Californian Marla Ruzicka was the head of an NGO whose blend of tenacity and optimism kept her in Iraq long after almost every other humanitarian aid organization had left.
Marla and her Iraqi driver died Saturday when their car was tragically caught between a suicide car bomber and a US military convoy.
Marla was more than a source for a story, she was one of those quiet cheerleaders that kept me -- and the Iraqis she touched -- going almost from the moment that I arrived here three years ago.
I first met her in Jordan, just before the war. A reporter friend told me that I should get to know this young activist who made a name for herself working for Global Exchange, the US organization that sent field workers to Afghanistan to count civilian casualties.
After the Iraq war, she moved her push for an accurate count of civilian casualties to Baghdad. At a time when the International Committee of the Red Cross and United Nations were leaving Iraq, Marla started the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. Through that, she helped Iraqi families navigate the process of claiming compensation from the US military for injuries and deaths.
When she died Marla was traveling to visit some of the many Iraqi families she was working to help. Lately, she had been attempting to aid the relatives of a toddler whose parents were killed after the mini-bus they were traveling in was hit by what was believed to be an American rocket. The baby was thrown out of a window to save her life.
It's still unclear exactly how Marla and her driver, Faiz, were killed. But early reports indicate that they were traveling on the dangerous route between Baghdad and the airport when a suicide car bomber tried to attack a military convoy. Faiz was an Iraqi Airways pilot, who at one time worked as an interpreter for Monitor correspondents in Iraq.
I was always amazed at how composed Marla remained amid the violence and confusion of Iraq. One of my favorite memories of her was when I was sitting in the middle of the Palestine Hotel lobby in Baghdad, surrounded by a confusing swirl of soldiers, officials, and reporters. Fear swept over me. What was I doing here? I had come as a freelancer, with no experience covering a war. Just as I was quietly freaking out, Marla appeared in the dusty, harried scene. She was the picture of calm in a perfect French braid and long blue dress. She was like a breeze blowing through, so tranquil, so clean.
Later in the fall of 2003 when I moved here and was despairing of my sputtering freelance work she would always say, "Jill, good for you. You're working so hard. I'm so proud of you." She was the eternal supportive cheerleader. One night she slipped a note in my hotel mailbox. It was a small essay of encouragement and praise from out of the blue, scribbled in black ink on a scrap of notebook paper.
I found out that Marla had died several hours after she didn't show up for a party that she planned at the Hamra, a hotel occupied mostly by foreign journalists. I was tired and wasn't going to go. My friend Scott went and called me about 11 p.m. He said no one had heard from Marla since about 2 o'clock that afternoon. The other journalists and I all feared a kidnapping. I went over to the Hamra lobby and asked at the reception desk if they knew Marla's driver's family. They said his brother had just called because they were worried they hadn't seen him. A bad sign.
Then we got a call from the US military saying a woman fitting her description had been in an accident, but that she was in the military hospital and in good condition. We were relieved. In Baghdad's strange logic, we all thanked God it was a car accident and not a kidnapping. Then we received another call. It was the military again. This time they said the woman was dead on arrival.
The only thing we can say now is at least she died doing what she wanted, doing what she really, really believed in. If she were still here, she'd be most worried now about her driver's family and who will take care of all the other Iraqi families she was working with.
She would point out, this happens to Iraqis every day and no one notices or even cares. There are no newspaper articles or investigations into what happens to them. For most of them, there was only Marla.
After the lowest monthly U.S. casualties in a year, insurgents have come back this week with widespread strikes, killing several Americans and pulling off a sophisticated attack on Abu Ghraib that showed an evolution in planning and tactics.
Attacks on U.S. forces have dropped 22 percent since the Jan. 30 election, to about 40 a day, about the rate they were a year ago. In March, 36 U.S. troops were killed, the lowest figure in a year, according to icasualties.org, which tracks casualties announced by the government.
But this week, four soldiers and a marine were killed -- and Saturday's well-organized attack on Abu Ghraib prison, in which 40 U.S. troops and 12 prisoners were injured, suggests that fighters may be shifting to fewer but better executed operations, including ones that directly engage U.S. forces.
Iraq's political process will have more impact on the strength of the insurgency than any military operation. That effort got a boost Wednesday when the national assembly voted Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani president. That step enables the rest of the government to be formed, a process that could take up to six weeks but is expected to be finished in the next week or so.
Despite excitement over the naming of the president, the rest of the government will have to be named quickly and produce tangible improvement in daily life if it is to erode support for the insurgency.
