Iraq looks back on a decade without peace after shock and awe

Ten years after an invasion to destroy Saddam Hussein and his purported weapons of mass destruction Iraq remains deeply traumatised

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 March, 2013, 3:59am

It has been more than six years since a bomb ripped away the eyes from Shams Karim, killed her mother and left the little girl, now seven, blind and disfigured for life. Psychiatric drugs help control her outbursts of crying and screaming.

Throughout Iraq there are tens of thousands of victims like her whose lives are forever scarred by war. Their wounds - and those of tens of thousands of US and other foreign soldiers - may never entirely heal.

In Baghdad, life goes on much as it has since the Ottoman sultan ruled these parts. Porters force loaded carts through narrow bazaars as amateur breeders' beloved pigeons swoop overhead. The calls to prayer from turquoise-domed mosques provide a rhythm to the day.

Yet the legacy of a war that began a decade ago remains very much a part of life here too. Bullet holes still pockmark buildings, and towers wrecked by American missiles and tank shells have not fully been rebuilt.

Iraqi soldiers in body armour corral cars into road-clogging checkpoints, their fingers close to the trigger, ever wary of the next attack. At 1am, a curfew shuts down the capital's streets, many still lined with blast walls.

It is hard these days to find anybody in much of the country who has not lost a friend or relative to the bloodletting that followed the US-led invasion. Shams' mother is buried among the densely packed graves in Najaf, where an ancient cemetery is at least 40 per cent larger than it was before the war.

Each new bombing sends more coffin-topped cars south to the hot, dusty city of the dead.

The Bush administration had hoped the war that began with airstrikes before dawn on March 20, 2003 would quickly rid Iraq of purported weapons of mass destruction, go after extremists and replace a brutal dictatorship with the foundations of a pro-Western democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

Ten years on, Iraq's long-term stability and the strength of its democracy remain open questions. The country is unquestionably freer and more democratic than it was before the "shock and awe" airstrikes began.

But instead of a solidly pro-US regime, the Iraqis have a government that is arguably closer to Tehran than to Washington and that struggles to exert full control over the country itself.

Bloody attacks launched by terrorists who thrived in the post-invasion chaos are still frequent - albeit less so than a few years back - and sectarian and ethnic rivalries are again tearing at the fabric of national unity.

The top-heavy government is largely paralysed by graft, chronic political crisis and what critics fear is a new dictatorship in the making. The civil war in neighbouring Syria risks sowing further discord in Iraq.The Americans and their allies left behind a broken, traumatised country - a land no longer at war but without peace. The toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime destroyed not only dictatorship but also the mechanism of law and order, enabling the rise of al-Qaeda.

The invasion also transferred power overnight to oppressed Shiites and Kurds but left many Sunni Arabs alienated. It established a system of sectarian-based politics that undermined national unity. And it helped trigger a vicious insurgency that ruined countless lives without regard for religion or ethnicity.

Diaa al-Mandalawi, who works at the Haji Zebala juice shop on the capital's historic Rasheed Street, recalls being surprised at just how quickly American helicopters came to be hovering over his city.

"We thought things would get better because the Americans promised us a lot," he said. But the years of bloodshed that followed the heady days after Baghdad fell have taken its toll.

"It's like building a house, but the process is too slow."

On the bright side, Iraqi citizens today are unafraid to criticise their elected leaders in public - with some even going so far as to wish Saddam still ruled - and guests on TV talk shows boldly rail against corruption and other wrongdoing.

Fresh investment in the oil sector has pushed Iraq into the No 2 producer spot in Opec, boosting the economy. New businesses are opening up, like a popular Baghdad shopping mall and swanky hotels in the capital, southern Shiite pilgrimage centres and the northern Kurdish city of Irbil. But Iraq remains a sharply divided society. Majority Shiites tend to see more reason for hope than Sunnis do.

"Now people can hold protests against the government and criticise government officials," said Haider Ali Hassan, a government employee in the southern city of Basra. "There are a lot of shortcomings and problems … but it is still better than Saddam's time."

Saddam's Sunni-dominated government ruthlessly suppressed dissent, especially from the Shiite and Kurdish communities where opposition to his rule was more widespread.

The US-led invasion upset the Sunnis' privileged position since Shiites and Kurds were more willing to support the new order.

"The United States destroyed the last remaining good things in Iraq," said Muhanad Majid, a Sunni coffee shop owner and father of two in the northern city of Mosul. "The current situation is definitely not any better than under Saddam."

The American decision to disband the Iraqi military and bar many senior members of the newly outlawed Baath party from public-sector jobs suddenly left many Iraqis without work. The ways the policies were implemented added to the resentment of Sunnis, who held many senior posts in Saddam's regime.

That anger is now reflected in mass anti-government rallies each Friday in western Anbar province, the birthplace of the Iraqi insurgency, and other primarily Sunni areas.

"We thought the Americans and the United Nations would bring us a democratic system that would provide the country with security, reconstruction and prosperity. But it turned out the only change was to transfer power from Sunnis to Shiites," Ahmed Abu Risha, a prominent Sunni sheik who once helped Americans battle al-Qaeda, complained during a recent interview. "Of course it's a disappointment."

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's political rivals accuse him of using his office to sideline and intimidate political opponents. Many Arab Sunnis and Kurds believe he is consolidating power to benefit members of his Shiite sect at their expense.

He remains directly in charge of the powerful Interior Ministry, giving him control over state security forces. They and the country's military have been unable to thwart frequent mass-casualty attacks that continue to plague the country.

In a recent interview, Maliki said he believed the country was moving in the right direction, though he acknowledged that the shift away from a centralised system to a more federal political structure will take time.

And he thinks Iraq's ties with America are improving despite concerns about his perceived closeness to US foe Iran.

"It's natural to have ups and down in the relationship," he said. "We believe in the importance and the necessity of having relations with America, and we feel that the Americans are content with the results of their sacrifices and efforts in Iraq."

More than 150 US military personnel remain mainly to provide training and facilitate arms sales - as is the case in many countries - but they are an arm of the US embassy, a sprawling fortress the size of Vatican City.

Meanwhile, Maliki and his political allies are increasingly forging ties with neighbouring Shiite powerhouse Iran, particularly in Iraq's conservative south, which hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims visit each year.

That closeness, unthinkable under Saddam, is worrying for Washington. US officials are furious that Iraq may have allowed Iranian planes carrying weapons to Syria to transit its airspace - a charge Maliki denies.

"Iraq is increasingly aligning itself with Iran in a way that is going to make it difficult for Iraq to claim it has an independent foreign policy," said Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics and author of a book on postwar Iraq.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of violent attacks primarily launched by the Iraqi arm of al-Qaeda and other Sunni militants continues to take its toll on ordinary Iraqis, such as 13-year-old Ali Hassan Wali.

The sixth-grader was walking home from a holiday visit to his uncle's house in Baghdad's poor Shiite neighbourhood of Sadr City in October when a car bomb detonated nearby.

The blast peppered him with shrapnel and sheared off his right foot, ending his teenage hopes of becoming a professional soccer player. He now gets by on crutches while awaiting a prosthetic.

"I hope my country gets better. I think it will after we get rid of all the terrorists who make the explosions," he said.

Others are still struggling with old wounds.

Shams, the girl blinded in a car bombing in 2006 when she was an infant, now refuses to wear the prosthetic eyes she received during treatment abroad. Her father, Husham Fadhil Karim, sometimes finds her uncontrollably banging her head against the door.

"She has no future," Karim said. "If we had real security, things like this would never happen."