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A LETTER FROM BAGHDAD

In Iraq, the Day After

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 2, 2009

BAGHDAD -- Maybe it was the only shot heard for days in a neighborhood once ordered by the cadence of gunfire. Perhaps it was the smiles at checkpoints and the shouts of Iraqi policemen navigating the always snarled traffic. "God's mercy on your parents," they beseeched. "God's blessings on you." Maybe it was the music box still playing "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" at a kiosk overflowing with Christmas tree decorations and heart-shaped red pillows.

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For anyone returning to Baghdad after spending time here during its darkest days two years ago, when it was paralyzed by sectarian hatred and overrun by gunmen sowing despair, the conclusion seemed inescapable.

"The war has ended," said Heidar al-Abboudi, a street merchant.

The war in Iraq is indeed over, at least the conflict as it was understood during its first five years: insurgency, communal cleansing, gangland turf battles and an anarchic, often futile quest to survive. In other words, civil war -- though civil war was always too tidy a term for it. The entropy, for now at least, has run its course. So have many of the forces the United States so dangerously unleashed with its 2003 invasion, turning Iraq into an atomized, fractured land seized by a paroxysm of brutality. In that Iraq, the Americans were the final arbiter and, as a result, deprived anything they left behind of legitimacy.

Not to say that there is peace in Iraq. As many people are killed today as on any day in 2003 and 2004. Nor is there victory. For any Iraqi, the word, translated into Arabic, draws a dumbfounded look. Victory for whom? Certainly not the tens of thousands of civilians -- perhaps many more -- killed in the frenzied clashes of those once inchoate forces.

Rather, it is the day after.

Baghdad feels much as southern Lebanon did after an asymmetrical war there in 2006, between Israel and Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim movement that fought Israel to a draw. Survivors rose from the rubble of their homes, offices and stores with the satisfied smile of survival -- in war, its own victory. Then they beheld the destruction the fighting had wrought around them. Their faces turned grim as they realized the task at hand.

It is perhaps the day before, too.

"We don't know what's next," Shidrak George, a bystander, said April 9, 2003, as he watched men vainly assault Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdaus Square with chains, a sledgehammer and a cascade of rocks before making way for a bulky Marine M88 armored recovery vehicle to pull it down. The vehicle stopped for no one. It didn't have to.

He said everything remained ghamidh -- mysterious and unclear.

"We want to know how this turns out."

A City of Walls

In Baghdad's 1,250-year history, its denizens have bestowed on it many names. To Abu Jaafar Mansour, its founder, it was the City of Peace, a capital whose walls were so perfectly circular that a contemporary suggested they were poured into a mold and cast.


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