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Two Years of War: Taking Stock

"Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was wrong," he said quite boldly -- a blasphemous idea in the prevailing theology of Hussein.

As an Arab, he said, he was embarrassed by the idea of an Arab country attacking another Arab country. As a Muslim, he was ashamed of a war that pitted co-religionists against each other. And, in remarkably brave words, he declared he was angry at Hussein for doing it. Looking back, he could even understand the justification for the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when U.S. troops attacked Iraq in response to the invasion.

With security a festering problem, Iraqis this week waited in line to be searched at a checkpoint in central Baghdad. (Thaier Al-sudani -- Reuters)

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But now? he asked.

He listed possible justifications for war, then explained them away. Because of weapons of mass destruction? We don't have any. If we did, he declared, we would have fired them at Israel. Because of our leader? What, he asked, does he have to do with us?

Baghdad was gripped then with anticipation of war so deep it seemed to accelerate time. In those days, it could sometimes be heard that the capital was cursed -- that it was being made to pay for all the wrongs of Hussein. It was a corollary of fatalism: We can do nothing about what we deserve.

"Why the crisis after crisis?" Hayawi asked. And he shook his head, helpless.

Summer 2003

After the invasion, Mutanabi Street told another story. Before, it was a tale of isolation, sanctions and dictatorship, a country with no future. Now, it was an exposition on the half-truths of occupation and liberation.

At every turn were the lingering scenes of looting: arched windows shattered and yellow-brick walls scalded black. Before the war, the market stayed open until 10 p.m., sometimes 11 p.m. Now the street shut down by 3 p.m., often earlier.

A once-limited catalogue of books had exploded. There were titles by Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Sadr, a brilliant theologian killed, as the story goes, when Hussein's executioners drove nails into his forehead in 1980. The long-discouraged iconography of the Shiite revival was everywhere: renderings of living ayatollahs competing for space with portraits, glossy in the sun, of 7th-century saints marching to their deaths. Nearby were new issues of FHM and Maxim, their covers adorned with scantily clad women.

Liberation was never easy to define; the occupation was unlike any other.

"If the Americans want to do well, they have to gain the trust of the people," Hayawi said at the time. "Until now, there is nothing. We want to see something malmus," or tangible. Rafahiya, Hayawi said. It was a word heard often those days. It means prosperity, and it was what Hayawi and most Iraqis thought the Americans had promised after Hussein's fall. Those promises, he said ruefully, were like water that trickles through your fingers when you cup your hands.

He ran his hand over his fleshy, sweaty cheeks. "Does this look like the face of 39 years?"

In the months following the invasion, the Americans and Iraqis rarely measured material progress the same way, their perceptions spanning the chasm of culture, language and experience. To the United States, the point of reference began with the day after Hussein's fall. To Iraqis, it stretched back a generation, to the 1970s, when Iraq's standard of living competed with those of Europe's poorer countries.

"It has changed definitely," Hayawi said. "It has changed for the better. But we wish that it could even be better."

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