In Iraq, scenes of hope and fear seven months after U.S. troops’ departure

August 4, 2012

Past the Army checkpoints, the razor wire, sandbags, blast walls, machine-gun towers, camouflage netting and war-smashed buildings, the sleek white Hummer 2 stretch limo rolled through Baghdad like a little slice of Vegas.

On the crumbling sidewalks, women draped in ghostly black abaya robes waved at the limo. Children ran alongside squealing. Startled old men looked confused, then delighted. Everyone smiled.

Inside the 34-foot-long car, a young bride and groom rode to their wedding reception awash in limo-chic — crystal champagne flutes, blue lights twinkling in the mirrored ceiling and thumping pop music.

“It’s like being in the movies,” said the mother of the groom, riding in the back, as checkpoint soldiers, pretending to look for bombs or kidnap victims, poked their heads inside for a wide-eyed peek.

The military Humvee became the icon of the U.S. war in Iraq, a nine-year campaign that officially ended when the last U.S. troops left in December. And now, as Iraq struggles to recover, the Humvee’s tarted-up civilian offspring is a gaudy sign that Iraqis suddenly have a little space in their lives for something other than dread.

“Yes, these cars were a symbol of war,” said Abdul Kareem Mohammad, a government worker who paid $400 to rent the limo for his son’s wedding. “But now it’s a symbol of our joy.”

Seven months after the last U.S. troops left their country, Iraqis are surprisingly optimistic about the future, given the horrors of war they have endured for nearly a decade.

Housing developments, shopping centers and hospitals are rising from the rubble, stores that had been closed for years are reopening, and old familiar sights — busy ice cream parlors and Baghdad’s famous red double-decker buses — are returning.

But every step forward is weighed down by continued bloodshed, brutality and corruption.

Violence has dropped sharply from its height in 2006 and 2007, but people are murdered with bombs and guns every day. Coordinated bombings on July 23 killed more than 100 people and wounded dozens more, the bloodiest day in Iraq in two years.

Oil production and revenue are surging back to levels not seen since before former president Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Yet the government barely provides the basics of life: schools, clean water and electricity on summer days that routinely crack 120 degrees.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s democratically elected leader, presides over a government that — according to critics from international human rights groups to Baghdad bus drivers — is ineffective, increasingly authoritarian and repressive toward its political enemies.

In dozens of interviews this summer across Iraq, many people said that their lives were safer and more prosperous under Hussein and that the U.S. invasion was not worth the price both countries have paid. Even those who were grateful that the Americans ousted Hussein were happy the U.S. troops are gone. At least now, they said, Iraqis would rise or fall on their own.

As the boot prints of the last U.S. soldiers in Iraq fade in the hot desert sand, the state of Iraq, summer 2012, emerges in scenes of daily life on streets and in homes, in cities and villages, in offices, markets and farms.

Baghdad rising

At dusk on a recent Monday evening in Mansour, Baghdad’s fanciest neighborhood, families waited in long lines for something cold at the Allyrah Ice Cream shop. A character dressed as Bugs Bunny greeted children, while a few feet away soldiers stopped cars at one of the city’s hundreds of military checkpoints, looking for guns and bombs.

Baghdad is a city of soldiers, destruction and rubble. Many side streets are still walled off by Jersey barriers; police and soldiers in combat gear are stationed every few blocks. Residents of this capital are used to looking down the barrels of machine guns laid across sandbags or pointing down from sentry towers.

Baghdad is also a city of recovery and normal life in a deeply abnormal landscape.

New development is everywhere. An eight-story Baghdad Mall is being built by a Turkish developer, and Maximall, a huge new department store, attracts thousands of shoppers. New car dealerships, shops, houses and offices are rising, along with a luxury spa offering expensive, trendy treatments using tanks of little fish that nibble away damaged skin.

Families play in riverfront parks with Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds and cotton candy. Young men whiz in and out of traffic on in-line skates, grabbing rides on bumpers, dodging cars while chatting on their cellphones.

Nearly a decade of American presence here has left a clear impression on Iraqi culture. On the sidewalks, young men are virtually indistinguishable from their American counterparts, wearing jeans and T-shirts and tattoos. Kids sport T-shirts featuring American cultural images, from “The X-Files” to professional wrestler John Cena to folk icon Arlo Guthrie.

At Burger Joint, a brand new restaurant in Mansour, the vibe is as American as the burgers on the grill: The waiters take orders on iPads as Sinatra and Motown classics play in the background.

Burger Joint is the first unabashedly American-style eatery in Baghdad — and it is packed nightly. The menu, in Arabic and English, also offers hot dogs and milkshakes and apple pie.

In the open kitchen, cooks in black T-shirts and black baseball caps pull together burgers made with Iraqi beef, flavored with ketchup from Saudi Arabia, that taste like they just came off an American backyard grill.

Outside on the patio, a half-dozen young men arrived in full Baghdad hipster gear — gelled hair, trimmed beards and goatees, plaid shorts and tight shirts. They sat at a long table beneath big fans fitted with water nozzles that cast a cooling mist in temperatures still north of 90 degrees at 10 p.m.

