In Iraq, the Day After
The War, in a Sense, Is Over. But a New Struggle Begins As Citizens Ask the Inevitable Question: What Next?

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.

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.

Saddam Hussein's Baghdad was a testament to his megalomania, a strange sprawl with a disfigured sense of grandeur. After his fall, the city was stripped bare, revealing a modern creation of brick and mud, vulnerable like its people. It became a city of lanterns amid the blackouts, a city of ghosts shadowed by fear, a city that was mahjoura, forsaken. The architecture of occupation soon followed, falling like a curtain -- dull, unadorned concrete barriers colored in the somber gray of an overcast sky.

Baghdad today is a city of those walls.

The neighborhood of Dora looks like a maximum-security prison, complete with a rusted watchtower. Sadiyah has but one entrance, where waiting traffic sometimes snakes a mile. Sadr City is enclosed, then divided into three hamlets. Amariyah is surrounded. So are Hurriyah and Shuala, Bayaa and Amal. No one can see inside. No one can look out.

In two years, only the faces of the walls have changed.

They now declare the swagger of Iraqi army units: "The Lion Brigade remains a lion," graffiti reads. They warn: "Respect and be respected." They celebrate: "Long live the new Iraq." They serve as a canvas for murals that forgo Iraq's more contemporary Arab past for its older Sumerian and Babylonian glory. They carry the advertisements of the travel agencies, moneychangers and realty offices they now protect. They bear the floral patterns that, not long ago, were more familiar on martyrs' posters.

Most of all, the walls conceal.

"A ruined state" was the term Iraq's parliament speaker had for what the Americans have left behind those walls. Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said it in anger after he resigned in December. But the phrase resonates, in both Iraq as a whole, a weary landscape dominated in hues of brown, the color of poverty, and in Baghdad, a city where everything these days seems twisted or torn, bent or broken, snared in barbed wire that has lost its sheen. Every median has its piles of dirt and rubble, often both. Every curb has its soggy trash.

This war's end feels more truce than treaty, more respite than reconciliation. There is no revival or renaissance, no celebration. It manifests itself most in the simple lifting of a siege.

In a roundabout once known as Ali Baba Square, water occasionally flows from a bronze fountain portraying Kahramana, the slave girl who outwitted the 40 thieves of "A Thousand and One Nights." Boys play pool on tables lining the lazy Tigris River. Trucks along Abu Nawas Street bring flopping fish destined for plates of masgoof, an Iraqi specialty.

In Firdaus Square, where Hussein's statue once gave way to American tanks whose barrels read "Beastly Boy" and "Bloodlust" and U.S. soldiers blared Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" over Humvee speakers, two students, Hussein al-Abbas and Amjad Abdel Hamza, took pictures of each other near the swings and park benches.

"For the memories," Abbas said.

Behind them, a poster reads: "Law builds the nation."

Fragile is the term American officials rely on to describe this Iraq, and indeed, it is that. At this moment, the country feels as though it could recover, economically if not physically, blessed by oil reserves that are potentially the largest in the world. Crumbling, it feels as though it could just as well remain a powerless, pliant country buckling under its own weight, dependent on a United States that seems determined to dictate its future.

The spectrum between those poles relies on the question of power. The struggle for that power -- a series of elections this year is one avenue, and money, guns and repression are another, more familiar means -- pervades almost every aspect of life in Iraq today.

Fragile, repeat the Americans. Dangerous, say many Iraqis, bracing for more violence.

"Before the storm, there's always quiet," said Amal Salman, living with her family in Karrada, above a street lined with vendors hawking hats emblazoned with "Budweiser," "Wisconsin" and "Baylor Crew." A kiosk offered posters of Turkish soap operas that have become a sensation in Baghdad and elsewhere in the Arab world. Pictures of Hossam al-Rassam, a popular Iraqi singer, were in short supply.

When she was 13, Salman chronicled the fall of Hussein in her diary. "No one realizes they are gone, all of them, forever," she wrote in 2003. She stayed optimistic during Baghdad's darkest chapter. "The sun will set today, but it always rises again. Everything rises again," she said then. "I don't know how to express it, but I understand it."

Now 18, she worried.

"It's always most dangerous when it's calm," she said.

The Culture of the Shoe

Standing in Firdaus Square on April 9, 2003, the Marine recovery vehicle doing its part, it was difficult to imagine that the United States truly understood the country it had inherited that day. Iraq was a place brutalized by war and tyranny, imbued with ambivalence about the future, shaped by yearning for the past. It never abided by American preconceptions. It never hewed to the United States' construct of what a country should be.

In months, the unanticipated forces that would shape Iraq were soon unleashed -- a Shiite Muslim revival, disenfranchisement of Sunnis, the import of a radical strain of Islam, the hardening of sectarian and ethnic identities, and the onset of a lawless culture of men with guns. An Iraqi friend once called their legacy the culture of the shoe, known here as the kundura.

"When anyone is against you, when anyone has differences with me, I will put a kundura in his mouth, I will shove a kundura down his throat, I will hit him with a kundura, and so on," he said at the time. "We live in a kundura culture."

Today, many of those forces seem to have fitfully run their course.

"There is a disintegration in the entire sectarian establishment in Iraq," said Wamidh Nadhme, a political science professor sitting in the Adhamiyah quarter, over a leisurely lunch of a wintertime soup that mixed turnips with balls of ground meat. "Everyone now is trying to wash their hands of the blood that had stained them."

His once perilous neighborhood was now quiet. There was neither the staccato crack of gunfire nor the dull thud of helicopters. His gate was unlocked. So was his front door.

His son, Jamal, nodded in agreement, but then offered a caveat.

"The embers are still glowing," he cautioned his father.

Mercury might best describe Iraq's politics these days, skipping, rolling and congealing, pushed and pulled by forces that always feel surreptitious and furtive.

The overarching Shiite alliance, once blessed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has crumbled. The figure of one of its leaders, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, stricken by cancer and ravaged by its treatment, seems a metaphor for its fortunes. The bloc that claimed to speak on behalf of reticent Sunnis has splintered, unable to agree on a candidate to replace the speaker of parliament, himself partial to the kundura. It faces competition from the Sons of Iraq movement, which is made up of many who have surrendered the insurgency for a seat at the table. The Shiite prime minister is rallying Sunnis against Kurds. Some of his allies are those same former insurgents.

Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurd were always facile descriptions of Iraq. Now they make hardly any sense before the constellation of combustible alliances jockeying to answer the questions at the heart of Iraqi politics today: How strong will the central government in Baghdad be, and what coalition of interests will secure power?

"The flames have disappeared. It's true," said Abboudi, the street vendor in crowded Karrada, as he sat at his well-stocked store of men's clothes. "But the war continues among the politicians. Until this moment, there is a great struggle going on among them."

In that, 2009 feels much like that April day in 2003. Then, as now, one war's end was the preamble for another, far greater struggle. Much was ambiguous and indistinct. Consequences were unintended.

Like today, it was all ghamidh.

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