Most Iraqis can tell you the exact moment that war exploded into their lives, dissolving their hope for the US invasion of their country in 2003 and hardening the despair over its bloody aftermath.
For Yas Khudair al-Khafaji, it came on a quiet Friday morning in November 2005. A double suicide truck bombing targeted the Hamra Hotel in Baghdad – and blew up just 25 yards from his front door.
One moment he was watching TV with his daughter Rousel, age 11. Twenty seconds later, the roof collapsed and he heard Rousel's last breath in his ear. Mr. Khafaji's wife and nephew also died.
"It was the first and final knockout in my life. I remember that every day," recalls Khafaji six years later.
Even though the bombing was carried out by Iraqi insurgents, Khafaji blames his searing loss on the United States as an occupying force. Protecting Iraqis, he says, was the responsibility of American troops, and they didn't do it. He also blames Iraqi politicians who, he says, "fight for power and forget the Iraqi people."
A complicated mix of similar complaints echoes across Iraq nearly nine years after one of the most defining and destructive wars in the modern history of the Middle East. While some fault America for starting the war, others blame "terrorists" for Iraq's years of chaos, or meddling nations such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Still others absolve US forces and accuse their own leaders of fueling intra-Iraq violence.
But as American units pack their duffel bags and prepare to fly home – all by the end of December – Iraq stands as a nation about to take sole responsibility for its own future for the first time in a decade, building on a fragile foundation, toward a tomorrow fraught with uncertainty.
Yes, the tyrant Saddam Hussein is gone. And Iraq has a fledgling, if imperfect, democratic government. Overall levels of violence have dropped, engendering a new optimism among some Iraqis. All this allowed President Obama to proclaim recently that US troops will depart Iraq "with their heads held high, proud of their success."
Yet Iraqis remain so conditioned to violence that they still reach for their cellphones every time a bomb explodes, to check that family members are safe. In November alone, insurgents carried out more than 100 targeted killings in Baghdad Province.
"Now terrorists are weaker than they were three years ago, but they are still working," says Khafaji's brother, Salaam, whose son was killed in the 2005 blast. "They don't kill American soldiers; they kill Iraqis. People are afraid."
Indeed, Iraq's fragile social fabric has been shredded by the kinds of bombings, killings, torture, and upheavals that afflicted so many like the Khafaji family – whether at the hands of Sunni extremists like Al Qaeda, Shiite militias, or US and Iraqi forces. While the US lost more than 4,500 soldiers – and spent nearly $1 trillion – the human toll on the Iraqi side is virtually unquantifiable and unimaginable, with estimates of the number of people who perished in the years of insurgency and sectarian civil war reaching into the hundreds of thousands.
Reclaiming a trajectory of progress will be crucial in a nation that still reels from poor development statistics. The United Nations estimates that 23 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, on less than $2.20 a day. Almost one-quarter of children under the age of 5 are considered "chronically malnourished. School attendance has dropped in the past 30 years.
"There are many [challenges], but I think there are also many opportunities.... We are now at a very important transition in Iraq's development," said Peter Batchelor, the Iraq director for the UN Development Program, while announcing a $400 million initiative to support the government's development plan over four years.
"Iraqi citizens are beginning to understand and demand their rights," said Mr. Batchelor. The many demonstrations of the past few months show "that Iraqis have particularly been interested in ... jobs, youth, anticorruption, and human rights."
Yet underneath it all, fundamental questions loom. With the US gone, will violence spike? Will there be enough peace to keep rebuilding, to begin healing? Can nearly two years of Iraqi political deadlock, carved out along sectarian lines by the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki, be overcome?
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The survivors of the first Hamra bombing – and of a second one in January 2010, which shut down the hotel – symbolize some of the dilemmas facing Iraqis today. Living in the shadow of the ruins of an apartment building wrecked in 2005, one family has built a cinder-block dwelling just strides away from the point of impact, right in the street.
Six years ago, neighbors wailed and wept as they pulled the dead and wounded from the debris. The crater filled with water from burst pipes; today bushes grow from it. The apartment building is still marked by a mountain of rubble and twisted girders alongside. High above, lone shoots of long grass reach skyward from the sagging concrete roof.
"There will be some problems. Everybody wants power," says Suad Mohammed, an Iraqi mother and former hotel cleaner, as she stands at the entrance to her "house."
A blue tarp draped across the roof keeps dust and water at bay. American helicopters fly overhead, providing surveillance for an official convoy in the area. Children play with chicks in a cardboard box.
"We don't care about [political] power – we want to live," says Suad's sister-in-law, Anaam Mohammed. Then she asks a translator about this reporter: "Doesn't he know that all our government are thieves?"
While concern about violence endures, pessimism in Iraq today runs far deeper about those in power – whether Iraq's ever-bickering politicians can lead the nation to a better, post-US future. "People go to parliament for their own profit and their power, not to do their best for the Iraqi nation," says Salaam.
Iraqis are still clearly coming to terms with their post-Hussein "freedom." Despite the wave of Arab Spring revolts that have so far brought down dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, street protests in Baghdad have been met with violence and intimidation from pro-government thugs.
Mr. Maliki has managed to form a government, but only partially. Through some clever legal jujitsu after the parliamentary elections in March 2010, Maliki was able to outmaneuver his main rival, Ayad Allawi, to retain the prime minister's post, even though Mr. Allawi's secular coalition had won slightly more seats in the voting and had the support of Iraq's minority Sunnis. Maliki's cabinet is still incomplete, with key portfolios, such as defense and national security, remaining in his hands.
