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Young men chat near Al Mutanabbi street in Baghdad. Image Credit: AP

BAGHDAD: On the banks of the Tigris River one recent evening, young Iraqi men and women in jeans and sneakers danced with joyous abandon to a local rap star as a vermillion sun set behind them. It’s a world away from the terror that followed the US invasion 20 years ago.

Iraq ‘s capital today is throbbing with life and a sense of renewal, its residents enjoying a rare, peaceful interlude in a painful modern history. The wooden stalls of the city’s open-air book market are piled skyward with dusty paperbacks and crammed with shoppers of all ages and incomes. In a suburb once a hotbed of Al Qaida, affluent young men cruise their muscle cars, while a recreational cycling club hosts weekly biking trips to former war zones. A few glitzy buildings sparkle where bombs once fell.

President George W. Bush called the US-led invasion on March 20, 2003, a mission to free the Iraqi people and root out weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussain’s government was toppled in 26 days. Two years later, the CIA’s chief weapons inspector reported no stockpiles of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons were ever found.

After 2003, the people who came to power did not understand about sharing democracy. Young people like me are born into this environment and trying to change the situation. The people in power do not see these as important issues for them to solve. And that is why we are active.

- Noor Alhuda Saad, 26, a Ph.D. candidate at Mustansiriya University

The war deposed a dictator whose imprisonment, torture and execution of dissenters kept 20 million people in fear for a quarter of a century. But it also broke what had been a unified state at the heart of the Arab world, opening a power vacuum and leaving oil-rich Iraq a wounded nation in the Middle East, ripe for a power struggle among Iran, Arab Gulf states, the United States, terrorist groups and Iraq’s own rival sects and parties.

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For Iraqis, the enduring trauma of the violence that followed is undeniable — an estimated 300,000 Iraqis were killed between 2003 and 2023, according to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, as were more than 8,000 US military, contractors and civilians. The period was marred by unemployment, dislocation, sectarian violence and terrorism, and years without reliable electricity or other public services.

Today, half of Iraq’s population of 40 million isn’t old enough to remember life under Saddam or much about the US invasion. In dozens of recent interviews from Baghdad to Fallujah, young Iraqis deplored the loss of stability that followed Saddam’s downfall — but they said the war is in the past, and many were hopeful about nascent freedoms and opportunities to pursue their dreams.

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A youngster crosses Al Mutanabbi street in the capital. Image Credit: AP

Why are youth active now?

Safaa Rashid, 26, is a ponytailed writer who talks politics with friends at a cozy coffee shop in the Karada district of the capital. With a well-stocked library nook, photos of Iraqi writers and travel posters, the café and its clientele could as easily be found in Brooklyn or London.

Rashid was a child when the Americans arrived, but rues “the loss of a state, a country that had law and establishment” that followed the invasion. The Iraqi state lay broken and vulnerable to international and domestic power struggles, he said. Today is different; he and like-minded peers can sit in a coffee shop and freely talk about solutions. “I think the young people will try to fix this situation.”

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Mohammad Zuan Khaman prepares kebabs at his family cafe in Baghdad's poorer neighbourhood along King Ghazi street.. Image Credit: AP

Another day, a different café. Noor Alhuda Saad, 26, a Ph.D. candidate at Mustansiriya University who describes herself as a political activist, says her generation has been leading protests decrying corruption, demanding services and seeking more inclusive elections — and won’t stop till they’ve built a better Iraq.

“After 2003, the people who came to power” — old-guard Sunni and Shiite parties and their affiliated militias and gangs — “did not understand about sharing democracy,” she said, tapping her pale green fingernails on the tabletop.

“Young people like me are born into this environment and trying to change the situation,” she added, blaming the government for failing to restore public services and establish a fully democratic state in the aftermath of occupation. “The people in power do not see these as important issues for them to solve. And that is why we are active.”

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Women stand on the martyrs' bridge in Baghdad. Image Credit: AP

Costly experience

Signs of the invasion and insurgency have been largely erased from Baghdad. The former Palestine Hotel, Ferdous Square, the Green Zone, the airport road pockmarked by IED and machine-gun attacks have been landscaped or covered in fresh stucco and paint.

The invasion exists only in memory: bright orange flashes and concussions of American “shock-and-awe” bombs raining down in a thunderous cacophony; tanks rolling along the embankment; Iraqi forces battling across the Tigris or wading into water to avoid US troops; civilian casualties and the desperate, failed effort to save a fellow journalist gravely wounded by a US tank strike in the final days of the battle for Baghdad. Pillars of smoke rose over the city as Iraqi civilians began looting ministries and US Marines pulled down the famous Saddam statue.

