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2009 in Iraq: A New Era Dawns, But Old Fears Still Hold Sway

Leila Fadel

BEFORE THE 2007 BOMBING Inside the Shaabandar Cafe, an intellectual institution on al Mutannabi Street, Baghdad's historic book-selling district named for an Iraqi who became one of the most famous poets in Arab history.

BAGHDAD - With the arrival of 2009, Iraq has
achieved, at least on paper, something it hasn't enjoyed since American
troops entered the country almost six years ago and toppled the long
ruling Baath party regime of Saddam Hussein: the declaration that it is
a sovereign nation, free of a United Nations mandate that allowed the
U.S. to run Iraqi affairs.

U.S. troops are still here, of
course, and will be for some time. Under a new bilateral security
agreement, however, they must defer to Iraqi officials, seeks arrest
warrants and judicial orders before detaining people, and by June
largely withdraw from Iraq's cities.

changes won't be evident all at once, and some are open to
interpretation. U.S. officials insist their forces will remain at the
Joint Security Stations that they man with Iraqi troops inside Baghdad
possibly after the June 30 deadline for being out of the cities.

no doubt, however, that Jan. 1 marks a major step in Iraq's evolution.
U.S. officials already have moved out of Saddam Hussein's Republican
Palace, which they'd used as their headquarters since U.S. troops took
control of Baghdad, and are occupying a brand new, sprawling 104-acre
U.S. embassy complex that's America's largest in the world.

Iraqis aren't willing to say that the bad years of sectarian bloodshed
are over or that what's taking place will lead to better days.

expect a power struggle over territory between the Arabs and Kurds in
the north. With provincial elections scheduled for later this month,
they worry about political rivalries that could lead to violence.
They're still unsure of the government - and a future they can't

Open-air markets are busy once again, stores have
reopened and historic cafes, bookstores and restaurants have been
rebuilt. The paralyzing fear and tragedy in 2006 and 2007, when
sectarian killings and rampant explosions forced Iraqis to cower in
their homes, seems largely to have passed. It's difficult, however, for
hope to return so quickly after so much bloodshed.

At the
Shaabandar Cafe, an intellectual institution on al Mutannabi Street,
Baghdad's historic book-selling district named for an Iraqi who became
one of the most famous poets in Arab history, loyal patrons have
returned after the cafe, which burned after a terrorist bombing in
2007, was rebuilt.

Mohammed Kadhim al Khashali feels little joy
as he sits at his desk at the front of the cafe, as he's done for 50
years, with a book of Iraqi folklore in front of him, collecting from
his patrons for the tea and conversation. On the wall to his left five
pictures hang with a black strip across the top. His four sons and
grandson were killed in the 2007 bombing.

Just five years ago he
had four educated sons and 13 grandchildren, he said. He'd realized his
dream of building a gathering place for intellectuals to discuss poetry
and philosophy - a place where tourists could learn about Iraq's
history and culture. Now in his cafe, rebuilt with government money,
his eyes are weighed with sadness.

"I considered myself a prince
before," he said. "The printing houses and coffee shop are rebuilt, but
life has changed. I went from a father living with his sons to a father
living to support his children's orphans . . . life became torture."

wife is gone now, too. He says she died of grief. Outside, the sounds
of drills and saws underscore the change on a new al Mutanabbi Street
built over the rubble of the old and scarred one.

Between the
neighborhoods of Adhamiyah, a Sunni Muslim enclave, and Kadhimiyah, a
Shiite one, the Aimma bridge is once again open after years of being
closed to stop warring religious factions from killing one another.

residents from one neighborhood frequent the other neighborhood. It's
not unusual to hear Shiite chants blasting from a car caught in the
gridlock of Sunni Adhamiyah. Still, it isn't yet normal.

of pilgrims, some visiting the Shiite shrine in Kadhimiyah, others
visiting the Abu Hanifa Sunni mosque in Adhamiyah, are ordered from
their vehicles before they cross the bridge. Soldiers pat them down,
search their vehicles and send them on their way.

Under the
bridge lies a cemetery of almost 6,000 graves. It opened on July 5,
2006, at the height of the sectarian killings, when Sunni families had
no other place to take their dead. The danger was too great.
Ninety-five percent of the dead here were killed by Shiite militias,
said Ahmed Akram, who oversees the cemetery.

Above him, cars buzz
between the Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods. Here in "The Martyrs
Cemetery," however, there's a sea of death that many think won't be

"Do you think Iraq will be clear of vengeance with the
blood that has been spilled? Never!" Akram said. "Revenge cannot be
forgotten. There is no success in this war."

Akram recounts the
acid burned corpses, the heads and the tortured bodies he buried. He
blames the American invasion. Then, in almost the same breath, he
worries that the violence will begin again with the withdrawal of
American troops.

"What did democracy give us? It gave us
cemeteries. They (the U.S.) succeeded. They succeeded in making people
kill each other, " he said. "Despite that, the place that (the U.S.)
destroyed needs their presence because the people will kill each other
again and Iraq will be on fire."

Last week, he said, was proof of
his point. A bombing in Kadhimiyah killed 24, including a Sunni mother
and daughter, who were being washed for burial on Wednesday. Perhaps
they'd finally gotten the nerve to revisit the Shiite district and
never made it back.

Will Iraq ever recover its sense of well being?

Akram is unsure. "I live with the dead and for that my heart is dead," he said.


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