By John Ward Anderson and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
BAGHDAD, March 20 -- By almost any standard, Bashar Muhammed, the owner of a thriving Internet cafe, is a Baghdad success story. Three years after the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein, the Internet business here is booming, and Muhammed has what most Iraqis could only dream of under Hussein -- freedom, a cutting-edge job, lots of customers.
But when conversation turns to his life and prospects, he sighs and voices frustration that Americans just don't get it.
"It is true that we got freedom after the war, but uncontrolled freedom -- chaos and violence," he said in a cool, deliberate tone. Five of his relatives have been killed in car bombings and assassinations, Muhammed said, noting that most recently an uncle was killed for being a Sunni Arab.
"The new generation is growing on violence and sectarian ethics, and this will affect Iraq for many years to come," he said. "We are living a more devastating war every day."
As Iraqis on Monday marked the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion, there was a stark difference between their pessimistic outlook and some U.S. officials' upbeat assessment of the situation. With insurgent violence grinding on, essential services sagging below pre-invasion levels and the prospect of civil war looming, many Iraqis question whether Hussein's ouster was worth the cost.
Many thousands of their countrymen have been killed. In December, President Bush estimated the Iraqi toll at 30,000.
Laith Muhammad, 32, a student in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, listed the risks Iraqis face these days. "We either die by the Americans, the insurgents in the name of jihad, the security companies, which kill you and leave you laying in the street, the Iraqi police or . . . the death squads," he said. Such squads are widely believed to be operating from within the country's Interior Ministry. Muhammad cited private militias as yet another threat.
"Three years after the American invasion of Iraq, I have only one wish," he said. "I do not want democracy, food, electricity and water. I just do not want to die."
Other Iraqis, however, are less quick to blame the United States.
Sardar Muhsin Maheed, 25, a student at Mosul University, said too many people blamed the occupation for all of Iraq's ills. He traced most problems to Hussein, suggesting that issues such as the poor economy are legacies of the ousted president.
"The U.S. has liberated us from Saddam and his oppression," he said. "We are not ready to form a democratic state, and that is because of the burden left by Saddam's regime."
Another of Hussein's legacies, he said, was sectarian tension in the country. An Iraqi government has been democratically elected, but the politicians and their parties are creating a new Iraq based on religious and ethnic interests.
Luay Mohammed, a 57-year-old Sunni Arab who spent 35 years working for the Education Ministry, said he was forced to retire because the government and the ministry are now run by Shiite Muslims. His son could not get a job "because he is not a Shiite and he did not suffer" under Hussein, Mohammed said, his voice laced with bitterness and sarcasm.
"We've been waiting for years for true democracy to come, a democracy that makes everybody live and work together with respect and love. But here it is: a democracy with maximum chaos," he said. Now, all of his sons have cellular telephones -- not because it is hip or because of a communications boom, but because the security situation demands it. "This is what democracy has brought us."
The U.N. sanctions that had been imposed on Hussein's government have been lifted, and a vibrant free press has emerged. But unemployment is stuck between 27 and 40 percent, while oil production -- which the government counts on to generate 90 percent of its revenue -- remains below prewar levels.
"The toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime was worth everything," said Fakhri Fikry Kareem, owner and publisher of the daily Meda newspaper, one of more than 100 newspapers that have begun publishing in Iraq since Hussein's fall. Despite a rocket attack on his office, a bomb attack on his car and the killing of three of his reporters, Kareem said: "I have never felt as free to speak any day in my life as today. If George Bush did anything good, it was toppling Saddam Hussein."
Kareem, 63, said he opposed the war. While drinking Turkish coffee and fingering a long string of worry beads in his Baghdad living room, he talked of what might have been, suggesting that perhaps the United States could have removed Hussein without starting a broader conflict.
"I am not pessimistic," he said. "But I'm upset, because the war and the occupation, which could have led to a new situation in Iraq, were squandered by the stupid mistakes committed by the American administration and military and the U.S. representatives in Iraq."
Subhi Nadhem Tawfik, a professor at Baghdad University's Center for Strategic Studies, said people no longer believed that helping Iraq was foremost on the U.S. agenda during the invasion. "The U.S. has won a tremendous strategic victory," which has come increasingly at the expense of Iraq, he said.
"With the occupation of Iraq, the strategic significance of all the states in the region was diminished," Tawfik said.
The war and its aftermath have so far cost the United States about $250 billion. Congress allocated $21 billion to repair essential infrastructure and revitalize the economy, and to establish programs for good governance and democratic institutions. As much as $3.5 billion has been diverted to pay for better security, but Iraq remains the largest U.S. government reconstruction effort since the Marshall Plan following World War II.
Meanwhile, many Iraqis -- especially in Baghdad, home to almost a quarter of the population -- said they don't see much evidence of the aid.
"We hear about tens of billions of dollars spent on reconstruction," said Bashar Muhammed, the Internet cafe owner. "The only reconstruction in the country I see now are the cement barriers. There are lots of them."
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Bassam Sebti and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.