It’s been more than six years since a bomb ripped away the eyes from Shams Karim, killed her mother and left the little girl, now seven, 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. Their wounds and those of tens of thousands of U.S. and other foreign service members may never entirely heal.
The Bush administration had hoped the war, that began with airstrikes before dawn on March 20, 2003 — still the previous evening back in the States, 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 heart of 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 that struggles to exert full control over the country itself. Bloody attacks launched by terrorists, who thrived in the post-invasion chaos, are still frequent — albeit less so than a few years back — and sectarian and ethnic rivalries are again tearing at the fabric of national unity.
The top-heavy government is largely paralysed by graft, chronic political crisis and what critics fear is a new dictatorship in the making. The civil war in neighbouring Syria risks sowing further discord in Iraq. 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-Qaeda rebounded after their pummelling in the 2001 invasion.
In Iraq, the Americans and their allies left behind a broken, deeply traumatised 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-Qaeda and the unleashing of long-suppressed sectarian, ethnic and class hatreds.
The invasion transferred power overnight to oppressed Shias and Kurds but left many Sunni Arabs alienated. It established a system of sectarian-based politics that undermined national unity. And it helped trigger a vicious insurgency that ruined countless lives without regard for religion or ethnicity.
On the bright side, campaign posters once again line Iraqi streets, heralding a new round of voting coming up. In many places, they hang alongside banners adorned with the image of revered Shia saint Imam Hussein — a public display of faith rare during Saddam’s rule.
Iraqi citizens today are unafraid to criticise 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 shopping mall and swanky hotels in the capital, southern Shia pilgrimage centres and the northern Kurdish city of Irbil.
It’s easy to forget about these complexities inside the Haji Zebala juice shop on Baghdad’s historic Rasheed Street, where they’re still serving up fresh-pressed grape juice like they have for generations though fear of bombings means customers are no longer willing to wait in line for 15 minutes as they did before the invasion. Black-and-white pictures of old Baghdad cover the walls, transporting visitors to a time before Iraq became a byword for death and destruction.
Diaa al-Mandalawi, who works at the juice shop, remembers being surprised at just how quickly American helicopters came to be hovering over his city. “We thought things would get better because the Americans promised us a lot,” he said.
But the years of bloodshed that followed the heady days after Baghdad fell have taken its toll, he continued, and it is taking too long for his country to get back on its feet. “It’s like building a house, but the process is too slow.”