After Years of War, Few Iraqis Have a Clear View of the Future
BAGHDAD — The invasion of Iraq, occupation and tumult that followed were called Operation Iraqi Freedom back then. It will be named New Dawn on Wednesday. But America’s attempt to bring closure to an unpopular war has collided with a disconnect familiar since 2003: the charts and trend lines offered by American officials never seem to capture the intangible that has so often shaped the pivots in the war in Iraq.
Call it the mood. And the country, seemingly forever unsettled and unhappy, is having a slew of bad days.
“Nothing’s changed, nothing!” Yusuf Sabah shouted in the voice of someone rarely listened to, as he waited for gas in a line of cars winding down a dirt road past a barricade of barbed wire, shards of concrete and trash turned uniformly brown. “From the fall of Saddam until now, nothing’s changed. The opposite. We keep going backwards.”
Down the road waited Haitham Ahmed, a taxi driver. “Frustrated, sick, worn out, pessimistic and angry,” he said, describing himself.
“What else should I add?”
The Iraq that American officials portray today — safer, more peaceful, with more of the trappings of a state — relies on 2006 as a baseline, when the country was on the verge of a nihilistic descent into carnage. For many here, though, the starting point is the statement President George W. Bush made on March 10, 2003, 10 days before the invasion, when he promised that “the life of the Iraqi citizen is going to dramatically improve.”
Iraq generates more electricity than it did then, but far greater demand has left many sweltering in the heat. Water is often filthy. Iraqi security forces are omnipresent, but drivers habitually deride them for their raggedy appearance and seeming unprofessionalism. That police checkpoints snarl traffic does not help.
What American officials portray as their greatest accomplishment — a nascent democracy, however flawed — often generates a rueful response. “People can’t live only on the air they breathe,” said Qassem Sebti, an artist.
In a conflict often defined by unintended consequences, the March election may prove a turning point in an unexpected way. To an unprecedented degree, people took part, regardless of sect and ethnicity.
But nearly six months later, politicians are still deadlocked over forming a government, and the glares at the sport-utility vehicles that ferry them and their gun-toting entourages from air-conditioned offices to air-conditioned homes, after meetings unfailingly described as “positive,” have become sharper.
Disenchantment runs rife not with one faction or another, but with an entire political class that the United States helped empower with its invasion.
“The people of Kadhimiya mourn for the government in the death of water and electricity,” a tongue-and-cheek banner read near a Shiite shrine in Baghdad.
The year 2003, when the Americans invaded, often echoes in 2010, as they prepare to leave. Little feels linear here these days; the sense of the recurrent is more familiar.
Lines at fuel stations returned this month, that testament to one the greatest of Iraq’s ironies: a country with the world’s third largest reserve of oil in which people must endure long waits for gas.
“Ghamidh” was the word heard often in those earliest years. It means obscure and ambiguous, and then, as now, it was typically the answer to any question.
“After seven years our destiny is still unknown,” Mr. Sabah said, waiting in a gas line. “When you look to the future, you have no idea what it holds.”
Complaints over shoddy services paraphrase the same grievances of those anarchic months after Saddam Hussein’s fall. The sense of the unknown persists, as frustration mounts, Iraqi leaders bicker and no one seems sure of American intentions, even as President Obama observes what the administration describes as a turning point in the conflict.
“I challenge anyone to say what has happened, what’s happening now and what will happen in the future,” Mohammed Hayawi, a bookseller whose girth matched his charm, said as sweat poured down his jowly face on a hot summer day in 2003.
Mr. Hayawi died in 2007, as a car bomb tore through his bookstore filled with tomes of ayatollahs, predictions by astrologers and poems of Communist intellectuals. This week, in the same shop, still owned by his family, Najah Hayawi reflected on his words, near a poster that denounced “the cowardly, wretched bombing” that had killed his brother.
“There is no one in Iraq who has any idea — not only about what’s happened or what’s happening — but about what will happen in the future,” he said. “Not just me, not just Mohammed, God rest his soul, but anyone you talk to. You won’t find anyone.”
Iraqis call the overthrow of Mr. Hussein’s government the “suqut.” It means the fall. Seven years later, no one has yet quite defined what replaced it, an interim as inconclusive as the invasion was climactic. “Theater,” Mr. Hayawi’s brother called it, and he said the populace still had no hand in writing a script that was in others’ hands.
“The best thing is that I have no children,” Shahla Atraqji, a 38-year-old doctor, said back in 2003, as she sipped coffee at Baghdad’s Hunting Club to the strains of Lebanese pop. “If I can’t offer my children a good life, I would never bring them into this world.”
This week, Thamer Aziz, a doctor who helps fit amputees with artificial limbs at the Medical Rehabilitation Center, stared at Musafa Hashem, a 6-year-old boy who lost his right leg in a car bomb in Kadhimiya in July. His father was paralyzed.
“I’ve believed this for a long time, and I still do,” he said. “I cannot get married and have a family because I may lose them any minute, by a bomb or bullet.”
“Just like him,” he said, gesturing toward the boy.
Even in the denouement of America’s experience here, old habits die hard.
On Monday, four American Humvees drove the wrong way down a street, turrets swinging at oncoming traffic. Cars stopped, giving them distance. The Humvees turned, plowed over a curb, dug a trench in the muddy median, then rumbled on their way.
“See! Did you see?” asked Mustafa Munaf, a storekeeper.
“It’s the same thing,” he said, shaking his head. “What’s changed?”