BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Sitting in a barber shop in Baghdad’s Shi’ite Sadr City slum, three friends agreed after a long and hard argument that U.S. forces brought democracy to Iraq.
But they found it difficult to utter the words without raging about the flip side of what they saw as the U.S. occupation of their country.
“OK, we have democracy. We can talk freely with no fear. We can demonstrate and vote freely. All these are available, and all were not before 2003,” said student Hussain Ali, 20, as he waited for his haircut.
“But why don’t you ask us about the other side of the story of the U.S. presence in Iraq? Why don’t you ask about their crimes, atrocities, the pain and anguish that we suffered because of their military presence here?” Ali said, his face turning red with anger.
On April 9, 2003, U.S. forces toppled a statue of dictator Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad, marking the end of more than 35 years of iron-fisted rule by Saddam’s Baath Party.
Then-U.S. President George W. Bush said Iraq could become a model of democracy in the Middle East.
But Iraqis who applauded the event and dreamed of a better future were disappointed as their nation descended into vicious sectarian warfare in which tens of thousands died. Recalling those years, many talk about the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, and what they call the U.S. misuse of power.
Since the invasion, Iraqis have chosen representatives in parliament and provincial councils in a series of elections deemed largely free and fair.
Newspapers and news agencies have been established. New television channels are on the air. Non-governmental organizations and new political parties have been formed.
Nearly nine years after the invasion, the U.S. military presence in Iraq is quickly coming to an end. The remaining 24,000 troops are due to leave before December 31.
But political parties are at odds, sectarian divisions are rife, Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militias threaten stability with scores of attacks each month and many people are uncertain that Iraq’s brand of democracy is what they need or want.
“We got rid of Saddam, but the problem now is that we have many,” said Ali’s friend, Hamza Jabbar, 23, an unemployed security guard sitting in the barber shop.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi are jobless. The unemployment rate is 15 percent, with another 28 percent in part-time jobs. The government says just under a quarter of the estimated 30 million population lives in poverty.
In conversations with dozens of Iraqis in Shi’ite Sadr City, all reluctantly conceded that U.S. forces had brought democracy. The teeming slum supports Moqtada al-Sadr, a fiercely anti-American Shi’ite cleric whose followers fought U.S. forces.
Iraqis freely express disappointment in the performance of their own leaders since 2003 and bitterness over brutal political infighting.
“Americans brought democracy to Iraq. But our leaders undermine it. They exploit it for their own personal benefit,” said Khalid al-Taei, 35, a computer shop owner in the northern province of Nineveh.
On the other side of Baghdad, in the Sunni area of Adhamiya, dozens of Sunnis had a different take on the situation.
Sunnis dominated Iraq under Saddam and have felt marginalized politically since the invasion, which propelled majority Shi’ites into power. Sunnis are part of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s frail governing coalition but many say they are oppressed under his government.
“Do you see this soldier in this checkpoint” asked shop owner Wael al-Khafaji, 48. “He can do whatever he wants to me right now and I can’t say a word. Is this democracy?”
“What democracy are you asking me about, when my basic rights as a human being are stolen? If this is what Americans mean by democracy, let it be damned.”
Hundreds of checkpoints still dot the landscape, and Iraqis are frustrated by a near nine-year security crackdown.
Nearly two years after the last national election, Khafaji is still disappointed that former premier Iyad Allawi’s cross-sectarian Iraqiya bloc, which won the most seats with heavy support from Sunnis, could not form a government.
“Can you tell me who won the vote and who formed the government? Answer my question before you ask me to answer yours. Is this democracy?
“Unfortunately, we Arab nations, and not only Iraqis, do not know yet what democracy means. So we don’t deserve it.”
Inspired by “Arab Spring” uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries, Iraqis have demonstrated this year against corruption and poor basic services, and for political reform. But when asked whether Iraq needs its own Arab Spring, many reject the idea.
“It means more bloodshed, and we are fed up with this. Look at people in the countries of the Arab Spring. They are fighting each other,” said Hussain Ali, at the barbers. “We can vote. And we can make change through voting.”
“If this does not work, then there will be no option but to topple them by force,” he added.
Looking beyond the year-end departure of U.S. troops, many Iraqis say they are worried about the fate of their democracy.
“Islamic fundamentalist parties are waiting for this opportunity to swoop in and grab power,” said Mosul taxi driver Mohammed Jassim, 42. “If it happens, it means bye-bye democracy.”
Additional reporting by Jamal al-Badrani in Mosul; Editing by Jim Loney and Andrew Heavens