"Counterinsurgency is about governance," said Col. Thomas X. Hammes, an insurgency expert at the National Defense University in Washington. "You have to prove to the people you can govern them fairly and effectively -- then they will tell you who the bad guys are."
Still, the insurgency's trends indicate that even at an average pace, the tough guerrilla warfare seen today is likely to continue for many years. "Don't expect solutions now. We're two years into this," Hammes says. "We're at the top of the third inning and this is a nine-inning game."
During the past few months, attacks on Iraqi forces and civilians have increased, the U.S. military says, although they don't keep exact figures.
The trend is something Iraqi special forces soldier Ali Jabbar al-Aibi has observed from behind his truck-mounted machine gun. During his frequent nighttime operations, he is attacked almost every time.
The sense that insurgents are increasingly targeting him and his colleagues was confirmed to Mr. Aibi and his team of soldiers two weeks ago when they found a fatwa issued by a radical cleric during a raid in Samarra. It ordered jihad on Iraqi forces instead of American troops because the Iraqis are easier to attack.
Despite the increased dangers to Iraqis, the election has inspired more people to come forward with information about insurgents, says Aibi.
Those tips are prompting raids that are yielding insights on the state of the insurgents. Iraqi troops, for example, are finding fewer large weapons caches, something Aibi takes as a sign that the fighters are having supply problems.
"There's no comparison between before and now," he says, noting that they used to find stacks of dynamite, rockets, large machine guns, and mortars. "You couldn't believe it. A room this size full of weapons. ... Now it's different."
Overall, analysts point to what seems like a classic insurgency, one that is expected to increase in sophistication by learning from past mistakes and less capable fighters are killed off.
American forces have been responding like a typical conventional force, slowly recognizing the insurgency and gradually bringing in leaders and drawing up plans that can deal with it effectively.
All that usually takes about 10 years to end the fighting, according to Hammes.
British occupying forces in Malaysia, for example, only began gaining control over the insurgency in the late 1940s and early 1950s at the two-year mark, he says.
Iraqi authorities are using unconventional tactics as well. One of the most effective efforts so far on that front has turned out to be insurgent TV.
Interviews with captured insurgents are televised every night at 9 p.m. on state television and has become wildly popular since beginning about three months ago. Prisoners, often with visible bruises and cuts, sit behind a table and confess the gruesome details of their crimes. An anonymous offscreen military or police commander harangues them and lectures them about what jihad really means. One has even taken to reciting patriotic poetry he wrote himself.
Aibi says the show has made people more willing to report suspicious activity in their neighborhoods and help turn some against the insurgency.
"There is a huge difference because the people know who those guys really are. Before it was kind of a mystery. It also helps the ones that are close minded to rethink," he says.
The insurgents counter, however, with their own campaign of large, spectacular attacks. An insurgency doesn't expect to militarily defeat its larger, better-equipped foe, but rather make it so politically costly that they are forced to withdraw. A massive attack like the one in Abu Ghraib or the car bomb that killed more than 100 people in Hilla in February are effective in spreading fear in Iraq and a sense abroad that things are out of control.
A decrease in attacks on U.S. forces, while touted as a victory by U.S. officials, doesn't mean the insurgents aren't still reaching their goals. It's a frustrating dynamic for U.S. officials.
"People see a spectacular attack and they think everything is going badly but that's not the case," said Lieut. Colonel Steven Boylan, a spokesman for the military in Iraq.
Another measure of the strength of the insurgency is how safe is it to be a Westerner on the street. Foreign women try to disguise themselves in Muslim head scarves, and foreign men grow beards. Walking the street isn't safe unless one blends in completely and foreigners cannot travel outside of Baghdad.
Even as Aibi revels in telling stories of big arrests he has made and how ferociously his fellow soldiers fight insurgents, he has to carry his uniform in a bag when he leaves his house so no one will know who he works for. His mother begs him to quit his job every day, he says, because she is afraid of the insurgents.
Last week, Diyala Province felt the benefit of American reconstruction money: two farm cooperatives got under way, providing a much-needed source of income for several families in the often violent province.
This week, the area felt the sting of the insurgency: A suicide bomber drove into an Iraqi Army checkpoint, killing several soldiers.
Two years after U.S. forces rolled into Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, contradictory forces are tugging at the war-torn country. Iraqis turned out in droves to vote for an 275-member assembly that took its seats Wednesday. Many are enthusiastically tapping into a world long closed to them by sanctions – snapping up satellite TV dishes and imported food.
But an aggressive insurgency has stymied crucial tasks of rebuilding and providing security, disillusioning ordinary Iraqis who thought the U.S. presence would bring rapid change.