What appeared to be a swift victory for the US-led forces was illusory: The greatest loss of life came in the months and years that followed. The occupation stoked a stubborn guerrilla resistance, bitter fights for control of the countryside and cities, a protracted civil war, and the rise of the Islamic State group that spread terror beyond Iraq and Syria, throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe.

The long, staggeringly costly experience in Iraq exposed the limitations of America’s ability to export democracy and chastened Washington’s approach to foreign engagements, at least temporarily. In Iraq, its democracy is yet to be defined.

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A crowded cafe in Baghdad. Image Credit: AP

How Baghdad has changed

Blast walls have given way to billboards, restaurants, cafes and shopping centers — even over-the-top real estate developments. With 7 million inhabitants, Baghdad is the Middle East’s second-largest city after Cairo, and its streets teem with cars and commerce at all hours, testing the skill of traffic guards in shiny reflective caps.

Daily life here looks not so different from any other Arab metropolis. But in the distant deserts of northern and western Iraq, there are occasional clashes with remnants of the Islamic State (Daesh) group. The low-boil conflict involves Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Iraqi army troops and some 2,500 US military advisers still in country.

It is but one of the country’s lingering problems. Another is endemic corruption; a 2022 government audit found a network of former officials and businessmen stole $2.5 billion.

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A narrow street of Alsdria neighbourhood in Baghdad. Image Credit: AP

Meanwhile, digital natives are testing the boundaries of identity and free speech, especially on TikTok and Instagram. They sometimes look over their shoulders, aware that shadowy militias connected to political parties may be listening, ready to squelch too much liberalism. More than a dozen social media influencers were arrested recently in a crackdown on “immoral” content, and this month authorities said they would enforce a long-dormant law banning alcohol imports.

In 2019-20, fed-up Iraqis, especially young people, protested across the country against corruption and lack of basic services. After more than 600 were killed by government forces and militias, parliament agreed to a series of election law changes designed to allow more minorities and independent groups to share power.

Fallujah’s transformation

The sun bakes down on Fallujah , the main city in the Anbar region that was once a hotbed for Al Qaida of Iraq and, later, the Daesh group. Beneath the iron girders of the city’s bridge across the Euphrates, three 18-year-olds are returning home from school for lunch.

Youths wait for a ride on the bridge crossing the Euphrates River in Fallujah. Image Credit: AP

In 2004, this bridge was the site of a gruesome tableau. Four Americans from military contractor Blackwater were ambushed, their bodies dragged through the streets, hacked, burned and hung as trophies by local insurgents, while some residents chanted in celebration. For the 18-year-olds, it’s a story they’ve heard from their families — distant and irrelevant to their lives.

One wants to be a pilot, two aspire to be doctors. Their focus is on getting good grades, they say.

Fallujah today is experiencing a construction renaissance under former Anbar Gov. Mohammed Al Halbousi, now speaker of Iraq’s parliament. He has helped direct millions of dollars in government funding to rebuild the city, which experienced repeated waves of fighting, including two US military campaigns to rid the city of militants.

Fallujah gleams with new apartments, hospitals, amusement parks, a promenade and a renewed gate to the city. Its markets and streets are bustling. But officials were wary of letting Western reporters wander the city without an escort. The AP team’s first attempt to enter was foiled at a checkpoint.

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Khalifa OG concert along the Tigris River in Baghdad. Image Credit: AP

Khalifa OG raps

When news spread recently that a musician born and raised in Baghdad whose songs have gotten millions of views on YouTube would headline a rap party hosted at a fancy new restaurant in western Baghdad, his fans shared their excitement via texts and Instagram.

Khalifa OG raps about the difficulties of finding work and satirizes authority, but his lyrics aren’t blatantly political. A song he performed under strobe lights on a grassy lawn next to the Tigris mocks “sheikhs” who wield power in the new Iraq through wealth or political connections.

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A cafe in Baghdad. Image Credit: AP

Fan Abdullah Rubaie, 24, could barely contain his excitement. “Peace for sure makes it easier” for young people to gather like this, he said. His stepbrother Ahmed Rubaie, 30, agreed.

The sectarianism that led to a pitched civil war in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, with bodies of executed victims turning up each morning on neighborhood streets or dumped into the river, is one of the societal wounds that the rappers and their fans want to heal.

“We had a lot of pain ... it had to stop,” Ahmed Rubaie said. “It is not exactly vanished, but it’s not like before.”

Secular young people say that unlike their parents who lived under Saddam, they’re not afraid to make their voices heard. The 2019 demonstrations gave them confidence, even in the face of backlash from pro-religious parties.

“It broke a wall that was there before,” Ahmed Rubaie said.

