- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

BAGHDAD - The torrential rains have stopped, and the gold-domed shrine at the center of Kadhemiya, a middle-class Shi’ite section of northern Baghdad, sparkles under clear blue skies and the late-morning sun.

The crowded alleyways surrounding the shrine teem with Kadhemiya’s unique blend of commerce, faith and politics.

“It’s hard to even think about what it used to be like before,” said Abdul-Karim Mahdi, a 45-year-old employee of the Ministry of Public Works.

“We used to live in fear. We used to unplug the phones whenever we talked with each other inside the house. With Saddam gone, at least there’s hope.”

Two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, his entrenched government and social order, the outlines of the country’s future are beginning to emerge.

With a newly elected parliament in a position to maneuver a radically transformed nation, Iraqis enter their third year of a new era hardened by two years of violence.

Iraq’s Shi’ites have waited 1,000 years for power, first under the Ottoman caliphate, next under the Sunni-led monarchy established by the British and finally under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam.

Two years ago, the Shi’ites stood by patiently as U.S. troops entered their country. Some followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr since then have fought violently against the occupation. But they represent a tiny sliver of the country’s Shi’ite majority, which mostly has begun looking forward to asserting their numbers and assuming political control.

Politicians associated with Shi’ite groups control more than half of the 275 seats in the new parliament, and a pious Shi’ite religious scholar named Ibrahim al-Jafaari is all but assured of becoming the next prime minister. The past two years have drawn them out of hiding and into the public sphere.

The Shi’ites have transformed much of Iraq’s landscape, plastering posters of turbaned clerics on walls, unfurling colored banners commemorating the martyred Shi’ite saints and celebrating their faith in once-outlawed public ceremonies.

Fadhel Mehdi Salah, a 46-year-old goldsmith, once could ply his trade only inside a dingy apartment, fearful of Saddam’s security men. He had joined Saddam’s Ba’ath Party when he was 14, only to fall out with them when he was asked to spy on Kadhemiya residents four years later.

He got into a fistfight with another young party recruit, was arrested and was sent to prison for a year. Authorities let him out, but kept a close watch on him, and he tried to stay hidden.

A year ago, he proudly opened up a jewelry shop on a wide avenue leading to the shrine.

“All we need now are honest people who care about the country to lead us forward,” he said.

Entrepreneurs lead

For the smart and energetic, the new era has meant new opportunities for riches and growth.

Mohammed Sabah was oblivious to the rains last week outside his office on Sanaa Street, Iraq’s equivalent to Silicon Valley. He was too busy cutting computer-networking cables and punching numbers.

The 27-year-old networking maestro, his gold wedding ring still gleaming from his recent marriage, boasted that he and his partner earn more putting together computer systems for new companies, and the new government, than any of the ministers in the government.

The biggest deals for Byte Matrix, his company, included a $10,000 contract with Baghdad International Airport and a $40,000 deal for Iraqna, the cell-phone company.

Despite occasional kidnappings for ransom, armed robberies and hijackings of trucking shipments, business and technology in Iraq is moving quickly ahead.

“At the time of Saddam, we were 100 years behind and now, we are 200 years ahead,” he said. “We are moving along side by side with the latest technologies. Whatever new science is out there, we can get it daily.”

Now, the market is wide open, said Safwat Rashid, a wholesaler of hardware and industrial machinery on Rashid Street.

“Before, we couldn’t get things from abroad. Now, everything we need, we can get, and at a good price,” he said.

Despite grinding poverty among many, Iraq two years after the war finds itself in many ways a wealthier place than under the last years of Saddam. Back then, middle-class families were forced to sell off family heirlooms to pay the rent.

Now, salaries have increased 20- and 30-fold among ministry employees. By some estimates, the number of cars on the streets of the Iraqi capital has tripled.

Iraqi households now have satellite television.

But the same freedom that has created new economic opportunities for some has also wrought havoc on the lives of others.

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Paying in blood

Two years after the war, trauma continues to haunt ordinary Iraqis. All remember what they were doing when the bombing began: listening to the BBC’s Arab service, desperately hoarding food and supplies, attempting to look in on a relative on the other side of town, eager for an end to the war.

But for most, the war never ended. Iraq has become a nation where casual conversations with strangers often slip into extraordinary tales of pain and violence.

Hadi Muhamad Jawad, the 45-year-old owner of a clothing boutique on Arasat Street, watched as his neighbor was killed by one of the random mortar shells fired by insurgents. Taxi company owner Muhamed Ubadi Abdalla’s best friend died in a car bomb last year.

Nazar Abu Yusef’s dear friend, Nawar, died in the crossfire between U.S. troops and insurgents some months ago. Abdul Kareem Saleh Mahdi still can’t erase the images of the corpses and mangled bodies he saw at the scene of the horrific car bombings in Kadhemiya a year ago.

Defense Ministry employee Alla Kadhim al-Bahadilly, 35, watched as his 15-year-old cousin was ripped apart by an unexplained explosion, probably a mortar round, that hit his house. He still can’t forget the day in May 2003 when he saw two drivers on the street fighting and cursing at each other.

