Iraq: A New Democratic Dawn - or Back to the Bad Old Days?
BAGHDAD - As the US and Britain steadily exit Iraq, a pre-invasion reality is returning for many. Essential services still don't work, while the old-world Ba'athist order is once again flourishing.
Saddam Hussein's loyalists have been removed from the extensive bureaucracies that once ran Iraq, but the often draconian rules they imposed over 30 years are back in vogue.
Security has improved across the country, to the extent of families being able to return to public parks and sports grounds even in provincial areas that are far less stable than the capital.
But the gains have been met by a rise in the influence of the system that made daily life here insufferable well before warfare - that of regulations.
Most things, from applying for municipal documents to voting and registering cars, have become more complicated over the past six months.
"Democracy is proving to be very rough-edged," says Ethar Ebrahim, in the well-to-do Baghdad riverside suburb of Karrada. "We can get out and about now," she adds, among the thriving streets with their shops, cafes and barbecue chicken grills, "but the time we are wasting on doing the simple things is just killing us."
Three international media outlets have had cars impounded since January when their drivers tried to enter the International Zone, which was handed over by the US military to the Iraqi army at the start of the year. The armoured cars were brought into Iraq at the start of the war six years ago and their papers no longer match the country's rapidly evolving regulatory environment.
Of far more concern to residents is what the new rules actually are. Myriad changes to the way things have been done throughout the past six years seem to be taking place each week; so too do the times that government offices open and what requests they will deal with.
Iraqis are also seeing a resurgence of two other factors that dominated the Saddam years: nepotism and corruption, both of which are regular subjects of complaint in daily newspapers and radio broadcasts.
On this score, Iraqis are far better off - even being seen to criticise an official, let alone a regime figure, would almost certainly have led to imprisonment, maiming or a death sentence under Saddam.
"My brother was sitting in a cafe and said something about Uday [Hussein, one of the dictator's sons]," remembers Samira al-Moussawi, an MP. "People nearby overheard him and called members of Uday's guards, who came to the cafe and dragged him away and cut out his tongue."
Complaining about the government will not expose the public to such savagery, but it is unlikely to lead to a result either. The latest global transparency index judged that only two states in the world were more corrupt than Iraq - Burma and Somalia.
The head of Iraq's Integrity Commission, Ibrahim al-Ukeile, says embezzlement is not that endemic in Iraq, but concedes that most ministries have a big problem. From his office inside the heavily fortified International Zone, Ukeile says his investigators are dealing with dozens of complaints about every ministry. He acknowledges that some are much worse than others. The oil and foreign affairs ministries, both future cash cows in Iraq, have been nominated in the past three years as prominent embezzlers. "It is true we have a problem here. We need ideologically motivated people to address this issue. And I am certain we have them. It will take time to get on top of things."
Iraqis seem to accept that some of the country's wealth will inevitably slip into the pockets of the powerful - but only if they are seen to get benefits as well.
So far, any moves towards the promised progress and prosperity seem painfully slow.
"We were getting one hour of electricity on average each day during the war," says Ebrahim. "Now we are getting around 12, which is much better. But down the road, in areas where parliamentarians live, their power is on 24 hours a day."
In the provinces, the situation seems much worse. Iraq's second-largest city, Basra, goes dark after midnight several nights each week and most of the city does not yet have sewerage lines or a reliable water supply. Deprived for three decades under Saddam and a short hop to the Iranian border, Basra became fertile ground for insurgency.
Small community projects have started up. Many small developments, such as school improvements, pavements and sewerage digging, are being funded by the British army and the Department for International Development, but large civic work projects are slow to get going.
Zainab al-Moussawi, a Basra resident, said: "We can talk about security all we like, but until we see results this living hell will not have been worth it."