BAGHDAD, Iraq – When U.S.-led forces invaded Iraq two years ago today, Adnan al-Eiby was thrilled. He thought that once Saddam Hussein was toppled, Iraq would become a flourishing Western-style democracy.
“But now, I walk down the street and all I see is death – innocent people blown up by terrorists and others shot by the Americans,” said the 32-year-old chauffeur. “I’m fed up with life. We pinned our hopes on the Americans but they let us down.”
A different take on the new Iraq comes from Hamid Balasim, a 34-year-old nuclear energy engineer once favored by Saddam’s regime. He says freedom matters even more than reconstructing Iraq or getting rich.
“Things are 1 million times better than Saddam’s days,” Balasim said. “Freedom is the essence of life.”
Two years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraqis are split between hope and despair.
They have experienced the act of casting a vote in the first free and fair elections in Iraq’s modern history. But lawlessness prevails and Iraq remains mired in acts of ferocity.
Although the United States last June transferred sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, insurgents have carried on a relentless campaign of suicide bombings, kidnappings and beheadings. Hundreds more have died in such attacks since the Jan. 30 elections that will soon bring a Shiite-led government to power.
Rampant crime, power outages, unemployment at over 50 percent and a fuel crisis in one of the world’s prime oil-exporting countries have added to the despondency.
“What has the interim government done, anyway?” al-Eiby asked, squatting in his one-room apartment in Sadr City, a Shiite Muslim slum in Baghdad, as raw sewage lapped at his doorstep.
“Many people are struggling to find jobs and our conditions have become more pathetic than that of the Afghans and the Palestinians,” he complained.
Like al-Eiby, Balasim was also hit hard.
When the United States dismantled Iraq’s nuclear program after the invasion, he was given a lowly desk job at the Science and Technology Ministry and his salary was cut from about $200 to $135.
But he says he only cares “about the big picture.”
“We voted in a free election, we read newspapers that openly criticize government officials, we can say what we want out loud – things that do not happen in other Arab countries with no security issues, things that were the stuff of movies for us,” he said.
“It is a matter of time,” he said, “like a sick person who’s recuperating: It just needs more time and we’ll be better.”
Al-Eiby complained the elections may have given Iraqis a taste of democracy, but have “not provided my family with bread and butter, nor do I feel safer now.”