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Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammad Shia Al Sudani. Image Credit: AP

PM grapples with issues

Iraq’s prime minister, Mohammad Shia Al Sudani , took office in October. A former government minister for human rights and governor of Maysan province, southeast of Baghdad, he won support from a coalition of pro-Iranian Shiite parties after a yearlong stalemate. Unlike other Shiite politicians who fled during the Saddam era, he never left Iraq, even when his father and five brothers were executed.

Working in a former Saddam palace that US and British officers and civilian experts once used as headquarters for their frenetic attempts at nation-building, Al Sudani still grapples with some of the issues that plagued the occupiers, including restoring regional relations and balancing interests among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. He said building trust between the people and government will be his first priority.

“We need to see tangible results — job opportunities, services, social justice,” Al Sudani said. “These are the priorities of the people.”

Timeline of events: 20 years since US-led invasion of Iraq
Here are some key dates from the invasion and following developments:

*March 20, 2003: The invasion is launched, and Baghdad is attacked with missiles and bombs in an attempt to target Saddam Hussain and bring down the government.

*April 9, 2003: American troops storm Baghdad, and the statue of Saddam is toppled in Firdous Square in a symbolic collapse of his government.

* May 1, 2003: US President George W. Bush declares an end to major combat operations in Iraq.

* August 2003: Initial hopes for peace recede. An anti-coalition insurgency begins in earnest. Attacks include a car bombing of the Jordanian embassy; a truck bomb that demolishes the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and kills top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello; and the bombing of a Najaf shrine that kills more than 85 people, including Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir Al Hakim.

* December 2003: Saddam is captured in an underground hideout near Tikrit.

* March 2004: Violent resistance to the US presence intensifies. Four security contractors are ambushed and killed in Fallujah, prompting a battle for the insurgent-dominated city west of Baghdad. Al Qaida in Iraq, a militant Sunni movement that attracts some of Saddam’s former Baathist security forces, leads the insurgency.

* April-August 2004: Clashes emerge between US-led coalition forces and followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who demands that foreign forces leave Iraq.

* October 2004: US arms inspector David Kay reports his team has found no evidence of stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.

* November 2004: Following the failure of a first US campaign for Fallujah, a second battle destroys much of the city but leaves the US in control.

* January 2005: Iraqis select a new parliament in the first elections since the fall of Saddam. Shiite and Kurdish parties take an overwhelming majority after Sunnis largely boycott.

* December 2005: Fighting takes on the character of a sectarian civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, with ethnic cleansing, killings and terror attacks in mixed neighborhoods. The death toll mounts around the country over the next two years among insurgents, coalition forces and Iraqi civilians.

* January 2007: After enlisting sympathetic Sunni tribal leaders to oppose the anti-coalition insurgency in the so-called Sunni Awakening, President Bush orders a surge of 30,000 US troops to contain the spreading violence.

* Late 2008: After a year of escalating chaos, coalition forces begin to root out both al-Qaida and Shiite militias opposing the elected government. Barack Obama is elected US president on a promise to withdraw US forces.

* December 2010: After much political turmoil, Shiite politician Nouri Al Maliki wins second term as prime minister, supported by Al Sadr.

* December 2011: The last US troops leave Iraq, turning responsibility for security over to the Iraqi army and police.

* 2013-2018: From the remnants of Al Qaida in Iraq, a new terrorist force emerges. Daesh terrorist group (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) breaks Sunni militants out of prisons and mounts a battle to establish a worldwide Islamic State caliphate based in Syria. In Iraq, the Daesh group takes over Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi with lightning speed, ultimately controlling about 40 percent of the country. A US bombing campaign, special forces operations and Shiite militias allied with Iran turn back the tide. Daesh group is evicted from strongholds in northern Iraq and in Syria, although skirmishes continue in remote areas.

* October 2019, January 2020: With the battle against the Daesh group mostly ended, Iraqi public dissatisfaction boils over with anti-government protests against rampant corruption, poor services and unemployment erupting in Baghdad and the predominantly Shiite south. The demonstrations draw young men and women who camp out alongside each other, a rare occurrence in the conservative, majority-Muslim country.

* Jan. 3, 2020: The US assassinates top Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani, head of the Quds Force expeditionary forces, in a drone strike near the Baghdad airport. Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis also is killed in the attack, bringing tensions between the US and Iraq to a fever pitch, and later fragmenting rival Shiite camps.

* October 2022: After a year of political stalemate following 2021 elections, the Shiite-dominated parliament chooses Kurdish leader Abdul Latif Rashid as president. He nominates Shiite politician Mohammad Shia Al Sudani as prime minister. Al-Sudani forms a government, promising to fight corruption and improve living standards.