One year on from the US-led invasion, occupation forces say the country is heading in the right direction.

Saddam's brutal dictatorship is no more. They say quality of life is returning to pre-war levels, and Iraq is firmly on the path to democracy.

But as soon as you cross the border the signs of occupation are unmistakable.

Menacing American soldiers and Iraqi policemen keep a very visible presence. And you can almost smell the fear and mistrust in the air.

Before setting out for Iraq, you fear the worst - media reports of constant death and destruction put you in an apocalyptic frame of mind.

You should prepare a will, I was told, just in case you do not make it out alive.

My colleagues and I had already discussed tactics should we get robbed by the brigands that stalk Iraq's cities and highways.

Anticipating Ali Baba

We agreed to hide our dollar bills inside our socks and only keep spare change in our pockets.

You should prepare a will, I was told, just in case you do not make it out alive.

If an "Ali Baba" pointed a gun in our faces, we would fob him off with $50. On no account should we refuse point blank, we were told, otherwise we would get our heads blown off.

After a two hour customs grilling on the Jordan-Iraq border, we finally set out on western Iraq's barren landscape on the road to Baghdad.

At first everything seemed calm, but this was an illusion. Occupied Iraq is no normal place.

Iraqi are trying to get on with life
as best as they can

American soldiers were everywhere. Wearing shades and toting guns, US military convoys blocked the highways, advancing at snail's pace and forcing impatient motorists to stay behind.

People were hesitant to approach the soldiers too closely lest they unwittingly became "collateral damage".

Iraqi police with their machine guns regularly pulled over traffic and searched the occupants for weapons and bombs, while helicopters whizzed overhead like a scene from Apocalypse Now.

We passed the forbidding Abu Ghraib prison, where tens of thousands of Iraqi prisoners are held, yet another sign of US domination.

Surviving

Meanwhile, Iraqis seemed to be getting on with life as best as they could.

Kids played soccer barefoot amid piles of rubbish in the sprawling slums outside Baghdad. Hawkers peddled their wares at traffic lights.

My colleague, an Iraqi returning to his country for the first time in 23 years, was incredulous.

"Where did Baghdad go?" he asked. "This used to be a luxurious street. Look at it now."

Yet, the signs of resistance to occupation were everywhere.

Smoke could be seen on every horizon - the result of resistance attacks, perhaps.

We passed the remains of a roadside explosion, and furtively glanced at the hotbed of resistance that is the town of Falluja.

Bombing buzz

The street was abuzz with talk of the Mount Lebanon hotel bombing which killed seven people on Wednesday.

Iraqis were adamant it was not a car bombing as the official explanation would have it. Rather it was the result of a missile attack from a plane.

Many Iraqis believe the Mount
Lebanon hotel was hit by a rocket 

Was this the rampant conspiracy theory I had been warned to expect or did it have some substance?

When we finally made it to our hotel - situated three streets away from the Mount Lebanon - we walked into a bombsite.

The windows were broken in our rooms and there was significant structural damage to the building. Not surprising, perhaps, given that a 450kg bomb had just devastated the area.

That night as we went to sleep we heard the sound of large explosions which, we later discovered, targeted three more Baghdad hotels.

The Iraqis we talked to took it in their stride - this is the sort of thing that happens every day here.

But we did not. If this is normality, then the world's gone mad.