Iraq on its own

Nine portraits of Iraq without America

Seven months after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, its people are struggling to build peace and prosperity from the ruins of war. Even with violence spiking this summer, Baghdad's double-decker buses are back, an American-style shopping mall has opened and ordinary people are building homes and businesses — and even a luxury spa.

Traffic chaotically bottlenecks at a security checkpoint in central Baghdad where vehicles are funneled into a single lane for security forces to meet the eyes of every driver on Thursday, July 5, 2012, in Baghdad, Iraq.



It was 6 p.m. on a Friday, and four lanes of heavy traffic were headed into the Baghdad city center on Jadriya Street. Then traffic came to a stop. Anyone who lives in Iraq these days knows why: Checkpoint.

Iraqi Army and police have set up hundreds of checkpoints all over the country. Traffic is funneled into a single lane, and security forces meet eyes with every driver. If they see something they don't like, they pull the car over and check documents, trunks, backseats - any place that could conceal weapons, explosives or even kidnap victims.

There are far fewer checkpoints now than there were during the war, when they were mainly manned by the U.S. military. But checkpoints are still a dominant feature of life in Iraq, and they are everywhere. On a recent trip from Baghdad to Tikrit, about 90 miles north, a driver passed more than 40 checkpoints.

The checkpoints create some of the most dangerous situations in Iraq - huge traffic jams and police who are sitting ducks for car bombs, when insurgents are known to favor large body counts and love to kill police and soldiers. Lately, police have been killed at checkpoints by drivers carrying pistols with silencers.

Some of the widespread attacks on July 23, which killed more than 100 people across the country, targeted checkpoints.

On Jadriya Street, the two lanes of traffic leading up to the checkpoint are lined with wires that the police have decorated with red, blue and pink plastic flowers.

"We put them there to make the checkpoint a little more beautiful," says the police lieutenant in charge of the checkpoint, who declined to give his name for his own safety.

He said the checkpoints are needed, even though they are nerve-wracking for his officers and frustrating for drivers. "Sometimes people get upset and yell at us," he said. "We try to convince them that it's for their own safety. Sometimes it's the drunk people who yell, and we can't do anything about that."

"We are looking for terrorists," he said. "If we search cars, of course there will be more traffic jams. But if we don't, maybe a terrorist will get through."

When the police at the Jadriya checkpoint have suspicions about a car, they direct the driver into a secondary inspection lane that is lined with concrete blast walls. The concrete barriers are 10 feet high and form a one-lane corridor more than 100 feet long. Here, a police officer in full combat gear, carrying an AK-47 assault rifle and wearing a helmet with goggles, opens doors and trunks.

The police pulled over a brand-new white Kia sedan for an extra look. Sitting in the front seat were two clean-cut men in their late 20s, with an iPhone in the cup holder between the front seats.

"I feel safer because of these checkpoints," said Ali al Khafaji, 28, the driver, who works for a local human rights organization. "Sometimes they make me late, but that's better than being killed."

Ahmed Mohammad, who suffers from psoriasis, receives a fish spa treatment at Doctor's Fish Spa on Wednesday, July 4, 2012, in Baghdad, Iraq.


The spa life, with fish

In Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood, Doctor's Fish Spa offers a little bit of luxury to the war weary.

The spa, which opened in January, is one of the first in Iraq to offer massages, a big Jacuzzi, sauna, a gym and more esoteric treatments, including "ionic cleansing," live leeches, and fish that suck dead or damaged skin from people who dip their feet in a tank.

"Iraqis are always facing hard days - bad traffic jams, explosions, bombs, everything. I thought of a way to help them relax," said Musbah Jassim, a business management professor at a local university who invested about $180,000 to open the spa.

"Here, they can live for two hours in peace," he said, sitting in the main treatment room, which has peach walls, a massage table, a massage chair and a large tank filled with hundreds of "doctor fish" imported from Turkey.

Jassim said in the past six months at least 170 people have had fish treatments and 70 have had treatment with leeches, which are supposed to suck blood from injured muscles or joints.

The fish sessions cost $25, and the leeches are $30 each, which make them a splurge for most Iraqis, but a welcome luxury for a large number of people who for years have had to look for their pampering overseas as war raged at home.

