraq."
In the meantime, Baghdadis swelter -- and worry about car bombs in the streets.
X Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.