The empty pillar, right, is seen where the statue of former dictator Saddam Hussein was pulled down by U.S. forces in 2003, in Baghdad, Iraq. (Hadi Mizban / AP)
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BAGHDAD — Ten years ago, a statue fell in Baghdad’s Firdous Square. Joyful Iraqis helped by an American tank retriever pulled down their longtime dictator, cast as 16 feet of bronze. The scene broadcast live worldwide became an icon of the war, a symbol of final victory over Saddam Hussein.
But for the residents of the capital, it was only the beginning.
The toppling of the statue remains a potent symbol that has divided Iraqis ever since: Liberation for Shiites and Kurds, a loss for some Sunnis and grief among almost everybody over the years of death, destruction and occupation that followed the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces on April 9, 2003.
“Ten years ago, I dreamed of better life,” said Rassol Hassan, 80, who witnessed the fall of the statue from his nearby barber shop. “Nothing has changed since then for me and many Iraqis, it has even gotten worse.”
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the overwhelming majority of Iraqis agree that they are better off today than under Saddam’s brutal dictatorship.
“Iraqis will remain grateful for the U.S. role and for the losses sustained by military and civilian personnel that contributed in ending Hussein’s rule,” he said.
“Iraq is not a protectorate of the United States; it is a sovereign partner,” al-Maliki said in response to the contention that Iraq has become more pro-Iran than pro-West. “Partners do not always agree, but they consider and respect each other’s views. In that spirit, we ask the United States to consider Iraq’s views on challenging issues, especially those of regional importance.”
In the past 10 years, Iraqis have seen the country’s power base shift from minority Arab Sunnis to majority Shiites, with Kurds gaining their own autonomous region.
“For Kurds there is no regret,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator. “April 9 is a national liberation day for us.”
Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraq’s Shiite-led government, said “April 9 is a day of contradictions: We ended the oppression of Saddam” but began the American occupation. Still, he emphasized that Iraqis were looking forward.
“Our fight is against terrorist groups that kill people and want to prevent them from tasting the freedom they had lost for 30 years (under Saddam).”
A Sunni lawmaker, Hamid al-Mutlaq, was unsparing in his assessment of what happened a decade ago.
“Baghdad, the city of history and civilization, fell into the hands of a brutal occupation that ignored all laws,” al-Mutlaq said. “They came as occupiers and killers unlike what they said before. They left us killing, sectarianism and displacement,” he added. “It is a black and ominous day in its history. It is a day of slavery.”
Baghdad has indelibly changed since the darkest days of the war.
Residents no longer flee their neighborhoods fearing sectarian violence. Bridges joining Sunni and Shiite areas have reopened. Hotels are being renovated as foreign investment trickles in.
But car bombs targeting police, Shiite mosques and government offices, mostly the hallmarks of al-Qaida militants, still ravage the city of some 7 million.
Ten years on, the city is draped in a spider’s web of generator cords wrapped over crumbling buildings and crisscrossing above unpaved streets, a sign of the graft-ridden government’s failure to restore power or rebuild basic infrastructure.
Shiite power is evident in posters pasted around the city — on security checkpoints, billboards, concrete walls. Most show the Shiite hero, the Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed with his bearded face draped in a green turban.
Other walls are painted with scenes of ancient Iraqi civilizations. Some offer practical graffiti, such as the phone number of a tow-truck service.
Walls now are also emblazoned with posters of candidates for provincial elections slated for April 20: Turbaned, bearded Shiite clerics mix with clean-shaven, businessmen clad in suits and female candidates in headscarves and tidy makeup.
Amid Baghdad’s near-universal neglect runs a divide between jeep-driving elites in guarded streets and the city’s poor.
Men and women shove each other aside at a dump on the eastern outskirts of Baghdad, fighting to grab bags of garbage tossed off a truck, searching for cans and plastic to sell to recycling factories. Children in grubby clothes play among garbage, a pool of green sewage stinking nearby.
“Look at my condition!” demanded Ali Hassan, one of those digging through garbage. “Is this how a human should live? Politicians are fighting over jobs while people live in poverty.”
There are also flashes of joy in the city hugging the banks of the Tigris river.
Couples stroll riverside walkways, and children play in parks along its banks. Residents traipse through al-Mutanabi street, a pedestrian alley of booksellers.
Books are neatly displayed on tables and floors: Arabic poetry, heavy tomes of Islamic law and etiquette guides. Stationary shops sell calendars featuring bloodied Shiite martyrs and notebooks with covers of the yellow cartoon character “Spongebob Squarepants.”
Nearby, families stroll through a museum featuring mannequins in traditional scenes, such as a wedding, circumcision, and a cafe. For an extra fee, visitors may be photographed in colorful costumes and have the photo inserted into a snow globe.
The dozens of young men who helped pull down the 16-foot bronze Saddam statue in Firdous Square 10 years ago were mostly from the nearby Iraqi communist party office.
But the statue was reinforced by metal cables and finally Marines with a crane finished the job. It was meant to be the swift end to an invasion that began only three weeks before.
Another statue made by an Iraqi artist soon replaced Saddam, but was also pulled down. The modernist structure, with branches reaching toward the sky and a crescent moon balancing a ball was supposed to represent the freedom and unity among Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
On Tuesday, the pedestal stood empty, save for a rusted iron bar poking out of it.
With additional reporting by Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad.