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This is Baghdad. What could be worse?

"What could be worse?" he asked, knitting his brow.

I saw Wamidh again a week later, and the question had lingered with him. "I sometimes wonder what I would do if I were the Americans," he said over a traditional Ramadan dinner. His answer seemed to hurt him. "I have no idea, really."

"It's like a volcano that has erupted. How do you stop that?"

On April 9, 2003, Firdaus Square became the lasting image of the U.S. entry into Baghdad. In its center was a metal statue of Hussein in a suit, his arm outstretched in socialist realist fashion. Like an arena of spectators, columns of descending height encircled him, each bearing the initials "S.H." on their cupolas. By early afternoon that day, hundreds of Iraqis swarmed around the statue with one task in mind: bring it down. It marked the fall. A year later, amid uprisings by Sunni insurgents in Fallujah and Sadr's militia in Baghdad and the south, it spoke of occupation. The square was deserted, guarded by U.S. tanks whose barrels read, "Beastly Boy" and "Bloodlust." Soldiers, edgy, had orders to shoot anyone with a weapon. At times, music blared over speakers on a Humvee.

One song: "Ring of Fire," by Johnny Cash.

As I stood in Firdaus Square this day, after invasion, liberation and occupation, I wondered what word described Baghdad.

"This is a civil war now," Harith Abdel-Hamid, a psychiatrist, had told me, trying to diagnose the madness. "When you see hundreds of people killed every day, corpses of people tortured in the streets every day, what else does it mean?"

"Call it what you will," he said, "but it is a civil war."

Perhaps. But I felt as though I was witnessing something more: the final, frenzied maturity of once-inchoate forces unleashed more than three years ago by the invasion. There was civil war-style sectarian killing, its echoes in Lebanon a generation ago. Alongside it were gangland turf battles over money, power and survival; a raft of political parties and their militias fighting a zero-sum game; a raging insurgency; the collapse of authority; social services a chimera; and no way forward for an Iraqi government ordered to act by Americans who themselves are still seen as the final arbiter and, as a result, still depriving that government of legitimacy.

Civil war was perhaps too easy a term, a little too tidy.

I looked out on the square. On one side were rows of concrete barricades and barbed wire, having faded almost organically into the landscape. In another direction, a billboard read: "Terrorism has no religion." Across the street, a poster portraying Iraqi police pleaded: "We are the heroes fighting for the sake of Baghdad." In the middle of the square, on the stone perch where Hussein's statue once stood, were torn scraps of other posters: "Your voice," "the nation," "patriotism," "dialogue," "building the future." The words were isolated, without context, like fragments of a clay tablet.

Sirens soon pierced the square. Two armed police escorts, headed in opposite directions, rushed along the street. Each frantically waved at the other to pull over. Guns dangling from the window, they fired volleys into the air to intimidate each other.

In time, the one with fewer rifles and fewer men let the other pass. They were playing by the rules of the kundara.

In the square, Salam Ahmed sat with a friend, Saad Nasser, under the statue, looking out at the scene.

"They died under Saddam, and they're dying now," Salam said.

Unshaven, wearing a baseball cap, Saad looked at the ground. He was grim, angry and dejected.

"No one can stop it but God," he said. "Only God has the power."

shadida@washpost.com

Anthony Shadid, a Washington Post foreign correspondent, won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He is the author of "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War" (Picador).


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