10 years later, Iraq falls short of citizens' dreams
BAGHDAD -- The Christian doctors and engineers who once populated Baghdad's Wehda neighborhood are long gone. Offices and shops have taken over the once-elegant district, and few members of the community who used to dominate the area remain.
The well-off professionals began to leave Wehda during the 1980s war against Iran, but the years of civil war, ethnic cleansing and rampant corruption that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq sealed its decline.
"After 2003, the situation for Christians gravely deteriorated," says Sarmad Matta, a 38-year-old Christian shopkeeper in the district. "They became an easy target for the armed groups, and thousands were killed or injured or abducted."
Highly qualified doctors, engineers, and university lecturers have been among the hundreds of thousands fleeing Iraq since 2003.
Shiite and Sunni Muslims have also left the country, while others sought refuge in different parts of Iraq. They feared violence at the hands of al-Qaeda and the militias linked to the new political forces.
Thousands were killed, giving bloody proof that those who fled had well-founded fears.
"We lived through hard days, and we lost brothers and family in shootings, bombings and kidnappings. Now we fear that things will stay this way in Iraq," Sarmad says.
Not all Iraqis lost out in the aftermath of the war.
For some, such as one former trader, who asks to be known only as Abu Sajad, the changes opened many doors.
"Before 2003 I had a small business as a trader in Baghdad," he confides, "but after Saddam fell things changed, and people close to me got into power, so I have been able to get various government positions. I was also able to return to university and get a doctorate, which was something I had never dreamed of before."
The father-of-five now lives in an upper-class neighbourhood that was once the preserve of high-ranking army officers under toppled leader Saddam Hussein, who was eventually hanged by the new Iraqi government.
Abu Sajad owns several SUVs, and his house is surrounded by tight security.
Over the last decade, Iraqis have seen the emergence of a parliamentary democracy, but also the spread of violence and extremism.
A decade after the fall of Saddam's regime, building a modern civil state is still an aspiration for many Iraqi politicians.
"We were expecting our dream of change to come true and to build a stable Iraqi state based on law and thought and institutions and constitutional organs," says former interior minister Jawad al-Bolany.
"Some of those hopes have been realized, but many of them need a new, open-minded vision."
The current political model was hurriedly thrown together in dangerous political and security conditions.
Most political forces draw their backing from one sectarian or ethnic bloc -- either the Shiite Arab majority or the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities.
"We need to move away from the sectarian discourse," al-Bolany argues. "It opened up the political field to party and religious quotas and has facilitated extremist groups in committing crimes under many different names."
One of the causes of anger among the Sunni Arabs -- the group to whom Saddam Hussein belonged -- is the de-Baathification law.
The Accountability and Justice Law, as it is officially known, bans many officials of Saddam's former ruling party from a huge range of public offices.
"After all these years, we need an honest and courageous reappraisal," argues Abdel-Khadr Taher, a parliamentarian of the secular-leaning Iraqiya political bloc.
"We need national reconciliation, and we need to spread a culture of tolerance and openness and to put the past behind us. We can benefit from similar experiences in Romania and South Africa."
That strikes a chord with General Safa, a 48-year old who lost his position when the then Iraqi Army was dissolved by the US occupation administration.
"Since the US invasion of Iraq, one government after another has refused to allow me to go back to serve my country in the military," the former officer, who refused to give his full name, told dpa.
The change in Safa's life is reflected in his appearance. He gained a lot of weight, grew a beard and lost much of his hair.
"These days being close to one of the ruling political blocs is the qualification for any position running the country, whatever the field," Safa complains. "That has meant that unqualified people are now running all the country's institutions, and financial and administrative corruption has spread."
He says he is left to "look for any new job, outside my own field, so as to be able to feed my family."
The government, meanwhile, fears the consequences of the Arab Spring, which has swept away leaders in Egypt, Libya, Tunis and Yemen. It accuses protesters who have recently camped out in Sunni-dominated areas of serving foreign agendas.
Ibrahim al-Sumaidai, an independent Sunni politician, told dpa the current protests result from years of political failures.
"The government has failed to set out a national roadmap," he says. "In recent years what we have seen is a state put together by political groups. There is no idea of a state for the whole nation."