BAGHDAD (Reuters) - “Baghdad was built by al-Mansour and cherished by Saddam,” was a slogan that adorned many buildings in the Iraqi capital before the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Nearly nine years later, as the last American troops leave, a new slogan has taken its place: “Baghdad was built by al-Mansour, humiliated by Saddam and destroyed by the Americans.”
Washington pulled its last remaining troops out of Iraq on Sunday.
They are leaving a nation divided across sectarian and ethnic lines and still struggling with an insurgency and political uncertainty after sectarian slaughter drove the country to the brink of civil war in 2006-7.
Nowhere illustrates the splintering of Iraq better than Baghdad, the capital built in 762 A.D. by the Abbasid Caliph Abu Jaafar al-Mansour on the Tigris River and for some time the centre of the Muslim world.
One symbol of the division is the Grei‘at Bridge, a steel footbridge built in 2008 to enable people to move between Shi‘ite areas without having to go through the mainly Sunni Adhamiya district.
Thousands fled their homes during the worst of the sectarian strife, fearing they would be attacked in their own neighborhoods because of their faith. Many never went back.
“We sold our house in Adhamiya in 2006 during the war and came here,” said Shi‘ite Abu Hassan, standing on the bridge which carries pilgrims and daily visitors from Grei‘at to the sacred Shi‘ite shrine in Kadhimiya.
“There were so many problems back then, so we left and rented a house here. It is better here,” he said.
Many directly accuse the U.S. invasion of stirring up sectarian divisions in a country where Saddam, from the minority Sunni sect, ruthlessly crushed any signs of Shi‘ite dissent but minimized sectarian divisions in daily life.
“There were no Sunnis and Shi‘ites before the Americans, there was no sectarianism,” said Abu Issam as he crossed the bridge. “I am a Shi‘ite and my two sons are married to Sunni women.”
The identity of Iraq, once an influential political power and historically a thriving cultural hub in the Middle East, has changed through the years depending on who was in power, and these changes are reflected in Baghdad’s urban landscape.
Under Saddam, statues and images of the ruler dotted almost every neighborhood and street.
After the invasion, Iraq’s majority Shi‘ites rose to political supremacy and stamped their mark on the capital. Saddam City is now Sadr City, and Saddam Bridge was renamed al-Hassaneen Bridge, after revered Shi‘ite figures.
Green, black and red Shi‘ite flags and banners depicting the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussein, a Shi‘ite hero, now fly high on buildings, a sight never allowed under Saddam.
Many Iraqis say they believed the U.S. invasion would bring them democracy and prosperity after years of war, economic sanctions and oppression by Saddam’s security apparatus.
Many say they now feel betrayed.
The U.S. convoys, and the black-masked militiamen who five years ago controlled whole neighborhoods, have left the city’s streets. But bombings and killings remain part of everyday life.
The city is often blanketed with dust and smoke, its buildings are crumbling and streets are littered with garbage. Blast walls and razor wire erected to protect buildings from bombings still cover the capital.
Iraqis worried about joblessness and insecurity must also contend with an acute water shortage and get only a few hours of electricity a day unless they have their own generators.
“They (Americans) brought us a corrupted government that does not reflect what the people want. They are leaving but they left chaos behind ... and the Iraqi people are the ones who suffer,” said Abbas Jaber, a government employee.
Iraqis also fear meddling from their regional neighbors after the U.S. pullout. Sunnis fear the rising power of Shi‘ite Iran as it grows closer to the government in Baghdad, and Shi‘ites say they fear a Sunni coup pushed by Saudi Arabia, which has never come to terms with Shi‘ite rule in Iraq.
From the mainly Shi‘ite southern city of Basra through the Sunni stronghold Ramadi in the west to the northern, Kurdish city of Arbil, Iraqis appear to agree on one thing: they want the Americans out, but they are anxious about the timing.
“Yes we want the occupation out, but this is not the time for them to leave,” said Mahdi, a government employee in Basra.
“The Americans will get out from here and everyone else will start coming in from elsewhere.”
Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Alistair Lyon