10 years on, Iraq still grapples with war’s legacy
ADVANCE FOR USE SATURDAY, MARCH 16, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - In this Wednesday, March 13, 2013 photo, Shams Karim, 7, rides in a toy boat in Zawraa Park with her father in Baghdad, Iraq. Six years ago, a bomb ripped away the eyes from Shams, killed her mother and left the little girl, blind for life. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
ADVANCE FOR USE SATURDAY, MARCH 16, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - In this Wednesday, March 13, 2013 photo, municipality workers place a flower planter in a traffic island in front of election posters in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)
It’s been more than six years since a bomb ripped away Shams Karim’s eyes, killed
her mother and left the little girl, now 7, blind and disfigured for life. Psychiatric drugs help control her outbursts of crying and screaming.
Throughout Iraq there are tens of thousands of victims like her whose lives are forever scarred by the violence of war. Their wounds – and those of tens of thousands of U.S. and other foreign service members – may never entirely heal.
In Baghdad, life goes on much as it has since the Ottoman sultan ruled these parts. Porters force loaded carts through narrow bazaars as amateur breeders’ beloved pigeons swoop overhead. The calls to prayer from turquoise-domed mosques provide a rhythm to the day.
Yet the legacy of a war that began a decade ago remains very much a part of life here, too. Bullet holes still pockmark buildings, and towers wrecked by American missiles and tank shells have not been fully rebuilt. Iraqi soldiers in body armor corral cars into road-clogging checkpoints, their fingers close to the trigger, ever wary of the next attack. At 1 a.m., a curfew shuts down the capital’s streets, many still lined with blast walls.
It’s hard nowadays to find anybody in the country who hasn’t lost someone to the bloodletting that followed the U.S.-led invasion. Shams’s mother is buried among the densely packed graves in Najaf, where an ancient cemetery is at least 40 percent larger than it was before the war. Each new bombing sends more coffin-topped cars to the hot, dusty city of the dead.
The Bush administration had hoped the war that began with airstrikes before dawn on March 20, 2003, would quickly rid Iraq of purported weapons of mass destruction, go after extremists and replace a brutal dictatorship with the foundations of a pro-Western democracy in the Middle East.
Ten years on, Iraq’s long-term stability and the strength of its democracy remain open questions. The country is unquestionably freer and more democratic than it was before the “shock and awe” airstrikes began. But instead of a solidly pro-U.S. regime, the Iraqis have a government that is arguably closer to Tehran than to Washington and which struggles to exert full control over the country itself.
Bloody attacks launched by terrorists who thrived in the post-invasion chaos are painfully still frequent, although declining, and sectarian and ethnic rivalries are again tearing at the fabric of national unity. The top-heavy government is largely paralyzed by graft, chronic political crisis and what critics fear is a new dictatorship in the making.
By the time the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq in December 2011, nearly 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis had lost their lives. No active WMDs were ever found. The war cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars and diverted resources from Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida rebounded after their pummeling in the 2001 invasion.
In Iraq, the Americans and their allies left behind a broken, deeply traumatized country – a land no longer at war but without peace. The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime destroyed not only dictatorship but also the mechanism of law and order, enabling the rise of al-Qaida and the unleashing of sectarian, ethnic and class hatreds long suppressed by a reign of fear.
Iraqi citizens today are unafraid to criticize their elected leaders in public – with some even going so far as to wish Saddam still ruled – and guests on TV talk shows boldly rail against corruption and other wrongdoing by their elected leaders.
There are other signs of progress, too. Fresh investment in the oil sector has pushed Iraq into the No. 2 producer spot in OPEC, boosting the economy. New businesses are opening up, like a popular Baghdad shopping mall and swanky hotels.
At the newly opened Aroma restaurant in Baghdad, waiters take orders for spaghetti and pizza on iPads. Dalia Ayad, a college student eating there with friends, said the new businesses are a sign that Iraq is moving forward.
“There is a change going on in the country,” she said. “But it’s not moving fast enough.”
The last American combat troops rolled out of Iraq and into Kuwait in December 2011. More than 150 U.S. military personnel remain mainly to provide training and facilitate arms sales – as is the case in many countries – but they are an arm of the American Embassy, a sprawling fortress the size of Vatican City.
Signs of American influence can be found. Rap has gained a following among Iraqi youth, with emcees spinning tales of hardship in bilingual rhyme. The ubiquitous police and army soldiers – some with Oakley-style sunglasses – cruise the roads in all-American Humvees and modified Ford pickups.
Meanwhile, the drumbeat of violent attacks primarily launched by the Iraqi arm of al-Qaida and other Sunni militants continues to take its toll on ordinary Iraqis, such as 13-year-old Ali Hassan Wali.
The sixth-grader was walking home from a holiday visit to his uncle’s house in Baghdad last October when a car bomb detonated. Shrapnel from the blast sheared off his right foot, ending his hopes of becoming a professional soccer player.
“I hope my country gets better. I think it will after we get rid of all the terrorists who make the explosions,” he said.