BAGHDAD - Fifteen years ago, Abu Ali was
thrilled to see American soldiers enter
Baghdad. "The tyrant is finished," he
remembers saying, imagining a bright future
for Iraq without Saddam Hussein.
But the years that followed have brought
only misery, he said, looking at photos of
three of his sons killed in attacks in the
After the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraq,
freed from nearly a quarter century of
dictatorship, descended into violence.
Sectarian clashes and jihadist attacks
divided families and killed tens of
thousands of people, leaving behind wounds
that have yet to heal and a lagging economy.
In July 2007, Abu Ali's eldest son, 18 at
the time, was killed when a car bomb hit a
busy street in Baghdad's Karrada
He had been selling watermelons to
passers-by trying to escape the summer heat.
Six years later almost to the day, the taxi
driver's two younger sons, Alaa, 23, and
Abbas, 17, were also killed in an attack.
The losses are written in deep lines along
his face, aged well beyond his 61 years.
Abu Ali used to dream of lives for his
children that would be better than his own,
but now he only visits them at the cemetery.
"I go to their graves every week, I feel
like they're sitting near me," he said,
wearing a white scarf and a traditional
- 'Baghdad fell when statue fell' -
Abu Ali's hopes for a brighter future have
"The situation does not bode well... no one
thinks of the people," he said. "The parties
only seek to win seats."
Things were different before, said Qais al-Sharea,
a hairdresser in the capital.
"Saddam Hussein was the strong man, the one
who controlled everything and scared the
entire world with his chemical weapons," he
Each morning, when he opened his salon in
Al-Ferdous Square in the heart of Baghdad,
the dictator's colossal statue stood guard
On April 9, 2003, Sharea, who had stayed at
home that day, watched on television as US
soldiers with an armoured vehicle helped a
crowd armed with a sledgehammer pull down
the bronze statue in front of his shop.
"Baghdad fell when the statue fell," he said
at the foot of the giant platform, now
covered with rubble poorly hidden by
crumpled sheet metal -- the site of a
construction project that has so far failed
to take shape.
Sharea, 27 at the time, thought "like all
young people" that Baghdad would soon be
filled with nightclubs and restaurants.
"We (thought) we would travel the world," he
But instead of progress and opening to the
world, life in Iraq has turned into a case
of "one step forward and five back", said
Mahmoud Othman, a 65-year-old Kurdish
politician who served as a member of Iraq's
transitional leadership after Saddam's fall,
dreamed of a better tomorrow.
But if "the Americans had a plan to
overthrow Saddam Hussein, they had no agenda
for post-Saddam", said Othman, who had been
a Kurdish peshmerga fighter since the age of
- Corruption and sectarian strife -
State institutions and Saddam's all-powerful
Baath Party were dismantled as opposition
figures returned from exile.
But corruption and sectarian tensions --
fuelled by militias born in the security
vacuum created by the dismantling of the
security forces -- flourished.
"We thought we'd have a federal and
democratic system, but we've had
sectarianism and chauvinism," said Rauf
Maaruf, leader of the Kurdish opposition
Members of Iraq's religious and ethnic
minorities say they have paid the highest
price for the past decade-and-a-half of
"Our country has been going through
catastrophe after catastrophe," said the
Chaldean Catholic patriarch, Louis Raphael
Sako, who has watched his community shrink.
Every institution has been affected,
according to Abdel Salam al-Samer, a
58-year-old university teacher for the past
"The situation in Iraq has deteriorated and
so have our universities," said Samer, who
has seen political factions interfere in
education and colleagues killed by militias.