BAGHDAD, Iraq - Four years ago, Iraqi poet Abbas Chaychan,
a Shiite Muslim who'd been forced into exile during the predominantly
Sunni Muslim regime of Saddam Hussein, hailed the American presence
here in a poem that praised the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq, L. Paul
"We have breakfasts of kabab and qaymar," he wrote, describing
the new Iraq with a reference to a rich cream that's considered a sign
of wealth. "We put, in your stead, Mr. Bremer / Better than a tyrant of
our own flesh and blood, and his torture."
U.S. Marines place an American flag and a noose on the statue of Saddam Hussein, Wednesday, April 9, 2003, in Baghdad's Fardos Square, as Marines helped topple the statue.
Last January, shortly after Saddam was hanged, Chaychan again put words to paper. But his outlook had changed.
"History is proud to write about him," he said of Saddam. "It
wasn't a rope that wrapped around the neck / It was the neck that
wrapped around the rope. ...
"From his childhood he was a leader, stubborn and against the occupation."
As the anniversary of the March 20, 2003, U.S.-led invasion of
Iraq nears, many Iraqis, like Chaychan, are expressing nostalgia for
the time more than 1,000 days ago when Saddam's statue stood proudly in
Baghdad's Fardos Square.
Chaychan's reading of his most recent work, in which he calls
Saddam the Arab world's "knight" and compares his death to the
eclipsing of the sun, has become a popular Iraqi destination on
video-sharing services such as YouTube, where his pained voice rings
out over a montage of shots of the Iraqi dictator: clenching his fist
in the air, sporting his signature beret, at trial holding a Quran,
with a noose around his neck.
In a January interview with CBS News' "60 Minutes," President
Bush told correspondent Scott Paley that the American invasion had
taken "care of a source of instability in Iraq."
"Envision a world in which Saddam Hussein was rushing for a
nuclear weapon to compete against Iran," Bush said. "My decision to
remove Saddam Hussein was the correct decision, in my judgment. We
didn't find the weapons we thought we would find or the weapons
everybody thought he had. But he was a significant source of
In interviews across Baghdad, few Iraqis agreed, however.
Instead, they displayed a collective fatigue, even as another plan to
bring about security got under way. They're tired of waiting for better
days when each morning brings new terrorism. Trapped in their homes,
afraid that death will knock, they're worn down, they said.
Law and order - even under a bloody dictator who killed
thousands and tortured many others - was better than this, many said.
Even those who are glad to see Saddam dead expressed a longing for more
Layla Mohammed, a Sunni Muslim mother of three, remembered that
heady day four years ago when a noose tightened around the neck of
"I felt that I was at the highest point of a roller coaster,
just about to plunge into what I hoped would be an exhilarating
experience," Mohammed said. "I thought, `Oh, my God, it's happening. I
live to see my sons set free.'"
A pharmacist, she said she'd voted in all three elections that
Iraq has had since Saddam was toppled: first for an interim government,
then for a new constitution, then for a permanent government. She
remembers dipping her finger in purple ink - to indicate that she'd
voted - with her two sons and her daughter. Together they held up their
fingers and took a family photo to commemorate their future democracy.
"At that moment I felt that I was, at last, a sated human
being. I had an opinion and it carried weight! I shall treasure that
moment all my life," she said. "If only I could have that moment back;
its joy was untainted. Now I know better."
The life of freedom and liberty she was promised never came.
Her sons are trying to flee the country. She can't afford to keep her
house warm, and no longer goes to her pharmacy in the neighborhood of
Hurriyah, a once mixed-sect neighborhood that was emptied of most
Sunnis in December.
"I have been conned," Mohammed said.
When Saddam was executed she told herself, "There goes the one
man who could stop this bloodbath. I thought we would have to pay oil
for freedom and democracy, but not our life's blood. It's too much."
She put her hand to her head. "It's too much."
Ahmed al Yasseri, a Shiite, also remembers his excitement at
the fall of Saddam. He excitedly set up a once-forbidden satellite
dish. For the first time he watched Arabic news channels and foreign
stations. He bought a cell phone and subscribed to an Internet service.
Then his brother, a former officer in Saddam's army, was shot
as he returned from his electronics shop in 2004. Yasseri's two nephews
ran outside to see their father's body riddled with bullets. Yasseri
fled his neighborhood looking for somewhere safer.
Three months later his uncle was killed, caught in a crossfire
as he waited in a long line to buy gasoline. Yasseri moved again.