"Iraqis want to see the same things here that they see in other countries," Jassim said.

At 10:30 one recent morning, Ahmed Mohammad, 33, slipped off his pants and dipped his legs into the fish tank. The one-inch-long fish immediately swarmed to his feet and legs, and they seemed drawn most to red spots of psoriasis that dotted Mohammad's body.

"I read about this on the Internet and saw it on YouTube," Mohammad said. "At first I didn't think it would work, but it has made a big improvement in my skin."

Mohammad took a day off from his job as a road-paving-company foreman to have his second one-hour treatment.

"This is the benefit of security," Mohammad said. "Now that the city is safe, I can have these treatments. I can do whatever I want."

"Iraqi people are like everyone else," he said. "We want to try new things. Now that we are done with war, we can."

Commuters pay 500 Iraqi dinar, about 40 cents, to ride on the city's double-decker bus system on Monday, July 2, 2012, in Baghdad, Iraq.


Return of the double-decker

It was 8 a.m. at a bus station just down the road from Firdos Square, where jubilant Iraqis pulled down a towering Saddam Hussein statue right after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The station was filled with a sight not seen in years: British-style red double-decker buses, virtually indistinguishable from the London version - except for the curtains to protect from the baking sun.

"This means Baghdad is back to the old days," said driver Abbas Jabur, 62, who started driving a double-decker in June, but who has been driving buses in Iraq for 35 years. "The time of war has ended. This is a symbol of peace and the Old Baghdad."

Baghdad has a long history of red double-decker buses, dating from British rule in the early 20th century. But they disappeared more than a decade ago, when the pre-invasion economic embargo made it impossible to get new buses or spare parts.

Since May, the city has a new fleet of 60 double-deckers, made in Jordan, once again working key routes in central Baghdad. Jabur said he remembers riding the double-deckers as a boy, and he's delighted to see families hopping on just for the experience (and sometimes the air-conditioning).

Jabur drives every day from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., navigating streets where donkey carts piled high with bags of cotton textiles compete for space in the chaotic traffic with yellow taxis and small trucks filled with blocks of ice.

His route reflects the reality of Baghdad today: people going about their business freely on the streets, but much of the way lined with 15-foot-high blast walls to guard against bomb attacks.

"Car bombings sometimes affect my work, but Baghdad is safer than before," Jabur said. "There are fewer checkpoints, and traffic is better."

People poured onto Jabur's 77-seat bus. The 40-cent fare is about half the price of a seat on one of the thousands of crowded minivans that pass for public buses in Baghdad. And the double-deckers are cool, clean and modern: Jabur's driver console has CCTV monitoring the upper deck.

The bus has signs at the top of the stairs and near the doors that say, in English, "Mind Your Head!" and "Caution: No Standing." Most people can't understand what they say.

Jaffar Abid, 55, and his son, Zaid Jaffar, 9, hopped aboard Jabur's bus near the Shorja Market and headed to an electronics shop to fix the computer keyboard and PlayStation console they carried.

The boy immediately led his father up the narrow stairs, holding onto the bright yellow railings. They took two seats at the very front, where they had a great view of the street out the huge front windows.

"This is fun for him," Abid said, looking at his son in a Batman T-shirt, his nose pressed close to the bus window. "I think these buses make the city more beautiful, and it reminds me of the peaceful days in Baghdad. It's a symbol that those days are coming back again."

Hameed Ahmed Al Hashim, head of the local government of Fallujah, speaks with a constituent in his office on Tuesday, July 3, 2012, in Fallujah, Iraq.


Living with fear

Hameed Ahmed Al Hashim, head of the local government in Fallujah, lives a life surrounded by guns. His office is inside a domed building in the middle of a maze of huge concrete blast walls.

The place looks like it is expecting a military invasion. To enter the compound, cars must pass through a warren of alleys created by the blast walls, and are forced to make several hairpin turns watched over by a solider manning a .50-caliber machine gun.

In an interview, Hashim said at least 20 or 30 police officers have been killed in Fallujah since the U.S. troops left in December. But a couple of years ago, he said, that many were dying each day.