“A lot of people say the Americans destroyed Baghdad and they are very, very grateful for them to go out from this country,” said Ahmed Nazar, 20, a computer engineering student at Mansour University College.

But Nazar called that thinking “narrow-minded” and said he loves all things American. He speaks English, loves Snoop Dogg and thinks David Letterman is the funniest man alive.

“And hamburgers are delicious,” he said.

Daily death

In Karbala, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, taxi driver Falah Hassan al-Husseini pulled into a crowded vegetable market at about 9:30 a.m. on July 3, looking for a mid-morning bite to eat. Just the day before, his family had chipped in to buy him a new $13,000 Hyundai taxi, his first car with air-conditioning.

As he drove into the market, a suicide attacker set off a car bomb that killed the 42-year-old father of six and at least three other people, wounding 30 others in this city famous for two holy shrines visited by millions of Shiite pilgrims.

“He was so happy, but only for one day,” said Hamza al-Husseini, interviewed in his dead brother’s small cinder-block farm house, where his widow and children live.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni militant group, has taken responsibility for an increasing campaign of violence against the government of Maliki, a Shiite. Other Sunni Muslim insurgents also stage attacks to destabilize Maliki’s U.S.-backed government.

Nearly every day, there are assassinations and bombings. After a few relatively quiet months, the killing started spiking again in June.

Still, violence has vastly decreased in Iraq since its peak in 2006, according to the London-based independent Web site Iraq Body Count (IBC). By that group’s calculations, about 79 civilians a day died in 2006, compared with 11 per day through the end of June this year. June’s preliminary total of 472 deaths made it the deadliest month since August 2010, according to IBC figures. And July’s preliminary total of 436 deaths is not far behind.

Despite this summer’s resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the relentless targeting of Shiites by Sunni extremists, few here said they believed that the country would descend to 2006 levels of violence.

“Al-Qaeda and their supporters are trying to start new sectarian violence,” said Ali Mussawi, Maliki’s spokesman. “We are sure that we are going to destroy them, but we need political stability.”

Maliki’s Shiite-led government is a fragile coalition cobbled together in December 2010 with the participation of Sunnis and Kurds and support from the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Despite promises of genuine power-sharing, Maliki has consolidated his authority by maintaining control of the critical defense, national security and interior ministries. And the week that U.S. troops left in December, he chased his Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, out of the country by charging him with running death squads. Maliki has arrested other political enemies.

Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian ways have divided his coalition along sectarian lines and caused some of his allies, including Sadr and some Kurdish leaders, to agitate for his ouster. On the streets, people said they were disgusted that Maliki’s government has been incapable of stopping the daily violence, and has actually created more by feeding sectarian tensions.

Corruption is rampant, and people complain that bribery is the only way to get a job, a building permit or a government contract. Transparency International listed Iraq as the 175th worst out of 183 countries in its 2011 annual corruption survey.

On a tiny farm on the outskirts of Karbala, surrounded by tall sunflowers and lush cucumber and green-bean plants, Hamza al-Husseini said that he doesn’t know who killed his brother but that he believes Iraq’s violence and toxic political chaos are intensifying.

“When the political parties disagree,” he said with his brother’s 2-year-old son in his lap, “explosions happen in the streets and poor people die.”

Anger at the government

At 5:30 a.m. in Fallujah, trucks carrying bleating sheep and loaves of fresh bread travel across a one-lane bridge that spans the Euphrates River in this city of 600,000 an hour’s drive west of Baghdad.

It was from this bridge in 2004 that the mutilated bodies of two U.S. security contractors were hung. The gruesome incident became an iconic image of the war and helped lead to a U.S. offensive to retake Fallujah that involved the most fierce fighting for U.S. troops since Vietnam.

Fallujah still seems more anxious than most Iraqi cities. Soldiers man a sandbag-reinforced position next to the bridge. Buildings nearby are scarred and pockmarked, and a huge pile of demolition debris is piled along the riverbank.

A tangle of electrical wires hangs over most blocks like spider webs as people tap into generators. Here and there, electrical outlets hang from the wires, but they are mostly useless in a city that has four hours of electricity a day.

Next to the bridge from which the contractors were suspended, Ahmed Abbas, 35, a taxi driver waiting at dawn for his first fare, said he earns $250 to $300 a month but pays half that amount for gas. The other half goes for food and other necessities, with nothing left over.

Hussein instituted a system of food rationing during the 1990s, when Iraq was under international economic sanctions. The government provided monthly allotments of rice, sugar, cooking oil, flour, soap, tea and milk.

The rationing system continued until the U.S. invasion toppled Hussein in 2003. The Maliki government has restarted the system, but Abbas said the promised goods are rarely available.

“The government is always saying, ‘We got rid of Saddam for you,’ but that’s nothing,” Abbas said. “Everything was available during Saddam’s time, but now all we get is killing and explosions.”

Iraq’s gross domestic product grew 9.9 percent in 2011 and is projected to rise 11.1 percent this year and 13.5 percent next year, according to the International Monetary Fund. That makes Iraq one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, ahead of even China’s 9.2 percent growth last year, the IMF said.