"In a short time you lose your dear ones, and for what?" he asked with despair. "Believe me, for nothing."
Now his current neighborhood, Mansour, once an upscale shopping
district in central Baghdad, has grown dangerous as well. The crowded
Shorja market, where he works, is a tempting target for bombs: A triple
car bomb there killed at least 67 people a few weeks ago. He travels
nowhere but the path between home and work. Every moment he worries
that he'll die in the kind of bombing that fills the morgue with body
"We envy the people who die in one piece now," he said.
Saddam was caught nearly nine months after the invasion, hidden
in an underground hole with a pistol. Bilal Ali, 40, a Shiite,
remembers that night. He pulled out an AK-47 rifle that he'd received
as a gift and fired into the air in celebration - a burst of
pop-pop-pops - then handed the weapon to his mother, then to his
"I shot five full magazines," he said. Each held 30 bullets.
"Thank God, who blessed even the hearts of the martyrs in their grave,
for this gift."
But it didn't bring the peace that Bilal Ali, a shopkeeper in
the Shiite area of Karada, had imagined. Car bombs became prevalent in
Shiite areas. Shiites were afraid to pray in their mosques, and Iraqis
were afraid to shop in outdoor markets, targets of the Sunni
Shiite militias struck back. Men, mostly Sunnis, turned up in
the morgue, shot in the head, hands tied behind their back, drill holes
in their bodies. The perpetrators eventually were linked to the
Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police.
Electricity grew scarcer, at first available for eight hours,
then six, then as few as three hours a day. Salaries went up, but so
did the cost of living. A tank of cooking gas soared to $60 on the
black market. A lower price cost a day's wait in line. The use of a
generator cost $100 a month. At $300 a month, wages hardly kept pace.
Still, Bilal Ali is happy that Saddam was hanged.
"I had hope at that time that life would be much better after
his regime's collapse," he said. "But I'm very happy with his end even
if the security situation is bad."
Every morning as Mona Ali, a single Shiite mother, prepares
sandwiches and breakfast for her three children she wonders whether
they won't return to her. She leaves her 4-year-old son at home and
tightly grips the hands of her two young daughters. On the daily walk
to school, bullets sometimes have whizzed above their heads in the
Shiite Amil neighborhood in west Baghdad.
"There is fear in my heart every day that my kids will go and not come back to me," she said.
Daily she walks to the neighborhood marketplace. On one trip, a
car bomb ripped through the vegetable stands as she approached. The
blood, the dead, the injured lay in front of her and she thought, it
could have been me. She had a nightmare about her children as orphans.
"I remembered the fear I had for my children and I realized I might not return safely to them," she said.
"Baghdad is dirty. When it gets dark everybody hides in their houses just like rats," she said.
Over and over again she repeated, "Baghdad is dirty."
She remembers the bombing of the gold-domed Shiite shrine in
Samarra more than a year ago. She knew the attack was different from
all the others.
"I felt bitterness in my heart that day," she said. "I knew
that things would not rest; I knew that we shall have torment for a
long time, and it was true."
Shiite revenge killings soared. Neighbors soon couldn't live
with one another. Sunnis feared Shiite militias and their dreaded
checkpoints; Shiites feared the Sunni insurgency and its bloody
bombings. People fled, and families were torn apart.
Many, like Ali, feel numb to the pain, cheated out of the lives they expected.
On the morning Saddam was hanged, Ali said, she wept. Not for
the dictator, but for the death of her hope and the loss of confidence
in a government that she thinks is worse than the one that came before
"I want safety," she said. "Saddam's time was a safe time for us."
Abbas Chaychan never returned to Iraq after the war. He remains
an exile, part of an Iraqi diaspora that grows daily. As many as 2
million Iraqis have fled their homeland since the war began, according
to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Up to 1.7
million Iraqis have been displaced internally.
It's the largest refugee movement in the Middle East since the
displacement of the Palestinians in 1948, the U.N. reports. About 8
percent of Iraq's population before the war has left; up to 50,000 more
Iraqis are displaced each day.
Bodies are stacked at the morgue, mothers weep and children are
maimed. For four years Iraqis have waited for better days, and they
weep for the time lost: no liberty, no freedom, just death.
Chaychan's most recent poem doesn't lament Saddam's death as much as it pines for the era when he lived.
"I cried & I didn't cry for you," he wrote. "I cried for the time that put you in a tomb."
McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Laith Hammoudi, Zaineb Obeid and Sahar Issa contributed to this report.
© 2007 McClatchy Washington Bureau and wire service sources