When he took over his job in 2007, four of his predecessors had been assassinated in the previous year. He said there have been 10 attempts on his life. "Everyday when I come to work, I imagine in my heart that I will not go home," he said. "But I believe in God. And this is my city, and it is my duty to serve it."

But still, Hashim, a heavy-set man with a thick mustache, has managed to maintain optimism about his city. He points to the recently opened hospital and new water and sewer projects. Much of it was funded by USAID and other foreign donors.

"The citizens of Fallujah are now forgetting the pain they felt for the past few years," he said. "People have started to live a normal life again; they are going back to work."

He is deeply disappointed with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"We got rid of a dictator and dictatorship still exists, just the names have changed. We have no democracy," he said. "Of course I am disappointed in the government. They do not give us any kind of services.

"The citizens of Fallujah are saying, 'enough,' " he said. "We want to live in peace, we want to work, we want development."

A woman passes the Mecca Mall, a cheerful new three-story department store that opened in late February of this year, on Tuesday, July 3, 2012, in Fallujah, Iraq.


Three floors of hope

On Fallujah's Street 40, amid a run-down collection of small shops and blasted buildings, stands the Mecca Mall, a cheerful new three-story department store that opened in late February. It sells Kellogg's Corn Flakes, scooters, a children's wading pool shaped like a dinosaur and king-size headboards trimmed in orange velvet.

"We could never have opened a year ago because of the security situation," said Ahmed Abdul-Razzaq Abbas, 24, whose family owns the brightly colored store with a cheery gold exterior. "It was still risky to open now, but I did. I have to work."

Just after 5 p.m. one day this month, as people started to stir again after the hottest part of the day, customers browsed the aisles, looking at frozen chicken fingers, Lay's potato chips and Dove face creams.

On the second floor, near the displays of flat-screen TVs and refrigerators, Abdul Rahman Diraa, 39, shopped for clothes with his three sons, 9, 8 and 4.

"I am very happy this place opened," said Diraa, who teaches computer science at a local college. "I can find everything I need in one place, instead of going to five or six. This is new for us.

Abbas said he and his friends usually relax on the weekends in Baghdad, where security is better. In Fallujah, he said they occasionally go out to play dominos and drink tea in a coffee shop after work, but they don't stay out too long because they are still worried about security.

"It's better that the Americans left. I hate them," Abbas said. "But it's still the same. When they were here, there were explosions. They are gone and there are still explosions."

Sulaiman al Jiboori shows the long scar running down his spine at his home on Saturday, July 7, 2012, in Tikrit, Iraq.


In Saddam's hometown, mixed feelings

In Saddam Hussein's hometown, many people still have fond memories of their executed ex-president. Sulaiman al-Jiboori has a long scar running up his spine to remind him of Hussein's brutality.

Jiboori, 58, an influential tribal leader with a law degree from Baghdad University, said the scar is from surgery to repair bones in his back broken during beatings by Hussein's security forces.

Jiboori said he was a provincial government official in 1990 when Hussein invaded Kuwait. He said even many of Hussein's close supporters were shocked by the invasion, and he and many others thought that the U.S.-led war it unleashed would devastate Iraq.

So Jiboori said he and other government and military officials began plotting ways to force Hussein from power. He said the discussions didn't get very far before they were caught.

"He put us all in prison," Jiboori said, sitting in his home in a village on the outskirts of Tikrit. "Six were hanged, 12 got life sentences, eight got 15 years and the rest of us got one to five years."

Jiboori said he served 18 months in prison, where he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks. He said the torturers broke bones in his back. A surgery in 2000 failed, and now he needs another that that he said will cost at least $30,000.

Even with the daily pain he still suffers, Jiboori expresses sentiments that are common in Iraq: He's glad Hussein is gone, but he wishes an Iraqi uprising, not a U.S.-led invasion, had ousted him. He thinks Hussein was a ruthless dictator, but that life under his rule wasn't all bad.

"We suffered a lot during the regime," he said. "The Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War. We had a powerful central government and the provinces were neglected. Iraq was isolated from the world, and we needed a democratic government."

But, he said, under Hussein he had a free education, and the government paid for him to spend a year of law school studying in Lebanon. "There are still many supporters of Saddam here," he said.

