US departure from Iraq leaves opinions divided

US soldiers leave Al Faw Palace at Camp Victory, Baghdad

As the US's nine-year military intervention in Iraq comes to an end, opinions are sharply divided about what exactly the departure of US troops will mean for the country.

We had not been on the square long when a skinny man came up to talk to us.

He was wearing a suit jacket that was several sizes too large for him and dark aviator-style shades, despite the fact that the winter sunshine was not terribly bright.

Perhaps he wanted to remain anonymous, I thought. But he was pretty distinctive-looking anyway, with his long, black hair scraped back into a ponytail.

He glanced nervously up towards a balcony across the road. We were being watched.

Intimidation

His name was Dhirgham al-Zaidi and you might say that dissent runs in his family.

In 2008, his brother Muntadar had famously thrown both his shoes at then-president George W Bush.

Dhirgham and his dwindling band of fellow demonstrators are protesting against the Iraqi government.

Dhirgham al-Zaidi Dhirgham al-Zaidi is continuing his protest against the Iraqi government

It may be democratically elected, they say, but its performance is dismal. The country is plagued by violence and rampant corruption, and there is a lack of jobs and even basic services.

He and most of his friends have been arrested for speaking their minds. Some have disappeared for days into prison cells and been savagely beaten. Many have given up in the face of such intimidation.

But Dhirgham keeps on coming back.

He has been on Baghdad's Tahrir Square almost every Friday since February. Back then, they had gathered here in their thousands.

Their central grievance was much the same as that of the crowds on the streets of Cairo, Tunis and Benghazi - the sense that somehow a small elite had monopolised their country's resources.

In Iraq, too, the protests were initially met with violence.

Baton-wielding security forces cleared the square with water-cannon and live rounds. Around 20 protesters were killed. But that was not the remarkable fact.

The remarkable fact was that no suicide bomber had blown himself up in the crowd. The remarkable fact was that the death toll was so low.

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And so, the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, congratulated the security services on a successful operation, and the wider world ignored the matter altogether.

Iraq is yesterday's story.

Or is it?

Here are some figures. According to official statistics, 187 Iraqis were killed last month in what may be termed terrorists acts - bombings, mostly, but shootings too.

Actually, a further 55 people were also killed, those described as terrorists themselves. That figure was significantly lower than October's total of 258 dead (not including the terrorists), a figure that was itself at the lower end of average for the year.

All of that is apparently good news for the departing Americans.

In their unwavering public optimism, they point to an improving security situation even as the last of their troops pack their bags.

'Yankee conspiracy'

Much of the Iraqi public sees things rather differently.

If there is one thing that currently unites this divided people, it is their firm belief that the United States is responsible for their every single woe.

Patchy electricity supply? Blame the US.

Suicide bombings? The Americans are behind them.

Political deadlock, government corruption, a regionally resurgent Iran? It is all a Yankee conspiracy.

Start Quote

It still takes a lot of guts to speak your mind in the new, free Iraq”

End Quote

I had a conversation the other day with a close adviser to the prime minister.

He is normally a fairly sober-minded gentleman but he tried to persuade me, in all seriousness, that Iraq's current mess was the result not of poor planning or disastrous decisions taken after the invasion in 2003, but of the deliberate and continuing US policy designed to weaken Iraq's position in the Middle East.

This notion is as ludicrous as the counter-assertion that I heard a day later from a spokesman for the American embassy in Baghdad.

He said - with a perfectly straight face - that there was hardly a family in Iraq whose life had not benefited in some way from the USA's actions here.

The American withdrawal will be a moment of truth.

Once the last armoured vehicles have rumbled across the desert frontier into Kuwait, the US legacy will become clearer. Some of Iraq's current problems will doubtless fade along with the departing invaders; others will probably become more acute in their absence, at least in the short term.

Last month in Baghdad, I paid a visit to the National Archive.

In a room packed floor to ceiling with history books that had once belonged to Saddam Hussein, I met Saad Iskander, one of Iraq's most eloquent and thoughtful men.

He was scathing about America's record over the past eight and a half years but, when I asked him if he thought it had all been worth it, he said, "Yes. To live as a free man for a short time is better than to live 100 years as a slave."

I thought back to Dhirgham al-Zaidi, the shoe-thrower's brother, and his nervous eyes on Tahrir Square.

It still takes a lot of guts to speak your mind in the new, free Iraq.

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