By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006
BAGHDAD, Dec. 30 -- Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had been dead no more than 11 hours, but to Um Noor, he might as well have died three years ago.
"We've forgotten about him," Noor said late Saturday afternoon, as she stood in the jeans store she owns in central Baghdad.
Like many Iraqis, Noor once feared Hussein, who rose to power 24 years ago by ruthlessly wiping out his enemies. When U.S. troops ousted him in 2003, many Iraqis believed their days of living in fear were over.
But three years later, Iraqis are still a terrorized people. Now, instead of Hussein, they fear the car bombs that maim and kill every day, the kidnappers who snatch people off the streets in broad daylight, the mortar shells that fall on residential neighborhoods. And they fear each other, as Shiite Muslims fight Sunni Arabs in what is spiraling into a civil war.
Despite an infusion of billions of dollars in reconstruction funds from the United States, they are watching their quality of life deteriorate. They spend hours each day with no electricity. They wait in long lines for fuel. And they pay higher prices for food while their salaries remain the same.
"Everything is worse," Noor said. "What did we gain from him being gone?"
The initial jubilation among many Iraqis following Hussein's execution Saturday morning gave way to the realization that his death would not bring an end to the daily violence that Iraqis now endure or improve the services they could once count on.
Noor, a petite 36-year-old, struggles to pay the $300 a month it costs to rent the space for her store in the Karrada district of Baghdad. By the time she buys fuel for the generator to light her shop, there is little money left to provide for her two daughters. She has fewer customers now, she said, because people cannot afford to buy jeans with rhinestones and bows that sell for $20 or more a pair.
"With all that we are facing, I have to face this," she said, eyeing her front door nervously. She was there alone and it was getting dark, almost time for her to lock up. She used to keep her shop open until midnight. Now she leaves by 6 p.m. to avoid Baghdad by night. "I'm a woman alone," she said.
Sameer Dawoud, 62, has owned an art gallery in Baghdad since 1984. People bought art back then. Now, they don't want to brave the streets to browse the works hanging on his walls. The frames on his paintings of the Tigris River and Arabian horses are dusty. Several nearby art galleries have been shuttered.
Dawoud said he does not expect Hussein's death to end the violence that keeps his customers away. "Whoever is playing on the field, he will continue playing," he said.
Many Iraqis said Hussein became irrelevant long ago, when U.S. troops found him hiding in a hole near his home town of Tikrit in December 2003. He emerged looking dirty and bewildered, erasing the image most Iraqis had of him as a figure bent on domination.
His persona diminished even more as he stood trial for the retaliatory killings of 148 Shiite men and boys from the town of Dujail in the 1980s. In ill-fitting suits, he was no longer scary-looking. As many Iraqis assumed he would be convicted, interest in his trial faded. They had new enemies: insurgents, militias, death squads, Americans, each other.
The sectarian divisions that had always existed in Iraqi society had begun tearing it apart. Hussein, a Sunni, and his Baath Party often oppressed Shiites and Kurds. In the new Iraq, Shiites, who make up the majority of the population, now wield more power, and Sunnis are waging a relentless insurgency.
Reaction to Hussein's execution early Saturday, the day Sunnis consider the beginning of the holy Eid al-Adha celebration, reflected that deep divide.
"There's no Eid," said Sami Mahmoud, 35, a store owner in Karrada. "This is a day for the Persians and not for the Arabs. God have mercy on his soul."
Shiites, many of whom lost relatives during the Hussein era or were imprisoned for political dissent, called his execution an early gift. Their Eid celebration begins Sunday.
Hussein Abu Ali, 35, a civil servant, stayed up all night with his brothers and sisters, waiting for news of the execution. Hussein had banished them from Iraq when he was a child, he said. They moved to Iran and were allowed back in only after 2003.
The family cheered at the television images of masked men wrapping a noose around Hussein's neck.
"Now the head of the snake has been cut," Ali said.
Despite the tension, there was relative calm Saturday and no curfew, which the government often imposes in particularly violent times.
Shiites celebrated peacefully in the southern city of Najaf, albeit with gunshots in the air. There were minor clashes in Tikrit, as residents carried pictures of Hussein and banners that read: "You Shiites, you shall leave this city, and every home and every street."
Car bombs killed at least 45 people.
Just three hours after Hussein's death, an olive green minibus exploded in a crowded market in the Shiite southern city of Kufa, killing 34 civilians and wounding 58, said Munthir al-Ithary, the director of the Najaf Health Department. A mob beat and stoned the perpetrator after a shopkeeper spotted him trying to flee, said Kufa's mayor, Yusif al-Janaby.
In the Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad, two car bombs exploded within moments of each other, one near a market, the other near the bus terminal. They killed 11 people and wounded six, said an Interior Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
There's one thing Iraqis agree on, whatever their sect: Their day-to-day problems will probably not get better anytime soon.
"I believe that a return of peace and security is not feasible, and the Americans and the Iraqi government must try hard to find solutions for the catastrophic situation," said Sherzad Omar Fekky, an instructor at the University of Kirkuk.
Zahara Jasim, 24, sat inside a women's clothing store in Karrada rubbing her hands together by a space heater to stay warm. She said she was happy to see Hussein die. She blames him for the death of her father, who fought in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
But she doesn't blame him for her current problems. That, she said, is the Americans' fault.
"They haven't done anything," she said. "There's no oil. There's no kerosene. There's no electricity. If they really wanted to make things work, they would."
Adnan Mizher, 34, a former army officer from Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, said his brother was executed by Hussein's government. Still, he said, life was better under Hussein. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he said, has done nothing for Iraqis.
"Today, there are killings, murder, kidnappings and displacement of people on sectarian grounds," he said. "Life under Saddam was much better than now. The hell of Saddam is better than the paradise that Maliki promised us."
Special correspondent Saad Sarhan and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.