Baghdad: Iraqis thought a better life was at hand when Saddam Hussain's regime fell in April 2003, but after nine years of violence and suffering, many are still waiting for their dreams to be realised.
Iraq still faces major shortages in basic services such as electricity and water, the UN says some 1.3 million Iraqis are internally displaced, and though violence is down from its peak in 2006-2007, attacks remain common.
On April 9, 2003, US forces used an armoured vehicle to pull down a giant statue of Saddam in Al Firdous Square in central Baghdad — an image shown around the world that became a symbol of the end of the dictator's regime. Today, only a metal support bar and a portion of one of the statue's legs, to which an Iraqi flag is tied, are visible atop a cylindrical base in the square.
The statue's base is plastered with posters, including one celebrating the US military's withdrawal from Iraq at the end of last year that features a picture of anti-US cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, whose family opposed Saddam and who commanded a militia that battled US forces.
"April 9 was a historic day for Iraqis," said Hilal Sultan, a 54-year-old who changes money and sells mobile phone cards at a small stand in Al Firdous Square, who said he witnessed Saddam's statue being toppled. "The people celebrated because we all believed the regime would change and there would be freedoms," he said.
Sultan recalled how some Iraqis in the square broke into applause while others hit the statue of Saddam with shoes and others cried.
"There were no freedoms under the former regime," Sultan said, noting that visits to Shiite shrines that were prohibited under Saddam were allowed after his fall.
The fall of Saddam, however, had its downside.
Violence tore through Iraq as the US battled insurgents, bomb attacks left huge numbers of civilians dead and the country descended into a bloody sectarian war.
"For nine years, we have been watching the killings and explosions," Sultan said.
He also complained about sporadic electricity and water shortages in the Sadr City area of Baghdad, where he lives. But ultimately "April 9 represents happiness for Iraqis", said Sultan. "Things are getting better."
"We felt the situation had changed and hoped it would be better; we felt more free," Bassam Hanna, a 35-year-old who works in a shop near Al Firdous Square, said of April 9. "It was like a rebirth, and we were celebrating."
Hanna, who said he was also in the square when the statue was toppled, referred to deficiencies in services, but said the situation in Iraq was generally better than it was before.
But Hanna, a Christian, also hinted at the sectarian conflict that gripped the country and drove many Iraqi Christians abroad.
Umm Mohammad, a cleaner at a bank, also believed nine years ago that life was changing for the best in Iraq. "We said that from now on life will be good," said the 50-year-old. "At the beginning of the collapse [of Saddam's regime], the people were happy."
Salam Hajji Sabhan, 44, recalls watching television coverage with his family of the fall of Saddam's regime in Canada, where he moved in 1996. "We were dancing. We were happy," he said during a visit to Baghdad.
"Saddam... was better than this government," said the former Iraqi police officer who is now studying for a master's degree in criminal justice. "Saddam was the biggest dictator, he was [a] very bad man. But it is not better now. There is no country, no security, no nothing."