The fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad and the toppling of the statute of Saddam Hussein – a symbol of US victory and might – was marked yesterday by death and destruction across the country and an admission from the White House that projected troop withdrawals would have to be delayed.
The Iraqi capital remains under curfew after another round of bloodshed in which mortar rounds landed in Sadr City, killing seven people, including two children, and injuring 24 others. Further gunfights in the sprawling Shia slum led to six more dying and 15 others being wounded.
The area is a centre of support for the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and came after days of clashes between his militia, the Mehdi Army, and Iraqi government forces in which 55 people have been killed and more than 200 injured. The Shia fighters vowed last nightthat retribution would be taken for the "unprovoked attack" in Sadr City which they claimed was the responsibility of the US forces.
Meanwhile in Washington, President George Bush was set to accept the plea of General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, for a "pause" in pulling out some of the thousands of troops sent in for the "surge". At the same time the operation is being portrayed as a vindication of American policy and a tacit admission of the fragility of the so-called stabilisation which is supposed to be taking place now.
A White House spokeswoman said President Bush was the type of leader "who listens to his commanders on the ground". US military sources say that the reality is that with the likelihood of renewed fighting between Shia factions it would be impossible to maintain a semblance of security without the presence of the thousands of extra American troops.
Much of Baghdad was a ghost town yesterday, with the government imposing a curfew from 5am to midnight on vehicles in an attempt to stop car bombings. Similar restrictions were imposed in Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit. "This is not quite what we had expected five years on," a State Department official in Baghdad acknowledged.
The exact number of casualties of the Iraq war remains unclear in a state which continues to be close to anarchy. More than four million people, many from the intelligentsia who were supposed to rebuild the country, have fled abroad and Baghdad, a city with a shattered infrastructure, now has more than two million internal refugees who have fled from fighting in other parts of the country.
The pulling down of Saddam's statue in Firdous Square was supposed to have been an expression of popular joy at the downfall of a tyrant. The "impassioned populace", it turned out later, were people bused in from Sadr City, then called Saddam City. Ibrahim Khalil, who was in the crowd that day, said yesterday: "If history can take me back, I will now actually kiss the statue of Saddam. I am sorry that I played a part in pulling it down. I think now that was a black day for Baghdad. We got rid of Saddam, but now we have 50 Saddams. In his days we were safe. I ask Bush, 'where are your promises of making Iraq a better country?'"
Abdullah Jawad, another who took part in the destruction of the statue, said: "Let me see what has happened since then, just to me. I have had a brother killed and a niece who has been kidnapped and we have not seen for five months. Our country has been destroyed by foreigners, not just the Americans but the extremists who came to fight them on our soil.
"Saddam was a brutal man and we were supposed to be free when he went. But there is no freedom when you fear for your safety every day. When I see on television people in America and England say things are getting better in Iraq, I think, why don't you come and live here and see what it is really like?"