Jiboori said he prefers having an elected government, and a nation that participates in world affairs, rather than the defiant isolation of the Hussein era.

"I wish that the Americans never came," he said. "There were other ways to change the regime. Everything bad that happened in Iraq, I blame on the Americans."

He said he met many times with U.S. officials to discuss development projects, but nothing ever came of it.

"If the Americans made good projects and services for the people, people would be supportive of them," he said. "Saddam provided security and all kinds of services. If the Americans did the same, people would forget Saddam. We wish the Americans had built something so people would remember them better."

Jiboori said security has also improved since the U.S. troops left in December. But he keeps an AK-47 rifle inside his front door, just in case.

Thousands of Muslim pilgrims, many from Iran, gather between shrines to honor Imam Hussain and his loyal half-brother Imam Abbas in one of the most important cities for Shiite Muslims on Friday, July 12, 2012, in Karbala, Iraq.


Religious pilgrimages, economic benefits

On a hot July evening, more than 100,000 Muslims filled the two holy shrines of Karbala, one of the most important cities for Shiite Muslims. The two shrines, each with stunning gold domes and twin minarets, are dedicated to the revered Islamic figures Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas.

Thousands of people slipped off their shoes and filed into the holy shrines, and thousands more milled around in the crowded streets just outside. Vendors sold popcorn and grilled meats, cold drinks and British soccer shirts. At sunset, the call to prayer rang out and thousands of men knelt to pray in the streets, facing Mecca.

Karbala and neighboring Najaf, two of Islam's holiest cites after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, have been magnets for religious pilgrims for centuries. And now, as Iraq tries to recover from years of war and economic sanctions, the religious pilgrimage business is a leading economic engine.

Mohammad al-Mussawi, head of the local government in Karbala, said about 40 million people a year visit his city. At least 4 million of them are from other countries, and that number is steadily increasing as Iraq's security situation improves, he said.

Several big hotels are rising downtown, including a $175 million hotel and residential complex being developed by Dubai-based Range Hospitality. Range officials have said publicly that they are spending at least $500 million on projects in Karbala and Najaf to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims.

Mussawi said that former president Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, chronically neglected Karbala and its Shiite residents. Now, he said, the local and national governments are building new roads, bridges, housing, water systems and other projects to rebuild.

At least half of all the international visitors to Karbala are from Iran, Mussawi said.

That creates tension in a country that has deep ambivalence about Iran, against which Iraq fought a war in the 1980s. Many people interviewed in Iraq said that Maliki, a Shiite, is too close to Iran. They complained that with the United States military gone, Iran is exerting too much influence over Maliki's government.

But in Karbala, the millions of Iranian pilgrims are welcome.

"The view in Karbala is economic, not political," Mussawi said.

Thousands of Iranians moved among the throngs of people at the shrines, easily recognizable for their style of clothes - and for some, for their chest-thumping religious fervor.

"I came to Baghdad for work, but I had to come here to this holy place," said Saeed Mohammad Ian, 34, an Iranian who works in the oil and gas industry. "This is a special place for Iranians."

Khalid Habeeb, 30, an Iraqi pilgrim dressed in a long white abaya robe, said most Iranians visitors were good for Iraq. But, he said, many people do suspect that some Iranians are simply pretending to be religious pilgrims, and have actually come to Iraq to commit acts of terror.

"Peaceful Iranians are welcome," he said. "But some of them might not be who they say they are."

Halima Daham, 44, who is still officially mourning the recent death of her husband, sits with two of her six children - Ali Khamas, 6, and Fatima Khamas, 5 - at their home in the Sadr City area of the city on Monday, July 9, 2012, in Baghdad, Iraq.


The poor wonder: Was it all worth it?

Halima Daham's husband died this March, after suffering almost eight years of health complications after losing his legs to U.S. tank fire in 2004. Now Daham and her six children live largely on charity from relatives.

"They are also poor people, but they help me when they can," she said, sitting in her tiny home in Sadr City, a vast slum on Baghdad's eastern fringe.

Family charity is about all the poor in Iraq can count on these days.

