BAGHDAD Ten years after the hijacked airliner attacks on the United States, Iraqis are swamped in the violent wake of a war launched on a tenuous premise and uncertain if they are headed to democracy or dictatorship.
While the sectarian slaughter that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war is years past, the violence spawned by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein continues to take a heavy toll in an oil-rich former pariah trying to rebuild.
To this day, some Iraqis believe the line drawn by the Bush administration between September 11 and Iraq, and its discredited theory that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, belied a darker U.S. desire for control in the Middle East.
"Please don't deceive people and say what happened in Iraq was due to September 11th. America's plan to occupy Iraq is old," said Ahmed Raheem, 40, the owner of an electrical shop in Baghdad. "What happened on September 11th was just a reason to implement this plan."
While the invasion of Afghanistan marked Washington's first foray in retaliation for the attacks on New York's twin towers and the Pentagon, Iraq became the primary battlefield for then- President George W. Bush's "war on terror." Islamist militants moved in by the thousands to engage U.S. troops.
More than eight years after American soldiers pulled down Saddam's statue in Baghdad's Firdous Square, an event cast as a first step from dictatorship to democracy, casualties of the war continue to mount as Iraq's rebuilt police and army struggle to contain a lethal Islamist insurgency.
The United States has lost more than 4,400 troops in Iraq, a toll half again as great as that of September 11. Fifty-six of those deaths followed President Barack Obama's August 31, 2010 end-of-combat declaration, seen by some Americans as the end of the war.
"A BIG LIE"
"What democracy are they talking about?" Raheem, who lost his job at a Saddam-era government weapons manufacturer after the invasion, asked angrily as he sipped tea in his shop. "What is said about democracy is a big lie."
War-weary Iraqis appear anxious to put eight years of violence behind them. Protests earlier this year inspired by uprisings across the Arab world were aimed not at deposing their elected government but rather to serve notice that they expected their politicians to improve electricity and services.
Violence is slowly loosening its grip. From the sectarian bloodbath that killed tens of thousands at the peak of the war in 2006-07, attacks by Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias have fallen to an average of about 14 a day across the country.
Night-life and traffic have returned to Baghdad streets still dominated by massive concrete blast walls meant to protect against suicide and car bombs. But with the sound of explosions heard daily, Iraqis venture forth warily.
"Nothing has changed in Iraq except the fear. Now it is bigger than before. I leave my house and I don't know if I'll return again or not," said Tony Mukhlis, 45, a Baghdad laborer.
"U.S. democracy in Iraq is the democracy of killing in the streets."
If the United States won sympathy in 2001 as video of the crumbling twin towers appeared on TV screens, it was the image of erupting violence in Iraq and shocking photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison that stained America's standing in the world.
For some Iraqis, a war that has killed more than 100,000 people -- according to figures compiled by Iraq Body Count -- created a battlefield for extremists where none existed before.
"If there is anyone responsible for the damage in Iraq, it is Bush. I swear to God I'll kill him with my own hands if I catch him, even if they kill my family and children," Mukhlis said. "He himself said more than once that he would go to Iraq to protect Americans and to turn Iraq into a battlefield against radical groups."
SIGNS OF PROGRESS
Now governed by a fragile and contentious coalition of Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish political factions, Iraq has held free elections and implemented free market reforms, cutting deals with global oil majors to develop its vast oil reserves.
Such measures of post-war progress are not lost on some Iraqis.
"Iraq is the big beneficiary for what happened in the U.S. on September 11th because it saved us from a nightmare that was perched on our chest for more than 30 years," said Nief Farhan, 82, a retiree who said he had two brothers executed by Saddam's government in 1983.
"Before 2003 I was afraid to talk in my own house ... now we are sitting in a cafe and talking politics and people around us listen to what we say. What more do we want?"
But as they watch the Arab Spring uprisings with interest and some envy, many Iraqis are uncertain their country will become the shining Middle East democracy that Bush envisioned.
"I don't believe that what happened in Iraq in and after 2003 can be an example to be cited or copied by other regional and Arab countries," said Yahya al-Kubaisy, a researcher at the Iraqi Center For Strategic Studies.
"Iraq is on a path of dictatorship different from what existed in Iraq before 2003. Even the advocates for what was called the liberation of Iraq are disappointed at how things turned out."
(Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Jon Hemming)