The country is producing about 3 million barrels of oil per day — production not seen since before Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 — fueling the government’s $100 billion annual budget but leaving ordinary people wondering when they might see any benefits.

“We do have a huge amount of oil, and when Maliki was elected he said we would see change in 100 days,” Abbas said. “He said each citizen would get a share, but we have gotten nothing.”

The lack of electricity causes daily inconveniences, especially on summer days that make Iraq feel like a huge pizza oven. In the Abu Zahra Restaurant, across the street from the bridge, Ahmed Attiya lifted heavy blocks of ice into a broken old cooler to keep Pepsis cold.

“I prefer that the Americans never came to Iraq,” Attiya said, sweat dripping down his face. “Under Saddam we were working and eating. The Americans made a lot of things worse and destroyed many things. The country is starting at zero.”

Questions of brutality

In his small Baghdad office, Jalal al-Shahmani said the first time that Maliki’s security forces came for him was Feb. 25, 2011, when they hauled him from his bed at 3 in the morning.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other groups accuse the Maliki government of torturing its political enemies in secret jails and running a corrupt judicial system — allegations that Maliki strongly denies.

On the day he was arrested, Shahmani was the key organizer of Baghdad’s first major protest connected to the Arab Spring movement that was sweeping the Middle East. Shahmani and other young Iraqis planned to demonstrate in the city’s Tahrir Square against what they saw as Maliki’s corrupt and oppressive government. Iraqi security forces killed 23 protesters that day, which had been billed as a “day of rage.”

Hours before the protest was to start, police swooped into Shahmani’s bedroom.

“I told them, ‘I have a permit,’ ” he said. “But they said, ‘We know, but we have orders from the prime minister’s office.’ ”

He said that the police held him for 24 hours in a room in the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area that was once the U.S. headquarters here and now houses most government offices and foreign embassies.

Shahmani, 34, said he was arrested six more times in the next four months as he continued to organize anti-government protests. Each time, he said, the treatment got rougher; he said police beat him and kept him for hours with a plastic bag over his head.

On June 2, 2011, he said, police arrested him and held him for nine days.

“They blindfolded me and asked me who was supporting me and who I was working for,” he said. “I told them I wasn’t working for anyone. I just wanted democracy in our country.”

Shahmani said an officer broke his nose with the butt of a rifle. Later, he said, an officer tied his arms with rope and hung him from the ceiling, leaving him to dangle on his tiptoes for nearly three hours.

Maliki spokesman Ali Mussawi, in an interview in his Green Zone office last month, acknowledged that some prisoners in Iraq are mistreated. But he said those were cases of individual officers straying from the government’s official policy against torture and abuse.

“We still have some violations in human rights; nobody can deny that,” Mussawi said. “The violations by the security forces are individual cases, not a policy. The security forces are not well educated, and they still have the ideas of the Saddam regime about how to deal with detainees.”

Shahmani said Iraqis are freer to criticize the government than they were under Hussein, but only to a point. Shahmani said he appeared on a television show this spring and called Maliki a dictator. As he left the studio, he said, he was arrested and held for three hours.

Signs of recovery in Tikrit

Just after dawn one recent morning in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, Faizal Nazhan, 30, stood outside his tiny shop on a busy stretch of a street called el-Zehoor, which means “the flowers.”

“It is a new beginning for us,” said Nazhan, who from his doorway could see four new buildings under construction — all started since U.S. troops left in December.

The street was freshly paved and the sidewalk was made of new bricks. He said the streetlights had created an unfamiliar night life on the street: “Even the nights are like day.”

Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad, is marked by Hussein’s legacy. The Tikrit Mosque, still known by locals as the Great Mosque of Saddam, and scores of Hussein-era palaces occupy the city’s best riverfront real estate. Writing on one wall reads: “The Martyr Hero Saddam Hussein.”

But there are signs of progress, too. At least five private housing projects are rising, developed by companies from Turkey, China, the United Arab Emirates and by local Iraqi entrepreneurs. A few people drive Chrysler 300s, known in Iraq as “Obamas,” apparently because the U.S. president used to drive one.

A few miles down the road, in the tiny town of ad-Dawr, a little Ferris wheel lit up the sky one recent evening, its lights in happy jelly-bean colors casting a glow over laughing children. Kids climbed on the merry-go-round and families ate grilled chicken dinners, all about 300 yards from the spot where Hussein was captured by U.S. troops in December 2003.

Residents recalled how the town’s shops stayed closed during the subsequent years of fighting. But now, with the last U.S. troops gone, the town is coming back to life. A month ago, Marwan Malik, who grew up in Dawr, opened this little amusement park and small hotel along the banks of the Tigris River with three partners and $200,000.

Wamidh Mzahim, 30, and his wife, Marwa Mahfodh, 28, sat at one of the outdoor tables, celebrating their wedding anniversary with their 2-year-old son.

“Iraq in general is getting better and better economically,” said Mahfodh, shielding her eyes from a hot wind blowing a fine sandy silt up the river. “Now that the Americans have left, we will start to develop ourselves, by ourselves.”

Jabbar Yaseen contributed to this article.

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