Pornographic DVDs shared space with recordings of religious sermons; prescription drugs and other goods looted from state buildings were stacked on rickety stalls. Gangs roamed the streets and a burst of gunfire was ignored by men sifting through the array of items on sale at Bab al-Sharji market in the heart of Baghdad. There were even photographs of Saddam Hussein available – memorabilia for his remaining supporters or images to be stamped on by those who suffered under the former leader.

That was the scene in August 2003, just months after the US-led invasion had toppled the dictator amid promises of freedom, democracy and development. At the time, Bab al-Sharji illustrated the chaos induced by the dramatic changes sweeping across the country – a new openness coupled with a lawlessness that began causing many to question what “freedom” would mean in reality.

Seven years on, as the US prepares on September 1 to reach the symbolic end of its combat missions, Bab al-Sharji is still thriving, with all manner of goods on display, from porn to second-hand clothes. But there is one big difference: the market is corralled behind concrete walls to ward off suicide bombers – a grim reminder that Iraq is far from completing the transition to stability.

As US president, George W. Bush promised a “free Iraq” that would be a “watershed event in the global democratic revolution”. Yet for most Iraqis, the past seven years have been characterised by bloodshed and destruction, broken promises and the emergence of at best a dysfunctional state. If the mood was cautious back in 2003, today the overriding sense is one of pessimism and despair.

“I have a little girl and I always think of her – when she grows up what future will she have? I fear the point when she becomes a woman,” says Raad Sabah, who runs a shop in the market. “We thought that after the American invasion things would be better, but now everybody agrees that the presence of the Americans has made matters worse.”

It might be easy to assume that Mr Sabah would be happy the US is reducing its troops to 50,000 ahead of a complete military withdrawal by the end of 2011. Yet he grapples with a dilemma many Iraqis share – the desire to see the military machine depart, countered by the fear of what will emerge in its absence. “I hate the Americans …because they created sectarianism, but they have become the safety valve for Iraq,” says Mr Sabah, a member of the Shia majority often oppressed under Saddam. “They are the disease and the medicine at the same time.”

Iraqis’ fears are fuelled by a lack of faith in their political leaders and the knowledge that sectarian distrust still runs deep after the nation was sucked close to full-blown civil war by Shia-Sunni violence in 2005-08. While security has since improved, some provinces are less stable than others, with Baghdad among the most violent.

US officers say the 660,000-strong Iraqi Security Forces, which Washington has spent $18bn (€14.3bn, £11.7bn,) developing, have grown into a capable outfit. They also point out that little will change on the ground after September 1: America’s troops pulled out of cities in June last year, while the ISF has taken on an increasing responsibility for security. But adding to a civilian toll that some estimate at 100,000, violence still plagues the capital and other hotspots on an almost daily basis – scores were killed on Wednesday alone. Many Iraqis question the professionalism of their forces.

Although al-Qaeda in Iraq has been weakened, it remains active. There are also concerns about other Sunni Arab extremist groups, Shia militias and Arab-Kurd tensions in the north. Assassination squads have been striking with worrying regularity; motorists are wary of the threat of “sticky” bombs attached under vehicles; and there are still the spectacular suicide attacks. “We are not ready to take over security after the US withdraws,” says a senior Iraqi security official. “You can describe the decision to pull out as worse than the moment when Iraq was occupied.”

He complains about a lack of equipment from artillery to aircraft, weak logistics, sectarianism in the police and army, and officers being able to bribe or use political connections to win positions of command. He worries that ISF will not be able to stand alone in the face of potential external threats, particularly from Iran, or from domestic militia, some of which are linked to political groups and were involved in sectarian violence.

Over the years there have been cases of men dressed in army or police uniforms carrying out atrocities. Tellingly, in Bab al-Sharji, rows of stalls offer uniforms imported from China and tailored to fit for around $25 – another example of the “freedoms” of the post-Saddam era. “We can see from their faces whether they are terrorists or not” is all that Jamal Khalaf, staffing one stall, says when asked whether the uniforms could be used by extremists.

