On the Fourth of July, Vice President Joe Biden presided in Iraq over a naturalization ceremony for U.S. service members. It has become a yearly ritual and a touching one. More than 150 men and women serving in the armed forces became U.S. citizens, to the ecstatic applause of their comrades in arms.
The setting was opulent al-Faw Palace, where most U.S. military events are held. Its soaring marble rotunda is crowned by one of the biggest chandeliers in the world. Surrounding al-Faw are the man-made lakes and bridges that Saddam Hussein built for himself and his family as a private reserve.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, this is the nerve center of the American military in Iraq, and one of the most secure locations in the country, requiring a military escort simply to move around.
In his speech to the assembled troops, Biden said that the fact that an American citizenship ceremony was being held there was a sign of the democracy America's war had brought to Iraq.
"The thing I love so much about the day is the irony," Biden said. "Here we are in the hunting lodge of a dictator who subjugated a people, who in fact stood for everything that we don't stand for, and we are in the middle of this marble palace making a lie of everything that he stood for. I find it delicious."
As I was sitting there, I did indeed see an irony, but not the one Biden was referring to.
Iraqis have as little access to al-Faw Palace now as they did under Saddam.
I've been covering Iraq since 2002. I remember the dark days of Saddam Hussein and the terrible fear his people lived under.
I also remember the wholesale slaughter that took place during the civil war in 2006 and 2007.
All told, in the past eight years, I've spent about five living in Baghdad.
This was probably my last trip to Iraq for awhile, and I've spent six weeks moving around the country talking to regular Iraqis far removed from the politicians and military men.
Disappointment And Frustration
Many have told me how disappointed they are by the direction Iraq is headed.
It has been four months since the parliamentary elections, and the parties are still bickering over who gets to form a government. Electricity is terrible, the phone networks don't work, and most basic services like water and sewage are patchy at best. Iraq is constantly indexed as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people remain displaced.
And there is still violence, every single day. About 4,400 American service members have given their lives in Iraq. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died.
Both Iraqis and Americans are still being killed, though in vastly reduced numbers.
In an e-mail message this week to the Baghdad press corps, America's chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza took us to task for what he implied was our negative reports on the state of the country.
"As I review news coverage of Iraq, I thought it would be helpful to provide you with my perspective," he wrote. "Iraqis are embracing their version of democracy."
He continued: "There is political debate as party leaders work to form a new government. The population has been united in its commitment to representative government, just as it was united in its rejection of violence and attempts to ignite sectarian violence. Are we witnessing political rhetoric? To be sure. Isn't that natural following a close election?"
BBC correspondent Gabriel Gatehouse responded in an open letter: "You say that Iraqis are 'embracing their version of democracy.' I expect you might have quite a hard time finding someone at the market who would describe his or her relationship to Iraq's democracy in this way."
He wrote: "Four months after the election, with no new government in sight, the majority of people I have spoken to are deeply frustrated with their experience of democracy. Surely, they ask, democracy is about more than that one day every four or five years, when we go to put out crosses on a ballot paper? Surely it is about the ability to hold our representatives to account and make them work on our behalf? This is not the experience most Iraqis have with democracy so far."
And so the battle over the Iraq narrative continues, even as the U.S. military presence draws down. American forces are to scale back to 50,000 troops by the end of the summer, with the rest coming out in 2011.
Is Iraq a safer country now than it was three years ago? Undoubtedly.
But if you walk out the palace doors, and onto the hot dusty streets like I and many of my colleagues do everyday, you'll meet Iraqis who are worried about what comes next.
Many of them ask me, "What was it all for?"
As I leave Iraq this time, I have trouble giving them an answer. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]