What do the Iraqis think?

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Four years ago, Iraqi poet Abbas Chaychan, a Shiite Muslim who had been forced into exile during the predominantly Sunni Muslim regime of Saddam Hussein, hailed the U.S. presence here in a poem that praised the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer.

“We have breakfasts of kabab and qaymar,” he wrote, describing the new Iraq with a reference to a rich cream that is considered a sign of wealth. “We put, in your stead, Mr. Bremer / Better than a tyrant of our own flesh and blood, and his torture.”

In January, shortly after Saddam was hanged, Chaychan again put words to paper. But his outlook had changed.

“History is proud to write about him,” he said of Saddam. “It wasn’t a rope that wrapped around the neck / It was the neck that wrapped around the rope. ...

“From his childhood he was a leader, stubborn and against the occupation.”

As the anniversary of the March 20, 2003, U.S.-led invasion of Iraq nears, many Iraqis, like Chaychan, are expressing nostalgia for the time more than 1,000 days ago when Saddam’s statue stood proudly in Baghdad’s Fardos Square.

Chaychan’s reading of his most recent work, in which he calls Saddam the Arab world’s “knight” and compares his death to the eclipsing of the sun, has become a popular Iraqi destination on video-sharing services such as YouTube, where his pained voice rings out over a montage of shots of the Iraqi dictator: clenching his fist in the air, sporting his signature beret, at trial holding a Quran, with a noose around his neck.

In a January interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” President Bush told correspondent Scott Paley that the U.S. invasion had taken “care of a source of instability in Iraq.”

“Envision a world in which Saddam Hussein was rushing for a nuclear weapon to compete against Iran,” Bush said. “My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the correct decision, in my judgment. We didn’t find the weapons we thought we would find or the weapons everybody thought he had. But he was a significant source of instability.”

In interviews across Baghdad, few Iraqis agreed, however. Instead, they displayed a collective fatigue, even as another plan to bring about security got under way. They are tired of waiting for better days when each morning brings new terrorism. Trapped in their homes, afraid that death will knock, they are worn down, they said.

Law and order -- even under a bloody dictator who killed thousands and tortured many others -- was better than this, many said. Even those who are glad to see Saddam dead expressed a longing for more orderly times.

Layla Mohammed, a Sunni

Layla Mohammed, a Sunni Muslim mother of three, remembered that heady day four years ago when a noose tightened around the neck of Saddam’s statue.

“I felt that I was at the highest point of a roller coaster, just about to plunge into what I hoped would be an exhilarating experience,” Mohammed said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s happening. I live to see my sons set free.’ ”

A pharmacist, she said she had voted in all three elections that Iraq has had since Saddam was toppled: first for an interim government, then for a new constitution, then for a permanent government. She remembers dipping her finger in purple ink -- to indicate that she had voted -- with her two sons and her daughter. Together they held up their fingers and took a family photo to celebrate their expected democracy.

“At that moment I felt that I was, at last, a sated human being. I had an opinion and it carried weight! I shall treasure that moment all my life,” she said. “If only I could have that moment back; its joy was untainted. Now I know better.”

The life of freedom and liberty she was promised never came. Her sons are trying to flee the country. She can’t afford to keep her house warm. She no longer goes to her pharmacy in Hurriyah, a once mixed-sect neighborhood that was emptied of most Sunnis in December.

“I have been conned,” Mohammed said.

When Saddam was executed she told herself, “There goes the one man who could stop this bloodbath. I thought we would have to pay oil for freedom and democracy, but not our life’s blood. It’s too much.”

She put her hand to her head. “It’s too much.”

Ahmed al Yasseri, a Shiite, also remembers his excitement at the fall of Saddam. Yasseri excitedly set up a once-forbidden satellite dish. For the first time he watched Arabic news channels and foreign stations. He bought a cell phone and subscribed to an Internet service.

Then his brother, a former officer in Saddam’s army, was shot as he returned from his electronics shop in 2004. Yasseri’s two nephews ran outside to see their father’s body riddled with bullets. Yasseri fled his neighborhood looking for somewhere safer.

Three months later his uncle was killed, caught in a crossfire as he waited in a long line to buy gasoline. Yasseri moved again.

“In a short time you lose your dear ones, and for what?” he asked with despair. “Believe me, for nothing.”