“All of a sudden, a passenger in one of the cars pulled out an AK-47 and killed the other driver, right in front of me,” he recalled.

Raad Hussein Thabit al-Maliki, 41, was kidnapped and released only when his family paid a hefty ransom. Fatin Abdulahad Edwar’s brother-in-law also was kidnapped for ransom.

In mourning

Grief is palpable in the absence of public celebrations and the subdued wedding processions, sapping Iraqis of their energy and casting a grim shadow over the living.

Grief even haunted Baghdad’s annual billiards tournament, where a black banner commemorated Sabah Fadhel Abbas, a 35-year-old judge for the games who had been killed on his way to work a few days earlier.

“We spent all our lives in war and saw nothing but war,” said Edwar, a 32-year-old member of Iraq’s Christian minority. “I was 9 when the wars started, and they still haven’t stopped.”

Disappointment looms in Sadr City, the teeming Shi’ite slum of Baghdad where half of Baghdad’s 5 million people live.

The rains last week flooded the streets and neighborhoods, pouring into people’s living rooms and sleeping quarters, cutting off electricity and fresh water.

Though storms have abated for days, the children play knee-deep in rainwater mixed with raw sewage overflowing from a dilapidated drainage system that needs up to $7 billion in repairs.

“My own house was flooded,” said Abbas Hossein, a 28-year-old short-order cook. “I had to take shelter somewhere else. Water has flooded my whole house.”

Two years after the war began, Iraq’s infrastructure, destroyed by decades of neglect and war, remains near collapse. Its electricity output remains below prewar levels. Its pockmarked roads are plagued by bandits.

Within the crowded, crumbling alleyways surrounding Imam Kadhem’s shrine, discontent lurks, and patience is running thin. Salaries may have improved for civil service workers, but little has been done to improve Kadhemiya’s dilapidated infrastructure.

Losing patience

“They’ve promising to build a new road into Kadhemiya since the time of the monarchy,” said Mohammed Baqer al-Soheil, a tribal leader. “The roads are very small. The mayor has promised to start the project, but nothing has improved in Kadhemiya for 800 years.”

Iraqis acknowledge that the violent insurgency has done much to destabilize the country and make substantial improvements in roads, waterworks and electricity difficult and expensive, but many also suspect that corruption has played a role in the stalled reconstruction effort.

Mr. Sabah, the young high-tech whiz, said he ends up paying thousands of dollars in bribes to officials and tribal leaders just to get shipments of routers and switchers from the country’s southern port to the capital.

Mr. Salah, the Kadhemiya goldsmith, tried to get a job — his old job — at the police department again but was told they weren’t hiring, only to watch loyalists to departing Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s party and members of the same security forces that tormented him get jobs.

The trying times also have unleashed an ugly new sectarianism. Mr. Jawad, the boutique owner, recalled an incident in which a longtime Sunni friend derided the late Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer Hakim, the Shi’ite leader killed in a car bomb in August 2003, as having deserved his fate.

In another incident, the son of Mr. Jawad’s Sunni Arab friend referred to a passing police car as “bastard Shi’ites.” He said he was mortified. He had never viewed Iraqis as divided by sect.

“The masks have fallen off the faces of many of the people I know,” he said.

Many losers

Rain floods the fields of Makaseb, a small farming village just west of the capital, adding to the gloom that descended two years ago and has yet to lift.

Before the war, the Sunni Arab village was a favored resting stop for Saddam, who trusted its residents so much he used to wander over from one of his palaces nearby unaccompanied by his ordinary retinue of bodyguards.

He so loved Makaseb — perhaps because it reminded him of his birthplace in a small village near Tikrit — that he showered locals with cash, gifts, privileges and jobs.

“My president,” began Dr. Ahmad Alwash Shalaan, a physician who lives here with his family, “used to visit us and give everyone money. He used to give the young people work on his farms.”

But with Saddam and his largess gone, the village is fading away. “Now, about 90 percent of the people from Makaseb no longer work here,” he said. “The village has been changed forever.”

Ra’ad Hussein al-Maliki, a Shi’ite banker, said he was optimistic when the war started two years ago.

“I wanted to see Saddam and his fellow Tikritis go,” he said. “A year later, I was less optimistic because I hadn’t seen anything good coming from the Americans. Now, I’m pessimistic. Many of my friends have already left Iraq.”

From a country where everyone had little choice but accept the rule of Saddam with docility, Iraq has become a country where citizens openly question and criticize the authorities on the most fundamental issues.

Almost all have suffered indelible tragedies. Very often, violence — political or religious, or even basic criminal acts — has befallen an immediate family member or neighbor.

“Over the last two years, I feel like I’ve aged 60 years,” said Ibrahim Khalil Hameed Hasoon, a 42-year-old owner of a cell-phone shop in the Karada district who once narrowly escaped with his life after he came under fire by American troops hunting insurgents.

“Financially, life is good,” he said. “I just bought an expensive Mercedes, but I’m ready to give it away for some peace of mind.”

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