"There are some positive developments," says Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. But "in the context of the security situation it's hard to say it's going well."
By now, military planners had envisioned a U.S. presence that was a fraction of the 150,000 troops currently in Iraq. Oil revenues and foreign business investment were expected to provide jobs and buoy the economy.
The U.S. Agency for International Development says it has spent some $4.8 billion so far on reconstruction projects across Iraq. But restoring basic services and creating new jobs is proving problematic.
"Everything shuts down without law and order," Ms. Bronson says. "It doesn't matter if you have jobs if you can't get to those jobs."
Indeed, few U.S. efforts are reaching into the country's most troubled areas. While restive Diyala has received aid to start its beekeeping and calf cooperatives, along with sewage improvements and assistance to local government, most projects are in relatively stable areas to the north and in some areas of the south, according to the latest USAID update.
Still, Iraqis have seen progress on a number of fronts.
While unemployment is about 48 percent, according to the Ministry of Labor and Social Labor and Social Affairs, salaries are higher for the jobs that are available, typically ones linked to the government. Salaries of teachers, bureaucrats, and policemen, have gone up, as have pensions. The starting salary of a policeman is about $220, enough for a family to live on and, to many Iraqis, worth the risk of being targeted by insurgents. Some pensioners and teachers have seen their income grow tenfold.
As a result, many families say they can now afford meat with most meals and a wider variety of fruits and vegetables. This, despite prices that have spiked by about a third on some food items, including meat, fruits, and vegetables, according to merchants in Baghdad. But canned foods, soft drinks, and bananas, virtually taxed out of existence before the war, are now available at a fraction of their Hussein-era prices.
Electronic equipment has also been flying off the shelves since the war opened borders once shuttered by sanctions.
Many Iraqis can also afford a mobile phone, a modern convenience banned under Saddam Hussein. Egyptian-owned Orascom Telecom, which provides mobile-phone service to Baghdad and central Iraq, had 82,000 subscribers at the end of 2003, the year the company began operating in Iraq. By November 2004, it had signed up 480,000 subscribers and is now planning to reach 1 million subscribers by the end of this year by spreading its services to southern and northern Iraq, according to the company's web site.
But Orascom's experience is emblematic of the problems facing those trying to take advantage of new opportunities.
Security problems have made it difficult for the company's workers, who have been kidnapped and shot at, to expand the network. Currently, it may require a dozen attempts before phones connect, and the network often doesn't work at all during large chunks of the day.
Insurgents have worked to undermine basic services like electricity and water supplies in an effort to turn Iraqis against the U.S. and erode American will to stay in Iraq. It's a hallmark tactic of "fourth generation warfare," says Col. Thomas Hammes, a senior military fellow at the National Defense University.
Insurgents "seek to convince enemy political leaders that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. The fundamental precept is that superior political will, when properly employed, can defeat greater economic and military power," he wrote in a paper published in January.
That means two years after war began, electricity is on about two out of every six hours in the capital because insurgents are attacking the workers trying to repair the power grid. Electricity output has been restored only to prewar levels, 4,400 megawatts a day.
But unlike Hussein's era, it is distributed equitably. Baghdad, once given extra electricity at the expense of southern regions which Hussein repressed, now has to share with the rest of the country.
Insurgents have also struck at Iraqis' aging oil infrastructure, which U.S. administration officials expected to be the lifeblood of the country's reconstruction. Insurgents have handed out leaflets saying working on the oil infrastructure is helping the U.S., and anyone doing so will be killed. They have made good on those threats, attacking workers trying to repair damaged pipelines and refineries.
Attacks on oil tankers, pipelines, and refineries, particularly this fall, have periodically cut as much as 100,000 of barrels of production from the country's usual average of 2 million barrels a day.
As a result, Iraqis had to wait as much as two days this fall and winter for a fill-up.
Attacks jumped from about 12 each month before the U.S. handover of sovereignty June 28 to about 24 a month in October 2004, spiking at 46 attacks in November and continuing into the winter with about one or two a day, according the interim Oil Minister Thamer Ghadban.
But most Iraqis say they can live with gas lines and power outages if they can be assured of safety.
"Yes, some new things are available now, mobile phones, satellite TV, new cars. But the thing that we lost is more valuable," says Basim Majid, the manager of an electronics store. "We are in the middle of chaos and there is no way back. I hope they use force to spread security."
Bassam Henna, who is unemployed, is discouraged. "Frankly, the time of Saddam was better in general," he says. "Not Saddam himself, with all his faults and all his mistakes, but in general, that time was better than now. If we are missing him, imagine what the situation is like."