Two years on, Iraqis see hope amid the weariness
Financial Times
By Steve Negus and Dhiya Rasan in Baghdad

Two years ago today, Fardous square in central Baghdad was filled with crowds who cheered US forces as they tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein. It was an event that for most Iraqis has come to mark the change between the old order and the new.

One year ago, Fardous square was empty, sealed off with barbed wire, as the country dealt with a surge in violence caused by US offensives against Sunni guerrillas in Falluja, and against Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia preacher.

Today, Fardous square is draped with banners, as it prepares to welcome thousands of Shia demonstrators who will demand that Mr Hussein be tried and executed, and that the US troops who toppled him go home.

On the second anniversary of the “Fall”, as Iraqis term April 9, many express neither the wild optimism they felt in the first weeks after the war, nor the deep pessimism of a year later, when it seemed the country was falling into chaos.

A more common response now is ambivalence – satisfaction that the January 30 elections produced a semblance of democratic government, but weariness of bombs in the street, crime, and power failures.

Fear of oppression has been replaced by fear of the anarchy and political violence that has cost the lives of an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 Iraqis. Fear of Mr Hussein’s security forces has been superseded by fear of the US military vehicles that patrol Baghdad’s streets, bearing placards warning that any vehicle that comes too close will be fired upon.

“They freed us…butnow the foreign forces may be here for decades,” says Wisam Adel, a Sunni Arab from Baghdad and former military hospital worker.

“That is the price of our liberation,” he says.

The most recently published opinion poll, conducted by the International Republican Institute in February and March, suggests that many Iraqis believe the worst is over. Only 37 per cent of respondents said that they were worse off now than before the war, and nearly 90 per cent thought things would slowly improve.

However, opinions vary strongly according to region, religion and ethnicity.

Due to security reasons, the poll was not carried out in the predominantly Sunni governorates of Anbar and Ninawah, where residents say that over the past two years their cities have been bombed, their homes invaded by troops and their family members subjected to mass arrest.

Kurds in the northern city of Sulimaniya, on the other hand, today display pictures of US President George W. Bush in shop windows, and thank him for ensuring that Mr Hussein’s army would never return to massacre their people.

Iraq’s Shia, who are estimated to make up 60 per cent of the population and who now dominate parliament and cabinet, are more divided. They are as likely to credit their own leaders as they are the Americans for their new rights – Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who pushed consistently for fully democratic elections, or the followers of Mr Sadr who fought the Americans.

In Baghdad, the last six months have seen a series of bizarre crises, from the taps running dry in much of the city, to winter rains that caused houses in many slum districts to flood with fetid water, to a petrol shortage that had people waiting up to 24 hours at the pumps.

The last crisis has fostered distrust of the US as people wonder why a petroleum-producing country would run short of oil unless the Americans were stealing it.

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