Daham said she is hoping that her 18-year-old son, Alaa, will find work so he can support the family, "but everywhere they are asking for bribes and I don't have any money."

Alaa said a family friend said he had connections with a Turkish company doing a lot of building in Baghdad. The friend said he needed $120 for a bribe to get Alaa a construction worker's job. Daham paid, but nothing ever happened.

Then Alaa decided to try the Army. Another friend said he could get Alaa a spot as a soldier. But, he said, his connections in the Army were demanding a bribe of $1,500, an impossible sum.

This spring, Daham took her 12-year-old daughter out of school, to save the $20 monthly school fee. She has an old sewing machine and she earns a little money sewing clothes.

Her eldest daughter, Layla Khamas, 24, said prices for most consumer goods have shot up since the war. She said a cylinder of propane gas for cooking cost 20 cents during the Hussein era, but now it costs almost $6.

"We don't know why everything is so expensive now," she said. "I think the situation for the poor was better under Saddam."

Her mother said most people learned the extent of Hussein's crimes after he was forced from office. While he was in power, she said, her family felt safer and better cared for by the government.

"Of course I blame the Americans for what happened to my husband. I don't have him, my children don't have a father," said Daham, covered in a black veil except for her eyes. "I am glad that the Americans got rid of Saddam and his followers. But we got hurt by both sides. And we got nothing from the Americans or the new Iraqi government."

A view of the Square 55 market can be seen from a building heavily damaged by fighting between the U.S. military and the Mahdi Army, forces loyal to Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadrforces in the Sadr City section of Baghdad on Sunday, July 15, 2012, in Baghdad, Iraq.


Fears of retaliation

Dawod al-Ghizi sat on a carpet on the floor of his office in Sadr City, and contemplated this summer's alarming spike in violence in Iraq, mainly directed at Shiite Muslims.

Sadr City, the Shiite slum on the eastern fringes of Baghdad, has been particularly hard hit by a campaign of attacks claimed by the Sunni group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

On July 10 an attacker placed a "sticky bomb" beneath a Toyota minivan that was stopped at 55 Square, one of Sadr City's main intersections, killing at least three people.

Then on July 23, a bomb in another crowded Sadr City square killed at least 12 people and injured almost 40 more, on a day when coordinated attacks in 15 cities killed more than 100 people and injured dozens more.

Many have worried that Iraq could slide back into the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites that tore the country apart from 2006 to 2008. And many here wonder whether the violence against Shiites will provoke an armed response from Shiite militants, especially the Mahdi Army, which is loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But Ghizi doesn't see it happening.

"I believe that because of the honest people of Iraq, we will never go back to the situation in those years. We are improving, but slowly," said Ghizi, a spokesman for Sadr. "We are no longer carrying weapons; we will use the constitution and the laws to improve Iraq."

Sadr City is still deeply scarred from the ferocious fighting of the war years. Many buildings are still riddled with bullet holes, or simply collapsed from shelling.

It is a deeply religious and conservative place. Unlike most of Baghdad, where women dress more casually and many leave their heads uncovered, almost all women in Sadr City are covered head to toe in black. Portraits of Imams Ali and Hussein, Islamic figures revered by Shiites, look down from posters and billboards.

Transportation is provided largely by rusted old Russian-made Iraqi Army jeeps; a few people sit inside, others simply stand on the back bumper. Under Hussein, Baghdad had power 24 hours a day. Now in Sadr City, generators in wire cages sit outside of businesses and large ones dot the median strips on main roads.

Even though Maliki is a fellow Shiite, Sadr, whose support is critical to Maliki's fragile coalition, has been agitating for a change in government. Ghizi echoed that dissatisfaction, but said his supporters would not be returning to violence.

"People are unsatisfied with the political situation now because there are no real solutions to our problems," Ghizi said. "Things like water and sewer have not been provided. There is corruption, and bribes in all the government offices. We demand that Iraqi officials be like a father for all areas, not just for some people."

PROJECT EDITOR: Anup Kaphle. TEXT: Kevin Sullivan; PHOTOS: Jahi Chikwendiu; GRAPHIC: Kathryn Faulkner and Laris Karklis - The Washington Post. Published Aug. 4, 2012.

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