BAGHDAD Five years after U.S. and British forces swept into Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, many Iraqis are asking if the violence and upheaval that turned their lives upside down was worth it.
The human cost is staggering -- anywhere between 90,000 and 1 million Iraqi civilians killed, according to various estimates; nearly 4,000 U.S. soldiers dead; while 4 million Iraqis are displaced.
On the bright side, Iraqis are rid of one of the 20th century's most ruthless dictators. They held free elections and have a new constitution.
For Iraqis, deciding if the invasion was worth the sacrifice depends partly on their sect and ethnicity and where they live.
Saddam, a Sunni Arab, persecuted the country's majority Shi'ites and Kurds. Shi'ites now hold the reins of power while once-dominant Sunni Arabs have become marginalized.
In Baghdad, epicenter of a sectarian war in 2006 and 2007 that nearly tore Iraq apart, people long for the safe streets of Saddam's era. In the Shi'ite south, they no longer fear Saddam's henchmen, but rival Shi'ite factions competing for influence.
In the north, the economy of largely autonomous Kurdistan is flourishing in a region that Kurds call "the other Iraq".
Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd, said Iraq was moving in the right direction. Those who felt the invasion was a mistake should remember Saddam's atrocities, he said.
Zebari said proof that a majority of Iraqis supported the overthrow of Saddam was their participation in 2005 elections.
"The brutality of Saddam's regime deformed society in many ways so we have to be patient," he told Reuters in an interview.
"Compared to the experience of other nations I think we have done very well. But yes, it has been very, very costly."
Um Khalid, a 40-year old Baghdad hairdresser, said violence was so random that no one knew if they would be its next victim.
"No, no, no. What happened was not worth it. Those who say things are better are lying," she said.
KILLED OVER THEIR NAME
Many Iraqis vividly recall the chaotic months after the invasion on March 20, 2003, symbolized by the toppling of a big statue of Saddam in central Baghdad.
Their euphoria at new freedoms and hopes the United States would transform Iraq into another rich Gulf Arab state were dashed as Sunni Arabs rose up against their new rulers and car bombs turned markets and mosques into killing fields.
In February 2006, suspected al Qaeda militants blew up a revered Shi'ite mosque in the town of Samarra, unleashing a wave of sectarian violence that meant being a Shi'ite or a Sunni in the wrong neighborhood could be a death sentence.
"Before 2003, we lived under a tough regime, no one can deny that," said Abu Wasan, 55, a former army brigadier-general and a senior member of Saddam's disbanded Baath party.
"But at least we never heard of bodies getting dumped on garbage just because people had a Sunni or a Shi'ite name."
The worst of the sectarian carnage is over, at least for now. A year ago, police would find up to 50 bodies in the streets of Baghdad each day. That number has dropped to single digits thanks to the deployment of additional U.S. troops and ceasefires by many Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs militants. Also in many Baghdad areas ethnic cleansing has already been completed.
The latest tolls from the widely cited human rights group Iraq Body Count show up to 89,000 civilians have been killed since 2003. Research conducted by one of Britain's leading polling groups, however, puts the death toll at 1 million.
The U.S. military death toll stands at 3,975.
Other statistics make for grim reading.
The United Nations estimates 4 million Iraqis are struggling to feed themselves while 40 percent of the country's 27 million people have no safe water. The Iraqi doctors' syndicate says up to 70 percent of specialist doctors have fled abroad.
Iraq's national power grid, devastated by years of war and sanctions, leaves millions in the dark. The country has the world's third largest reserves of oil, but motorists sometimes queue at petrol stations for hours.
"I have been in this queue since dawn waiting to fill my car," said Abdullah Ahmed, 53, a taxi driver in the northern city of Kirkuk, which sits atop huge reserves of oil.
"What democracy? What prosperity? When the statue fell, we thought we would live like the Gulf, but that was just words."
People with such views are overlooking the joy of speaking freely, said Ahmed Sebti, 39, owner of a kebab restaurant in the southern Shi'ite city of Najaf.
In the past, making fun of Saddam could have deadly consequences. The current president, Jalal Talabani, has a keen sense of humor and loves satire.
"Before, civil servants couldn't eat kebabs. Now my income depends on them. Living standards are better," said Sebti.
Some Iraqis fear the invasion has set into motion political forces that could lead to the partition of Iraq into Shi'ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish regions -- a prospect that would inevitably be bloody and may drag in neighboring countries.
But Iraq is no longer a threat to its neighbors.
It is also one of the few countries in the region to hold free elections, something unheard of in neighboring Gulf Arab countries. Provincial elections that could redraw Iraq's political map are expected later this year.
Sheikh Fatwa al-Jerboa, a Sunni Arab tribal leader in the northern city of Mosul, said there was plenty to be happy about.
"I feel grateful to the British and Americans for ousting this dreadful dictator. Now we enjoy freedom of speech and the freedom to choose our own leaders," he said.
Yousif Kamil, 25, in the northern city of Baiji, disagreed.
"It was a big mistake by America. We will remember it as they remember Vietnam," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Wisam Mohammed and Aseel Kami in Baghdad, and reporters in Basra, Najaf, Ramadi, Kirkuk, Baiji and Mosul; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)