Was it worth it? An Iraqi family debates.

On the eve of the three-year anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, the Methboubs, like most Iraqis, feel a mix of frustration, disappointment, and hope in the face of daily sectarian violence.

Crammed into the same ramshackle apartment in which they fearfully waited out the US invasion of Iraq three years ago, the Methboub family is asked to list the good points of the US presence.

But an argument erupts in their small living room, like a bomb in a crowded marketplace.

"They never do anything good, they close the roads, they kill the Iraqi people," spits out 19-year-old daughter Fatima, clicking her tongue "no" repeatedly. "They own Saddam's palaces, but they are worse than Saddam Hussein. They hurt the Iraqi people."

"I object," says Amal, 16, trying to insert her more nuanced argument between Fatima's strident declarations. "The first thing [the Americans] did is release us from Saddam Hussein. That's a big revolution for Iraq."

The close-knit, poor family of Karima Selman Methboub, a widow with eight children whom the Monitor has followed closely since late 2002, has always met challenges head-on, accepting what they see as their fate with a potent sense of humor, and often with laughter.

But for many Iraqis, who have watched in horror as tens of thousands of their countrymen have died since the 2003 invasion, hopes for the future are muted, or gone. US promises of freedom and democratic rule after the tyranny of Saddam Hussein have instead given way to Iraqi anger at US invaders and Iraqi insurgents.

"The only one who is responsible for the Iraqi and American dead is [President] Bush," claims Fatima. "I hope Bush's conscience judges him. The Americans and the Iraqis know: He is responsible for the mass killing in Iraq, no one else."

Amal counters: "Thanks to Saddam Hussein, we are blind, and we are deaf. Did you like to live in the dark?" she demands of her sister. "The small Arab countries have development and good education. We do not, though we are the richest in the Arab world."

"I can't say that the Americans are angels," she continues. "But when Iraq wants to develop, the terrorists come to Iraq from Syria and Saudi Arabia. The Americans are trying to preserve the freedom of societies around the world."

But many Iraqis say the price has been higher than they could have imagined. "My soul is unsettled in my body," intones Mrs. Methboub. She mentions that gunmen wearing commando uniforms entered the house of relatives a couple of weeks ago, and took away three sons who later turned up dead.

"We can't like Iraq now, because we are tired," says Methboub. "If we had a lot of money, we would run away from this country. The civil war is starting."

Amal adds with some exasperation over the new government: "Iraq will be finished, all the people will die, but still politicians will fight for their posts."

She will be 17 next week and kept a diary during the war. Recent entries comment on the surge in sectarian violence, and Amal's own drift toward sectarian thinking. "When you say you are Shiite or Sunni on the street, people say: 'No, don't say that,' " she says, toying with the tail of a turquoise head scarf. "But it never changes the fact that Iraq contains Shiite and Sunnis [and] they now hate one another."

Battling to scrape by

Such thinking was far from this family's thoughts three years ago. Full of dread and losing hope, as the American invasion of Iraq loomed, the Methboubs watched helplessly as better-off neighbors moved out of their run-down Baghdad apartment building in search of safety.

Fear gripped the capital before the attack, and statements about the future began with the words: "If I am still alive...."

"Without my neighbors, I felt strange, and started to be afraid," Methboub told the Monitor on the eve of war in 2003. "Because I cried, my daughters cried, too."

Today, the Methboub family still cries and lives in fear. Like so many other poor families in Iraq, they are battling to scrape a living through war, occupation, insurgent violence and now growing sectarian bloodshed. Another 25 executed bodies were found on the streets Thursday. Some 86 corpses were discovered on Tuesday.

Baghdad has morphed from a place of order and calm - imposed by the heavy hand of Hussein and his well-oiled, omniscient security forces - to one of divided by miles of blast walls, coils of razor wire, and checkpoints. The word "safety" is rare; the word "victory" is never heard.

Vowing to form a unity government that can avoid "national disaster," Iraq's first full-term parliament held its inaugural session Thursday. But even as 275 deputies were sworn into office, they have yet to end the political deadlock over choosing a prime minister.

And this week President Bush warned of more "chaos and carnage in the days and months to come."

Such a candid assessment is no surprise to the Methboubs who have now become so stretched by chronic insecurity that they question the entire enterprise that still keeps 130,000 US troops on Iraqi soil.

Turning against the US presence

Fifteen-year-old daughter Duha's experience with Americans may be most trenchant - and perhaps more worrying, for US military commanders and officials alike. The Baghdad primary school she attended with her twin sister, Hibba, was renovated by US forces early in the occupation.

"It's good for all the students; it was an old school, and in the past we thought it would fall on us," says Duha, sitting on the single step to the kitchen. "I liked only one soldier. He gave us sweets and notebooks at school. He sent me a letter and gave me a necklace."

That was before Iraqi prisoners were found to be abusing inmates at Abu Ghraib prison, humiliating them in ways that turned Iraqi stomachs - and were played repeatedly on the televisions in most Iraqi living rooms.

"I don't like the Americans anymore," says Duha, as her mother tries to quietly shush her. "Many soldiers came to our school, and gave us school bags, but my friends don't like the Americans."

For a family of such modest means, the Methboubs are never short of drama. Daughter Zainab, who turned 18 last month and married in late 2004, is four months pregnant. Her husband works as a bodyguard for a ranking Iraqi politician.

A fire swept through a nearby bakery not long ago, destroying the family air conditioner. That will make the last days of Zainab's pregnancy in August uncomfortable, they predict. Smoke from the fire wrecked the apartment interior (which has now been repainted in pale blue and beige) and a wheelchair-bound neighbor upstairs died the next day; they say of "shock."

Duha passed her English exam with a 58 percent, but Hibba failed with just 45 percent correct. Mother Methboub jumps to her defense, complaining how "bad" the teachers are these days. During a visit, Hibba quietly sits in the kitchen, completing homework.

Youngest sibling Mahmoud, 12, who was "painted" by a US soldier's laser rifle sight late last year when he played around with toy guns on the street, has turned those dangerous toys in for a simple Nintendo-style TV game. During his next school break, Mahmoud will again sell Pepsi on the sidewalk, earning one dollar a day.

Hope for the next generation

As darkness sets in, the family notes that electricity supply has been declining - now one hour on, and three hours off. US officials confirmed this week that power supply has reached a three-year low.

For families like the Methboubs, unaware of the billions the US invested in boosting power supply, and the collapsing state of the grid, that fact says it all. But despite the ever-present danger on the streets, and the seemingly endless carnage on the TV news, Amal is looking ahead.

It is evidence of the gritty determination to prevail that has seen the Methboubs through one crisis after another, and certainly will see them through many more.

"I am hopeful," Amal says with quiet conviction, as if waiting for Fatima to protest. "Maybe after two years, when I am older, hopefully I can make some changes in Iraq. I hope something better will happen."

"Every year, I will grow, like Iraq," says Amal, stronger now. "This event is good for my generation, because the next generation will learn how to avoid this situation in the future."

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