The most dangerous part of reporting in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq is getting there. It is dangerously out of reach to U.S. reporters based in Baghdad.
When we first measured "where things stand" in Iraq more than a year ago, troubles seemed to fade away on the drive south from the capital. Today, the word is that insurgents will pay $1,000 to anyone who kills a Shiite, $2,000 for a journalist and $3,000 for an American soldier.
We found overall that people were living a much more secure life in the southern part of Iraq. The reasons offered by Iraqis are many: Local tribes have a better handle on affairs, people are inclined to cooperate with the police, there is less antagonism to Americans, and there are very few Americans to begin with.
Physically, life is only somewhat better than in the region around Baghdad. Since the invasion, there has been a terrible shortage of electricity and clean water.
In the town of Hilla, people have been waiting for gas for days, sleeping and eating in their cars.They have been waiting so long that local entrepreneurs now cater specifically to the gas lines.
Adnan Alwan blames the police. They take bribes, he says, to let people jump the lines.
Nearly two years after the Americans invaded, many Iraqis still don't understand how a technological giant, such as the United States, cannot produce more gasoline in a country that has so much oil.
Abdul Ameer owns a brick making factory in Al Muthene province. When Saddam Hussein was in power, he says, there were no fuel shortages, it cost less and bandits never bothered him.
Optimism in Southern Iraq
But many Iraqis in the south were optimistic, even if they didn't offer up a very specific reason.
In Amara, near the Iranian border, people are very poor. The school has only 50 desks for 150 children, but the Shiites hated Saddam so much that, in his absence, many of them think they're moving forward.
There is an underlying feeling here that when the Shiites vote next weekend, their power is going to get a boost.
Chafit Sharrad, who can't make enough money to support his family, says he loves President Bush. The war in Iraq is part of what he calls a "Bush revolution" -- and he means it as a compliment.
Dates were once Iraq's second largest export after oil, but war and neglect took a terrible toll. Today in the south, farmers are planting thousands of date palm seedlings.
It's an investment in the future, since the trees do not bear fruit for seven years. In southern Iraq, there is faith in the future.
Peter Jennings filed this report for "World News Tonight."