BAGHDAD — In a crystal-chandeliered palace once occupied by Saddam Hussein, American and Iraqi leaders gathered Wednesday for the latest ceremony to herald an independent, democratic Iraq.
But in the same city, both inside and outside the domed palace serving as America's military headquarters at the walled-off Baghdad airport compound, a more sober mood prevailed.
As the American combat mission officially ended, Iraqi politicians, security officers and civil servants spoke of a daunting series of challenges they face until the end of 2011, when the last of nearly 50,000 remaining U.S. troops assisting Iraqi forces are scheduled to depart.
At the top of the list are how to combat steadily rising violence and how to cope with the lack of a new government six months after inconclusive national elections were held. Rather than move forward, the parliament has met just once, and Iraq's caretaker government has stalled on projects aimed at improving people's lives.
"There are no decisions. We are just hanging now and we have stopped everything. We are waiting for the government to make decisions," said Ghazi Abdul Aziz Essa, director-general of Baghdad's main power plant."The delay affects the system very badly. It's not good for us."
After a government is formed, many emphasize, a mountain of problems remains to be dealt with.
Among the points at issue: reconciliation of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups, the splitting of oil revenue and the disputed ownership of lands now controlled by Arabs and Kurds and an equitable revision of the nation's constitution.
"If they do not have faith in each other, it will be a weak government. Decisions will be blocked. It will be a weak, democratic system," said longtime Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman, who served in Iraq's Governing Council under the Americans. "If the groups don't trust each other, the possibility comes up of [even more] violence. I hope it won't be there but we have to put it in consideration."
On Wednesday, such fears were momentarily set aside as an American military brass band played the national anthems of Iraq and the United States in the domed palace wrested from Hussein after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Commanders spoke with a restrained optimism about Iraq's future and called on Iraqi political blocs to form a new government, downplaying the increasing violence while praising the competence and attitude of Iraqi security forces. They honored the memories of the 4,416 U.S. military personnel and the estimated 112,000 Iraqis who died in the strife of the last seven years.
"We fought together, we laughed together and sometimes cried together. We stood side by side and shed blood together. But it was for the shared ideals of freedom, liberty and justice," outgoing commander Gen. Ray T. Odierno told a sea of soldiers and dignitaries. "Because of your tremendous efforts, justice has replaced chaos, accord has replaced strife and hope has replaced despair."
But many Iraqis, including some who wholeheartedly believe the war was worth the cost, voice trepidation about the American withdrawal.
Maj. Gen. Noaman Jawad, the head of an elite police brigade, swears that the world for his children will be far better than what they would have known under Hussein. But he remains skeptical about his own safety when the final American soldiers leave at the end of 2011 under a joint agreement reached during the George W. Bush presidency.
"If I have a 95% threat on my life now, it will be million percent when the Americans leave," Jawad said.
Since an election slate headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi won slightly more parliamentary seats than that of current Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a stalemate has persisted, casting a bold spotlight on the differences between Maliki's mainly Shiite backers and Allawi's secular Shiite and Sunni support base.
Rival parties speak bitterly about one another. Maliki's rivals argue that if he wins a second term, he will establish a dictatorial regime; Maliki's backers warn that without his guidance, the government could slip into paralysis or slide back into civil war.
Allawi, for his part, has warned that if he doesn't get the chance to head the government, the country risks violence. Allawi's supporters are now whispering that the United States has betrayed them despite the fact that his slate won 91 seats to Maliki's 89.
"Mr. Maliki is supported by Iran and America. We don't understand this," said Qutaiba Turki, a parliament member of Allawi's list. "I think America killed freedom and democracy in Iraq when they left Iraq in the hands of Iran and Maliki."
Othman also spoke in grim terms. He bluntly criticized the American drawdown as a domestic calculation for President Obama. He emphasized that he agreed with the goal of removing American troops but said the timing was wrong.