Baghdad still bear scars of a war yet inconclusive

BAGHDAD — Muwafak Ali's downtown Baghdad music store is still pockmarked by the American rocket that whizzed through the door on one of the first days of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He has since reopened, but business is bad. So are many of his thoughts and memories concerning the seven-plus years of American combat operations that officially came to an end on Tuesday.

"It would have been better if they didn't come," said Ali, 44, a wedding musician who hated Saddam Hussein, yet fondly remembers the days when he was control, the days before the chaos set in.

Now, Ali is glad that American combat troops are gone, yet is fearful of civil war if, or when, 50,000 American military trainers and support personnel that remain behind eventually depart. "They have to stay," he emphasizes, reflecting a view now widely held by ordinary Iraqis.

Seven and a half years after former President George W. Bush attacked Iraq, Baghdad is a battered and weary city whose streets still bear the scars of a war yet inconclusive, and whose citizens are still groping to comprehend the enormity of the changes that turned their lives upside down.

For more than 20 years they endured a dictatorship whose rules most didn't like, but easily understood. Then came the foreign invasion which many at first welcomed, followed by days of looting, years of insurgency, four governments, and a sectarian war, transforming their country in ways that may not be fully resolved for many years, after the dust has settled on the huge uncertainties that still linger. Will Iraqi politicians reach agreement on a new government? Will the insurgency succeed in its efforts to make a comeback? Can the nation's security forces stand alone?

"How can the Americans leave when we don't have a government, don't have a state?" asked Hafedh Zubaidi, 39, who sells mattresses in Baghdad's middle class Karradeh district and is deeply anxious about the future given the political stalemate that has deadlocked the formation of a government since elections six months ago.

"We thought things were really going to be better when the Americans came, and instead they brought us only sorrow," he said. "But if they leave now, there will be no Iraq."

Over the years, the role of the Americans has shifted from liberators to hated occupiers, from colonizers to peacekeepers in a civil war. And now, the ending of the combat mission, decreed by President Barack Obama in fulfillment of his election campaign pledge, comes as just one more event over which Iraqis have no control, and which they worry will disrupt their lives yet again.

In an address to the nation Tuesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed the moment as "a landmark in the Iraqi people's long hard struggle for freedom and dignity."

Iraq "today is independent," he said, without mentioning that it was Obama who decreed the deadline, and not the Iraqi government.

Al-Maliki had warned of the likelihood of major attacks to mark the day, and placed the security forces on high alert. There were none. Three people were killed when a rocket struck their home in a southern Baghdad neighborhood, police said, but otherwise the city was unusually calm, a relatively auspicious start to the beginning of the end of America's combat presence in Iraq.

The Iraqi army was out in force, stopping and searching cars at checkpoints and patrolling the streets in their U.S.-supplied Humvees. "We deserve the future," proclaimed signs on the backs of the camouflage painted vehicles, portraying smiling children holding hands.

In the fortified Green Zone, now under Iraqi control but just as off-limits to ordinary Iraqis as it was when Americans were in charge, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden shuttled between Iraqi leaders, pressing them to hurry up and form a new government. He disputed recent reports that violence has increased.

Indeed, things are much different than they were a little over three years ago, when violence raged between Shiites and minority Sunni Arabs who had controlled Iraq during the Saddam era — and U.S. troops were building up their presence to help tamp it down. There are signs of renewal, intermingled with the debris of war. New stores and restaurants have opened beside the collapsed wrecks of those that have been bombed. Shrubs have been planted along major highways, adding splashes of green to the drab gray landscape.

But much uncertainty — and bitterness — remain.

Muttanabi Street is one of the few places in Baghdad to have received a complete makeover after the legendary block of booksellers was destroyed in a 2007 bombing. Its crisp new pavement and renovated store-fronts thrum with shoppers and cart-pushers hauling stacks of paper and piles of books.

But urban renewal can't erase the lingering anger of those who lost loved ones to violence.

"It was a total collapse," said Fahim Mohammed, 48, who lost four brothers and a nephew in the bombing. He had stepped around the corner to buy supplies when the bomb exploded, and rushed back to drag their bodies from the rubble.

Mohammed says he welcomes the departure of the American combat troops because he blames them for the violence that over the years resulted in the deaths of killed an estimated 100,000 Iraqis, including his relatives. "For that, they don't deserve to stay," he said. But he also doesn't believe anything good will come from their departure.

"Iraq is destroyed. It doesn't have a past, it doesn't have a present and it will not have a future."

Najah Abdul Rahman, 64, agrees. "If they leave of course things will get worse," said Rahman, who lost a brother and nephew in the bombing. "But still I'm glad because the cause of all our tragedies is America."

There's much that hasn't changed since the days of full combat operations, such as the concrete blast walls that still run for miles around Baghdad's neighborhoods, giving the city a militarized feel. They played a key role in subduing the sectarian violence, by separating Sunni Arab and Shiite neighborhoods. Now, they continue to separate communities, suppressing commerce, and, despite repeated promises by the Iraqi government, no one has yet dared tear them down.

Ahmed Saad, 36, hasn't dared venture beyond the wall encircling the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah since he fled there to escape Shiite militias who overran his mixed-sect neighborhood in 2006, killing his father and forcing his family out. He's considered venturing past the first Iraqi army checkpoint guarding the neighborhood.

"But to tell you the truth, I'm too scared," he said. "I always remember the bad things that happened, and then I turn back."

Saad fought with the Americans against the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq, and now runs a teashop a stone's throw from the makeshift cemetery where Sunni residents of the enclave buried their dead from sectarian fighting with Shiites from 2005 to 2007.

"The Americans came here and did all of this," he said, a question mark rising in his voice. "And now they are leaving?"

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