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IRAQ: ONE YEAR LATER

The Tyrant Is Gone but the Trauma Remains

March 20, 2004|John Daniszewski, Alissa J. Rubin, Patrick J. McDonnell, Mark Magnier, J. Michael Kennedy, Bob Drogin, Sebastian Rotella

Baghdad — A year after U.S. troops invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein is a prisoner, but the nation he once dominated is riven by violence and instability, and its continued occupation has aggravated anti-Americanism throughout the region.

The war was supposed to do more than end one man's tyranny: The Bush administration said it wanted to eliminate what it called Hussein's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, bring democracy to Iraq and the region and improve the lives of Iraqis crushed under a brutal dictator.

Indeed, Iraqis gained new liberties: freedom from Hussein's oppressive security apparatus, an open press, the right to worship regardless of creed, the first steps toward a representative government and the beginnings of a vibrant consumer economy.

But the U.S. occupation also has unleashed dark forces -- notably ethnic and sectarian divisions that threaten to pull the country toward civil war. Common crime, kept on a tight leash during the time of Hussein, now flourishes, overwhelming the inexperienced, under- equipped Iraqi security services. A secure Iraq seems distant.

Washington says it went to war to stem the tide of terrorism. Today, Iraq has become a magnet for foreign jihadists and an incubator of home-grown bombers and assassins. Hardly a day passes without the wanton slaughter of Iraqi civilians.

U.S. officials argue that, in the long term, the new Iraq will be a more stable place -- democratic, a participant in the global economy and a reflection of its diverse groups. In the short term, however, many view what has happened here as bringing more instability to the world's most volatile region.

Iraqis don't see how a nation that put a man on the moon can't fix matters here. In Iraq today, the U.S. is blamed for virtually everything that goes wrong. Bombings, long gas lines, unemployment and a lack of electricity are only a few of the problems. Yet it receives only grudging credit for the undisputed improvements.

Sagging beneath the weight of so many expectations and global politics are the Iraqi people, traumatized by three decades of tyrannical rule and almost-constant warfare and deprivation. The urge to get on with a life that has some degree of normalcy is palpable in the streets.

"People are just sick and tired of the violence, of being bombed," a young U.S. lieutenant, Michael Breen of the 1st Armored Division, said as he motored through the streets of Baghdad the other day in his Humvee. "Iraqis basically want what we all want -- a good life for themselves, an opportunity for their families. But first they want to stop the bombs going off."

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About these articles

These articles were written and reported by Times staff writers John Daniszewski, Alissa J. Rubin, Patrick J. McDonnell, Mark Magnier and J. Michael Kennedy in Baghdad and Bob Drogin in Washington. Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella in Baghdad also contributed.

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Freer, Not Happier

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Saddam Hussein is gone, but Iraqis feel they're living under a new oppressor: chaos marked by violence, uncertainty and fear.

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To hear the residents of this country ravaged by war, terrorism, occupation and resistance tell it: It was the worst of times. It is the worst of times.

The people of Iraq are sick of all the chaos, the violence, the lack of security -- and most of the time their sour, depressed state overwhelms any fragment of hope or relief in their daily lives. Yet many also believe that their futures will be better.

"The main problem is, we were expecting something, and we found it was an illusion," gallery owner Ala Salim said. "There are no elections. There is no government. People cannot go out at night. Naturally people are unnerved."

Saddam Hussein is gone. The hated Mukhabarat secret police no longer control the country with their vast bureaucracy of oppression. Newspapers and prayer leaders shout a variety of opinions, and people buy satellite TV dishes, imported used cars and home appliances with abandon. Shiite Muslims practice their religion without fear of the state. No one is compelled to mouth paeans to the leader. Freedoms previously undreamed of are taken for granted.

Yet few are happy. The freedom feels like anarchy and abandonment. Instead of being oppressed by a tyrant, people are oppressed by a welter of criminals, insurgents, petty bullies and encroaching theocrats. Some are fighting back -- for Islam, for power, for vengeance or just in blind fury. Others have adopted a kind of fatalism, refusing to be cowed, determined to work for democracy even at the risk of being killed as "collaborators" of the U.S.

American and British forces are active in their pursuit of insurgents but spend little time fighting crime or on routine patrols. On guard against attacks -- which number about 20 a day -- they engage less and less with the population.

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