"There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but I'm not sure it's not an oncoming train," says Omar al-Mashhadani, a political analyst associated with Allawi's bloc who recently spent time at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
After decades of conflict and sanctions under Mr. Hussein's rule, and now almost nine years of war, Mr. Mashhadani says he is finally considering uprooting his family and leaving Iraq.
"I had the hope in 2009 and 2010 that there would be some changes, [the chance] to build some democratic institutions," says Mashhadani. "Now, day by day, I see that hope collapse."
He sees "no respect" for the Constitution and says that oversight and policy groups essential to creating a civil society are either not allowed, or are under "huge pressure."
"We have a saying: 'The culture of tyranny remains even after tyrants are gone,' " laments Mashhadani. "Iraqis are smart enough, but it takes time and a lot of effort to change, and a commitment from the cabinet." Instead, he says, "the whole political system is built on sectarianism, and built on tribes."
Recognizing that problem, the UN lists "good governance" as the top development priority in its 2011-14 plan for Iraq. The Arab Spring is putting pressure on the Maliki government to be more inclusive, too.
"Definitely the civil society issue will need to be addressed at a very, very deep level, and also at a higher level of seriousness," said Amat Al Alim Alsoswa, the UN assistant secretary-general who handles Arab states, recently in Baghdad. "It's clear. We hear that from all Iraqis that we have met ... and I'm sure [the Arab Spring] is why [Iraqi officials] are even more motivated to tackle these issues."
Beyond the politics of forging a functioning democracy loom more tangible concerns. Iraqis still struggle with perennial problems such as a lack of electricity. While power production has risen from 8 to 18 hours per household per day in the past four years, US auditors report that electricity shortages still affect 80 percent of the population and that the Ministry of Electricity "has been unable to close the supply-demand gap."
Since 2003, this problem has particularly galled Iraqis, who regularly ask why the world's sole superpower, which has spent some $62 billion on reconstruction, couldn't overcome chronic security issues and provide the basic electricity they need. An upbeat 2004 US government reconstruction overview, called "Our Commitment to Iraq," stated that restoring electricity was "critical to the establishment of all facets of Iraqi society."
The US government's Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) reported to Congress in his quarterly report at the end of October that US forces would be leaving behind a "fundamentally changed" country, with 2011 growth expected to reach 9.6 percent, low inflation, and a budget 40 percent larger than three years ago. But a "painful reality" of daily attacks continued, SIGIR reported, and the US reconstruction effort "still requires robust oversight."
"Iraq's problems can be summed up with four words," concludes a local journalist, ticking them off with his fingers: "There – is – no – government."
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The colorful advertisements are now a regular feature in Iraqi newspapers. In half-page spreads, often on the front page, they depict Shiite religious or Iraqi nationalist symbols, superimposed with slogans that decree: "The sun of freedom burns the darkness of the occupation" or "The government and people are one hand to kick out the occupiers." The date of the final US departure blares in bold print.
So much for a brass band exit for American troops.
The ads represent what many – but not all – Iraqis feel. Concern remains among some that the country could devolve again into widespread violence.
Officially, US officials play down the possibility of any post-American collapse. The top US commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, says he expects "turbulence" in the last days of US forces being here, but adds that Iraqis now "approach the ability to manage themselves."
The US can only hope so. Washington's expectations of leaving behind more than 10,000 troops to continue training Iraqi forces has foundered on Baghdad's refusal to grant American soldiers immunity from prosecution for anything that goes wrong. Now only 763 civilian contractors and 157 US military personnel may reportedly stay on for the job, attached to the US embassy and still subject to Iraqi approval.
"The political blocs all reached an agreement to reject any such presence, and, because of this, the Americans started putting out fear of future instability. All of this has left Iraqis fearful," says Hassan al-Jubori, a parliamentarian from the faction loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"Iraqi citizens want the American occupation to end ... because during the American presence not much was gained, but much was lost," says Mr. Jubori. He lists negative points – such as the presence of Al Qaeda in Iraq now, when it was not visible before 2003 – and claims that the US invasion and occupation created as many as a million "martyrs."
"This is what will be remembered," says Jubori. "We believe the removal of Saddam was not undertaken for Iraqis' sake, but for American regional interests.... The democracy they brought us is a democracy of chaos."
A more nuanced line comes from Maliki's ruling Dawa Party, which for years has had to balance Iraq's reliance on US forces with popular discontent over their presence.
"The biggest upcoming challenge is not security, but political," says Khalid al-Asadi, a Dawa lawmaker. "There is still soil for political conflict, and still not much common ground. This brings concern for the people ... that political conflict could take Iraq back to Square 1, and to sectarian conflict."
"This is a legitimate concern of Iraqis, but from where I stand, the political maturity we have gained means we won't go in that direction," adds Mr. Asadi. Iraq won't be left alone anyway "because terrorism is not going to depart with the withdrawal of American forces."
For Yas al-Khafaji, the memory of the US presence is tainted by what happened to his family on that fateful day in 2005, when Americans were in charge.
"I can't say in any way that I've adapted to this situation," he says, noting that the behavior of his two surviving sons has "changed completely" since the death of their mother and sister.
Yet Khafaji then puts things in the larger perspective of all Iraqis, who have endured decades of misery. "I can't really blame the Americans; I blame Iraqi politicians [who] will never grow up," he says. "During Saddam's time, there was fighting, wars, sanctions ... and after the regime collapsed, many more problems."
But what about the democratic promise, the American gift that today enables street protest and open dissent? "So what?" replies Khafaji. "What is the result of that?"