Baghdad, Iraq "Don't go."
Never have so many people from so many nationalities said those words to me before a trip.
Americans, Russians, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, even Iraqis kept telling me I was crazy to go to Iraq before the Jan. 30 elections. I take all this as testimony to how Baghdad has come to symbolize the awful fear of the unknown.
As one of the staff in my hotel here said upon my arrival, "No one knows where we are headed. Not even the Americans." I think he is right.
It is that sense -- that no one is in control in Iraq -- that makes the situation here so unnerving. My plane makes a series of dizzying corkscrew turns before landing -- the standard practice at Baghdad airport to avoid being hit by an insurgent's rocket.
The U.S. Embassy forbids its staff to use the airport road, which has been plagued by suicide bombers; they have to helicopter into their protected Green Zone. Iraqis in Amman, Jordan, advised me how to dress when I got off the plane. The goal was to avoid having any Iraqi spy -- meaning an airport worker in the pay of insurgents -- report to potential kidnappers that an American was leaving the airport.
I wore slacks and a black raincoat and headscarf so I would look like "an educated Iraqi woman." I'm not very good at tying my hijab (head covering). So I was immensely pleased when, as I waited for my luggage, an Iraqi lady in full Islamic dress asked me if I were Arab-American.
She turned out to be Salama al-Khafaji, a former member of the Iraqi Governing Council whose teen-age son was killed when her car was attacked by would-be assassins. The courageous Khafaji told "me to be careful and repinned my hijab so convincingly that the security guard sent by my news organization to meet me didn't recognize that I was the American arrival.
Soon we were hurtling down the airport road, in a two-car convoy (old cars, not the SUVs that make diplomats and private contractors obvious targets) in an effort to get past the 10-mile stretch that became so dangerous in November and December. The guard sat beside me in the back seat, his machine gun cradled on his lap.
The road is lined with palm trees and villas, and looks like it should be peaceful, not a springboard for suicide drivers to crash cars full of explosives into U.S. vehicles. Mercifully, our trip was uneventful. What's disturbing is that nearly two years after the invasion, neither U.S. nor Iraqi forces can secure this short, crucial road.
Electricity in Baghdad is more spotty than when I was last here in June, when demand was at its summer peak. Now, the lights go out for most of the evening hours, and people without money for generators shiver in the darkness. Lines to buy gasoline stretch for miles, because the electricity cuts affect the operation of refineries. I've heard no adequate explanation yet for why Baghdad's electricity situation has gotten worse.
Communications, too, are difficult. Baghdad's cell phone network works only a few hours a day. (The contract arranged by U.S. authorities has developed into a major scandal.)
Journalists take extreme precautions before leaving their hotels -- traveling with a backup car, never wandering out on the street -- and female journalists all cover up with black abayas (long dresses). Everyone assumes that Iraqi spies track their movements; a French journalist and her translator just disappeared last week. Everyone expects the situation to get worse as elections near.
But our security concerns pale beside the daily fears of Baghdad residents. Iraqis don't go out after dark (there's a 10 p.m. curfew). One Iraqi friend tells me he and his wife are nervous wrecks until their children return home from school each day, from fear they might have been bombed or kidnapped en route.
Conditions in Baghdad are worse than in the north or south of Iraq. But Baghdad contains a fifth of the country's population. The main north-south and east-west roads in Iraq are still impassible because of terrorists and bandits, and a large swath of the country is subject to regular violence.
It's easy to see how Iraqis slip into conspiracy theories. Three Iraqi friends have already told me they can't believe the United States would permit such chaos unless it wanted to weaken Iraq to maintain control of the country.
If I didn't know better, I could almost buy into such a theory, too.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.