Iraq: What kind of nation are US troops leaving behind?
- 17 November 2011
- From the section Middle East
As the 31 December deadline for the pullout of all the American troops from Iraq approaches, the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse in Baghdad asks what kind of a country Washington leaves behind.
"I've been here for over six years," said John, a mulletted, moustachioed civilian contractor, driving a pickup truck through the dusty lanes of Camp Kalsu.
"I'm helping to do whatever needs to be done. Take it easy, see ya!" and with that he cranked up the volume on his iPod, plugged into the pickup's stereo, and drove off in a blast of country and western.
John is just one of tens of thousands of Americans - civilian and military - getting out of Iraq.
Camp Kalsu, 50km (31 miles) south of Baghdad, is a glorified military truck-stop. And these days, it's busy.
Every day convoys of military trucks and tanks snake their way onto this base, as they head south towards Kuwait.
There are still some 30,000 US soldiers in Iraq. By the end of December, they must all be gone.
This war has cost America close to $1tn (£635bn). Nearly 4,500 soldiers have lost their lives.
And so, as they pack up, some are inevitably asking the question: was it all worth it?
Jason Kidder, the camp's executive officer, said he and his men were proud of what they had achieved.
"I see the neighbourhoods now, with the markets open, and they have running water, they have electricity. Co-operation between the US military and the Iraqi government really brought civilization back to a tolerable level here.
"And so I'm very proud to say that I was here and I was part of this."
That pride was not shared in the nearby town of Iskenderiyah.
"We still have no water, no electricity, no reconstruction, no nothing." That was the verdict of Hussein Matar, a taxi driver from the Shia shrine-city of Karbala, as he tucked into a kebab and pickles at a roadside eatery.
"The Americans invaded Iraq to liberate us from Saddam Hussein. But things got even worse. They said Iraq would become paradise. Where is it?"
The cost of the war to the Unites States is dwarfed by the price paid by Iraqis. Conservative estimates of the number of people killed since 2003 exceed 100,000.
Last month, 258 people lost their lives in shootings and explosions - not an unusually high figure.
Iraqis still live with the daily fear of violence. The country's infrastructure is still in tatters.
Old habits die hard
Rightly or wrongly, many Iraqis now blame the departing Americans for all of this, and more.
"Many countries have benefited from what happened here, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and even Iran," Hussein Matar continued, echoing a widely held sentiment.
"Because the US is busy in Iraq and in Afghanistan, Iran can do whatever it wants. Our country has become a place where other nations settle their scores."
So what is left then for Iraqis asking what the US has ever done for them.
There is democracy, and freedom of speech.
On 25 February 2011, as protest swept across the Arab world, Iraqis too came out onto the streets.
On Baghdad's Tahrir Square people gathered to demand better public services and an end to corruption.
A year earlier, they had voted in a messy coalition government. Now those same voters were voicing their displeasure.
These were scenes that would have been unimaginable under Saddam Hussein's rule. But in Iraq, old habits die hard. After most of the local media had left, the security forces were sent in.
"Within a couple of minutes, they had cleared the entire square," says Daniel Smith, an independent journalist and researcher.
The eyes of the world were focused elsewhere in the Middle East. But Mr Smith was there and saw everything.
"For 40 minutes they chased us, shooting. People fell down, it looked like they were shot but it was tough to tell. Then people would catch up with them and be beating them with sticks. These were security forces."
Since that day, Daniel Smith has been back to Tahrir Square almost every Friday. The intimidation, he says, has become less visible - but no less effective.
"After the demonstration, four journalists were picked up in a cafe at the other end of town, arrested and threatened with rape and other violence. They were told: 'Don't go back to Tahrir'."
"In the months that followed there was a big public smear campaign on state TV, talking about (the protesters) being Ba'athist (Saddam Hussein's political party) supporters who wanted to bring down the government."
When the BBC visited Tahrir Square one Friday this month, uniformed security forces outnumbered the small crowd of demonstrators. There was a lively debate between pro- and anti-government protesters.
But there were also members of the intelligence services in plain clothes. Many activists said they had been arrested in the past. Their mood was defiant, but also nervous.
In recent weeks, about 800 people have been arrested across the country, accused of being part of a Baathist-terrorist conspiracy.
There are clearly still people in Iraq who are bent on a path of violence and terror. But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that in some cases at least, the Baathist-al-Qaeda label is used to silence awkward critics.
After the invasion in 2003, the process of de-baathification removed a largely Sunni elite from power and replaced it with leaders from Iraq's Shiite majority.
It is these people who have, on paper, gained the most from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
But it is in Shia neighbourhoods, like Sadr City, that people are most vocal in their opposition to the American presence.
Every Friday, hundreds of men gather in the street to hear the imam deliver the sermon. Every Friday they chant: "No, no America! No, no America!"
Moqtada al-Sadr, the cleric who leads these people, also controls a sizable block in the Iraqi parliament. He himself is mostly resident in Iran.
His men once fought the US occupying forces in Iraq, and America's withdrawal at the end of December will be seen by many as Mr Moqtada's victory.