Many people in Iraq complain that George Bush has so far utterly failed to live up to his promises of real "liberation", but the people of Baqubah have better reason than most.
The hated Baathist bureaucrats and generals no sooner disappeared from this large, soul-destroyingly bleak town, 35 miles from the Iranian border, than another armed force sought control on the streets, inspiring unease and even outright fear. And it was not the American Marines.
Standing guard over a former Baath party administration headquarters at lunchtime yesterday, Kalashnikovs at the ready, was a band of bearded fighters from the Badr Brigade, a pro-Iranian heavily armed militia whose overall numbers are in excess of 10,000.
The militiamen were suspicious and hostile when we arrived to inspect their new stronghold, whose walls bear a picture of their leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim, head of a revered Iraqi Shia family who lives in exile in Tehran.
The building's massive portrait of Saddam Hussein has been destroyed with particular energy, with angry streaks of black paint.
Some of Ayatollah Hakim's unarmed supporters milling around on the scene said that the militia was merely trying to restore order. "Thank you, USA, but now it must go!" shouted one man repeating the well-publicized views of the ayatollah, who has made clear that he wants the American and British to pull out of Iraq after toppling Saddam. Asked if they wanted Ayatollah Hakim to rule this fractured country, another replied: "God willing". Not far away, an equally unfriendly group of Badr militiamen was standing outside a second party building, while more of their ranks were busy within.
To establish what other key buildings and resources in Baqubah were under the militia's control was impossible. We were advised by locals to leave the area at once because our lives were at risk from they insisted the Badr men. But, according to residents, the brigade had taken over at least seven "sensitive" local sites.
Baqubah, a mostly Shia town on a tributary of the Tigris 40 minutes drive north-east of Baghdad, has yet to consider itself "liberated"; it has certainly seen nothing of the "good times" about which Mr Bush has been waxing lyrical in his latest speeches in Washington.
The grizzled men playing dominoes and drinking tea in the town center café said the United States army bombed a few installations an army camp and transport depots. But they said its troops and tanks never entered Baqubah because the US commanders struck a deal with local clan leaders to pass it by. Here, as everywhere else, the fall of Saddam Hussein regime has left a chaotic vacuum, which is not only being exploited by the Badr Brigade but by looters. Shops are mostly shut. But the sight of Badr militiamen swaggering around with guns is contributing to the unease.
"We have lived in fear for 35 years and we are still living in fear," said a clearly nervous man, a teacher called Haider, (people here still refuse to give their names in full and were clearly uneasy about discussing current events). "We don't know anything about these Badr people. Suddenly they appeared. We don't know what is their aim."
Others said that the brigade some of whom have Iranian accents secretly slipped into Baqubah before the war, emerging as soon as the dictator had been ousted.
But such is the anarchy in Iraq in the aftermath of the American-British invasion, coupled with the growing popular cynicism over the failure of the Americans to restore order, that some Iraqis say they are willing to welcome any entity that can provide safety.
The Badr Brigade is a force that bears little resemblance to anything the Americans had in mind when they decided to replace President Saddam with new rulers. Before the war Ayatollah Hakim appealed to his supporters not to fight the invading US or British troops. But he and his political group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, have ties to Tehran and are unlikely long-term allies of any government Washington seeks to install.
The ayatollah had refused to attend or send a representative to the US-convened meeting on Tuesday in Nasiriyah aimed at establishing a government in post-Saddam Iraq.
This is far from the first power play by the ayatollah. He supported Iran in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. During the failed 1991 uprising in Iraq, he sought to take control of the rebellion, issuing pronouncements from a base across the Iranian border, stating that "no ideas except the rightful Islamic ones should be disseminated".
The prospect of an Islamic revolution alienated large numbers of Iraq's spectrum of peoples Sunni Muslims, Kurds, Christians and secular Iraqis contributing to the failure of the revolt. But 12 years on, the ayatollah and his fighters are in action again.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd