Reporting from Baghdad — Muwafak Ali's downtown Baghdad music store is still pockmarked by the American rocket that whizzed through the door on one of the first days of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
He has since reopened, but business is bad. So are many of his memories concerning the seven-plus years of American combat operations that officially came to an end Tuesday.
"It would have been better if they didn't come, but now that they're here, they should stay," said Ali, 44, a wedding musician who hated Saddam Hussein, yet fondly remembers the days when the dictator was in control, the days before the chaos set in.
It's a view shared by many Iraqis as the American presence winds down to 50,000 troops serving in an advisory role.
Seven and a half years after then- President George W. Bush attacked Iraq, Baghdad is a battered and weary city whose streets still bear the scars of a still inconclusive war, and whose residents are still groping to comprehend the magnitude of the changes that turned their lives upside down.
For more than 20 years they endured a dictatorship whose rules most didn't like, but easily understood. Then came the invasion, which many at first welcomed, followed by days of looting, years of insurgency, four governments and a sectarian war, transforming their country in ways that may not be fully resolved for many years, after the dust has settled on the huge uncertainties that still linger. Will Iraqi politicians reach agreement on a new government? Will the insurgency succeed in its efforts to make a comeback? Can the nation's security forces stand alone?
"How can the Americans leave when we don't have a government, don't have a state?" asked Hafedh Zubaidi, 39, who sells mattresses in Baghdad's middle-class Karada district and is deeply anxious about the future given the political stalemate over the formation of a government six months after national elections.
"We thought things were really going to be better when the Americans came, and instead they brought us only sorrow," he said. "But if they leave now, there will be no Iraq."
Over the years, the role of the Americans has shifted for most Iraqis from liberators to hated occupiers, from colonizers to peacekeepers in a civil war. And now, the ending of the combat mission, decreed by President Obama in fulfillment of an election campaign pledge, comes as just one more event over which Iraqis have no control, and which they worry will disrupt their lives yet again.
In an address to the nation Tuesday, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki hailed the moment as "a landmark in the Iraqi people's long hard struggle for freedom and dignity."
Iraq "today is independent," he said, without mentioning that it was Obama who set the deadline, and not the Iraqi government.
Maliki had warned of the likelihood of major attacks to mark the day, and placed the security forces on high alert. There were none. Three people were killed when a rocket struck their home in a south Baghdad neighborhood, police said, but otherwise the city was unusually calm, a relatively auspicious start for a new era.
The Iraqi army was out in force, stopping and searching cars at checkpoints and patrolling the streets in its U.S.-supplied Humvees. "We deserve the future," proclaimed signs on the backs of the camouflage-painted vehicles, portraying smiling children holding hands.
In the fortified Green Zone, now under Iraqi control but just as off-limits to ordinary Iraqis as it was when Americans were in charge, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden shuttled between Iraqi leaders, pressing them to hurry up and form a new government. He disputed recent reports that violence has increased.
Indeed, things are much different from how they were a little over three years ago, when violence raged between Shiite Muslims and minority Sunni Arabs, who had controlled Iraq during the Hussein era, and U.S. troops were building up their presence to help tamp it down. There are signs of renewal, intermingled with the debris of war. New stores and restaurants have opened beside the collapsed wrecks of those that have been bombed. Shrubs have been planted along major highways, adding splashes of green to the drab gray landscape.
But much uncertainty, and bitterness, remain.
Mutanabi Street is one of the few places in Baghdad to have received a complete makeover; the legendary block of booksellers was destroyed in a 2007 bombing. Its crisp new pavement and renovated storefronts thrum with shoppers and cart-pushers hauling stacks of paper and piles of books.
But urban renewal can't erase the lingering anger of those who lost loved ones to violence.
"It was a total collapse," said Fahim Mohammed, 48, who lost four brothers and a nephew in the bombing. He had stepped around the corner to buy supplies when the bomb exploded, and rushed back to drag their bodies from the rubble.