Now his current neighborhood, Mansour, once an upscale shopping district in central Baghdad, has grown dangerous as well. The crowded Shorja market, where he works, is a tempting target for bombs: A triple car bomb there killed at least 67 people a few weeks ago. He travels nowhere but the path between home and work. Every moment he worries that he will die in the kind of bombing that fills the morgue with body parts.

“We envy the people who die in one piece now,” he said.

Bilal Ali, a Shiite

Saddam was caught nearly nine months after the invasion, hidden in an underground hole with a pistol. Bilal Ali, 40, a Shiite, remembers that night. He pulled out an AK-47 rifle that he had been given and fired into the air in celebration -- a burst of pop-pop-pops -- then handed the weapon to his mother, then to his 7-year-old son.

“I shot five full magazines,” he said. Each held 30 bullets. “Thank God, who blessed even the hearts of the martyrs in their grave, for this gift.”

But it didn’t bring the peace that Ali, a shopkeeper in the Shiite area of Karada, had imagined. Car bombs became prevalent in Shiite areas. Shiites were afraid to pray in their mosques, and Iraqis were afraid to shop in outdoor markets, targets of the Sunni insurgency.

Shiite militias struck back. Men, mostly Sunnis, turned up in the morgue, shot in the head, hands tied behind their back, drill holes in their bodies. The perpetrators eventually were linked to the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police.

Electricity grew scarcer, at first available for eight hours, then six, then as few as three hours a day. Salaries went up, but so did the cost of living. A tank of cooking gas soared to $60 on the black market. A lower price cost a day’s wait in line. The use of a generator cost $100 a month. At $300 a month, wages hardly kept pace.

Still, Ali is happy that Saddam was hanged.

“I had hope at that time that life would be much better after his regime’s collapse,” he said. “But I’m very happy with his end even if the security situation is bad.”

Every morning as Mona Ali, a single Shiite mother, prepares sandwiches and breakfast for her three children she wonders whether they won’t return to her. She leaves her 4-year-old son at home and tightly grips the hands of her two young daughters. On the daily walk to school, bullets sometimes have whizzed above their heads in the Shiite Amil neighborhood in west Baghdad.

“There is fear in my heart every day that my kids will go and not come back to me,” she said.

Daily she walks to the neighborhood marketplace. On one trip, a car bomb ripped through the vegetable stands as she approached. The blood, the dead, the injured lay in front of her and she thought, it could have been me. She had a nightmare about her children as orphans.

“I remembered the fear I had for my children and I realized I might not return safely to them,” she said.

“Baghdad is dirty. When it gets dark everybody hides in their houses just like rats,” she said.

Over and over again she repeated, “Baghdad is dirty.”

She remembers the bombing of the gold-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra more than a year ago. She knew the attack was different from all the others.

“I felt bitterness in my heart that day,” she said. “I knew that things would not rest; I knew that we shall have torment for a long time, and it was true.”

Shiite revenge killings soared. Neighbors soon couldn’t live with one another. Sunnis feared Shiite militias and their dreaded checkpoints; Shiites feared the Sunni insurgency and its bloody bombings. People fled, and families were torn apart.

Many, like Ali, feel numb to the pain, cheated out of the lives they expected.

On the morning Saddam was hanged, Ali said, she wept. Not for the dictator, but for the death of her hope and the loss of confidence in a government that she thinks is worse than the one that came before it.

“I want safety,” she said. “Saddam’s time was a safe time for us.”

Abbas Chaychan, an exile

Abbas Chaychan never returned to Iraq after the war. He remains an exile, part of an Iraqi diaspora that grows daily. As many as 2 million Iraqis have fled their homeland since the war began, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Up to 1.7 million Iraqis have been displaced internally.

It’s the largest refugee movement in the Middle East since the displacement of the Palestinians in 1948, the U.N. reports. About 8 percent of Iraq’s population before the war has left; up to 50,000 more Iraqis are displaced each month.

Bodies are stacked at the morgue, mothers weep and children are maimed. For four years, Iraqis have waited for better days, and they weep for the time lost: no liberty, no freedom, just death.

Chaychan’s most recent poem doesn’t lament Saddam’s death as much as it pines for the era when he lived.

“I cried & I didn’t cry for you,” he wrote. “I cried for the time that put you in a tomb.”