A decade after US-led forces took control of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, sealing the ouster of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, Iraq remains plagued by deadly attacks and never-ending political crises.
Remembered the world over for the iconic images of Iraqis pulling down a statue of Saddam in central Baghdad’s Firdos Square — helped in no small part by a US military unit — the fall of the capital is a far more emotive day in Iraq than the anniversary of the invasion itself two weeks earlier.
At the time the statue fell, Saddam’s vaunted army had largely melted away, and was seen as defeated and demoralized.
However, the sense of elation felt by many Iraqis that day, at seeing a dictator who had ruled Iraq for more than two decades fall, was matched by a feeling of bitterness among others.
“At that point, I realized that the Iraqi government had been overthrown, and we had fallen into the hands of American occupiers,” said Dhafer Betti, public relations director for the Palestine Hotel, which overlooks Firdos Square and was a haven for foreign journalists covering the war.
Though the war itself was relatively brief — six weeks after foreign troops invaded, then-US president George W. Bush infamously declared the mission accomplished — its aftermath was bloody and fractious.
Caught between Shiite militia groups and Sunni insurgents, US and coalition forces paid a heavy price — about 4,800 foreign troops died in Iraq, more than 90 percent of them American.
However, Iraqis suffered even more. Britain-based nongovernmental organization Iraq Body Count recently estimated that at least 112,000 Iraqi civilians died in the decade after the invasion, while thousands of soldiers and policemen were also killed.
However, sharp divisions in how April 9 is seen within Iraq — between those who remember it as the day the country was liberated, and others who see it as the day it was occupied — have spurred the government to eschew any formal commemorations.
The anniversary does come at a significant juncture in Iraq, barely 10 days ahead of provincial elections, the country’s first polls since US troops withdrew at the end of 2011.
The credibility of the vote has been drawn into question as a result of still-high bloodshed — a dozen candidates have been killed — and a Cabinet decision for a partial postponement that means only 12 of the country’s 18 provinces are to go to the polls.
Along with attacks on election hopefuls, violence remains a menace nationwide, with 271 people killed last month, the highest figure since August last year, according to an Agency France Presse tally.