NAJAF, IRAQ — All of the past is alive in Najaf's winding alleys, and none of it is forgotten by Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Hakim, who grins frequently and seems to delight in contradiction, as if his own suffering made him accept the paradoxes around him.
In this Shiite Muslim holy city, Saddam Hussein stripped away clerics' rights and harassed, imprisoned and killed them. Hakim, a scion of one of the country's most prominent religious families, managed to survive prison and wars.
After the U.S.-led invasion, he witnessed foreign troops in his streets and bombings of his revered holy sites, and also watched young fighters rise up, disdainful of graying religious scholars like him, and briefly seize control of Najaf under the banner of the young cleric Muqtada Sadr.
From his study in the shadow of the golden-domed Imam Ali mosque, the 71-year-old cleric contemplates the humiliations and opportunities created in his society since the Americans came six years ago.
Although his relatives in the political establishment try to sweep their reliance on the Americans under the rug, Hakim does not paper over an unpleasant fact that religious parties pretend doesn't exist on the anniversary of Hussein's fall: Iraqis were too weak to overthrow their tormentor.
"Sometimes we say the change came from the Iraqi people, but it didn't come from us," Hakim says, perched in his chair with a green Koran, a laptop and a printer on his plain wooden desk.
Hakim wears thick tinted glasses and an inky black turban, and his face is framed by a frothy white beard. A green Islamic scarf drapes his shoulders. Speaking about the U.S.-led invasion, he becomes animated and compares the country before that to a drowning man.
"God made the stranger attack this strong regime, and we will not forget the good deeds of the Americans," he says. "We can't neglect or ignore this role."
Hakim makes it clear that this does not mean he loves the Americans. The good and bad are so irretrievably mixed, he can't separate them and doesn't try to.
"The Iraqi people lost wealth and lives. They suffered the agony of war and occupation. It's a very expensive price," he says, dashing his hand in the air like a karate chop.
He lists the humiliations, war and occupation.
"When the change comes from outside, the rule will be imposed, and that's what happened here," Hakim says.
But he knows that without the U.S. he would still be suffering under Hussein. This imperfect world is somehow better.
In the early 1980s, Hakim's relatives fled to Iran and founded the opposition group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- now renamed and a major political party. But Hakim refused to go, staying in Najaf, his birthplace, to study and preach.
For this he would be detained along with 80 members of his family in 1983. He would spend eight years in prison, as would his son, only 12 at the time of their arrest. Within the first week, eight members of their family would be executed, and within two years, 10 more would be hanged.
Hakim was kept at the Abu Ghraib prison. Twenty-five of them were crammed into a single cell. Twelve feet square. Then they put him in an isolation chamber, but it taught him to bide his time.
"If something bad happens to a man, he should be patient," Hakim says.
Hakim recalls his cell in the summer, with its one small hole in the door for air. "You can imagine the heat; it's like death," he says.
In 1991, he was released and allowed to live in Najaf, where he remained under surveillance. If students came to him with questions, they would be arrested, he says.
"I had the feeling of a man who did nothing, was innocent and was oppressed," he says. "If someone kissed my hand, they'd arrest them."
Now Hakim says there is no more fear. He frowns, embarrassed that he has talked so much about himself. It is getting late and he wants to study before bed.
Outside his house, the red and yellow lights of the mosque flicker on merchants' stalls and pilgrims go to prayers. The swirl of activity allows him to feel that his suffering years ago served a purpose.
He tells his guests with a smile, "Life is without relief," and then wishes them good night.
Fakhrildeen is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Usama Redha contributed to this report.