Deadlock following inconclusive March elections has exacerbated the bleak mood. Many Iraqis had hoped the vote would usher in change and turnout was high. But although Iraqis of all sects said they were keen to put conflict behind them, religious and ethnic lines dominated voting patterns. Iraqiya, a secular list led by Iyad Allawi that had garnered backing from Sunni Arabs, ended up with just two seats more in the 325-member chamber than State of Law, a predominantly Shia alliance headed by Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister since 2006.

The resulting impasse, as politicians bicker over attempts to build the alliances they need to secure a parliamentary majority, has tested Iraqis’ faith in the democratic experiment the invasion brought them. It has also further sullied the image of political leaders who live and work behind layers of concrete blast walls like those that surround the market.

Hoshyar Zebari, foreign minister, tries to explain why the political negotiations have been so protracted by recounting a recent conversation he had with Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state. Frustrated with the lack of progress in Iraq, she spoke of her willingness to play a role in the administration of Barack Obama, her former rival for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her point was that there is always a second chance in democracy. “But I said the only difference between your democracy and Iraqi democracy…is our leaders believe this is their last chance – they believe if they don’t get it this time then it’s gone,” Mr Zebari says.

Still, he insists Iraq is progressing, adding: “There is no turning back in my opinion to the old ideology, to the old system of governance.”

New restaurants have opened in Baghdad, and once deserted parks are packed with families on evenings and weekends. Officials also talk of development projects picking up pace. Yet many Iraqis remain unconvinced. “You think this new bridge will be a solution for Iraq?” asks an Iraqi passing a construction site.

Aside from the lack of security, Iraqis suffer from dilapidated services and what many view as deteriorating living standards. Unemployment is rife and almost one-quarter of the population lives in poverty.

Some 40 per cent of Baghdad’s sewage flows into the Tigris after extremists destroyed a treatment plant, says Jassim Ali Hmood, chairman of Amanat, the organisation responsible for overseeing projects and services in the capital. A 26bn dinar ($22m, €18m, £14m) contract is being put out to tender to rebuild the plant, but an expansion in Baghdad’s population means almost one-third of the sewage will still flow into the river, he says.

Perhaps the most repeated gripe is about power cuts, with Baghdad residents receiving just a few hours of electricity a day. The government has allocated nearly $23bn to the electricity ministry since 2006, while the US has spent upwards of $5bn on the sector. Generation did reach its highest monthly average ever at 6,720MW in June, according to US figures. But the system falls way short of meeting demand of about 11,000MW. That is partly a consequence of the economy being opened up: as consumer goods flooded in, power demand soared.

Iraqis’ awareness of the potential riches of a country boasting the world’s third-largest proved oil reserves reinforces their disillusionment. Politicians “do nothing and take shelter while people are getting killed every day”, says Ma’een Ahmed, shouting above the rumble of generators that line the streets of Fadhil, a poor Sunni neighbourhood. “This is the freedom and democracy you are talking about?”

Fadhil was a stronghold of the insurgency – a Saddam-era flag is pinned to a wall – and its buildings are riddled with bullet holes, while sewage runs openly on the streets. Pavements and roads have been relaid in recent years but potholes have already reappeared.

Khaled Khalil, a softly spoken father of four who ekes out a living selling ice, asks for help to repair his apartment, which was damaged by a rocket. He lost four brothers and two uncles to the violence. Asked about the future his children will inherit, he says: “I’m confused, I don’t know.”

Much will now rest with the politicians who form the next government. Around the elections, political groups of all shades acknowledged that the incumbent administration, in which posts and ministries were divided up among factions and given to people often deemed unqualified for office, failed the people. But they have much to do if they are to restore voters’ faith and ensure the nation avoids further chaos.

“The houses work, the institutions are not just facades, but at the moment they are dysfunctional because the politics is not working,” says a senior western diplomat. Iraq’s future “is in the balance, no doubt”.

Get alerts on Terrorism when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article