One decade after US invasion, fear and political disputes dominate Iraq

Fall of a regime and rise of chaos

A decade after US-led forces took control of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, sealing the ouster of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, Iraq remains plagued by deadly attacks and never-ending political crises.
Remembered the world over for the iconic images of Iraqis pulling down a statue of Saddam in central Baghdad's Firdos Square -- helped in no small part by an American military unit -- the fall of the capital is a far more emotive day in Iraq than the anniversary of the invasion itself two weeks earlier.
At the time the statue fell, Saddam's vaunted army had largely melted away, and was seen as defeated and demoralised.
But the sense of elation felt by many Iraqis that day, at seeing a dictator who had ruled Iraq for more than two decades fall, was matched by a feeling of bitterness among others.
"At that point, I realised that the Iraqi government had been overthrown, and we had fallen into the hands of American occupiers," said Dhafer Betti, public relations director for the Palestine Hotel, which overlooks Firdos Square and was a haven for foreign journalists covering the war.
Though the war itself was relatively brief -- six weeks after foreign troops invaded, then-US president George W. Bush infamously declared the mission accomplished -- its aftermath was bloody and fractious.
Caught between Shiite militia groups and Sunni insurgents, US and coalition forces paid a heavy price -- some 4,800 foreign troops died in Iraq, more than 90 percent of them American.
Iraqis, though, suffered even more. Britain-based NGO Iraq Body Count recently estimated that at least 112,000 Iraqi civilians died in the decade after the invasion, while thousands of soldiers and policemen were also killed.
But sharp divisions in how April 9 is seen within Iraq -- between those who remember it as the day the country was liberated, and others who see it as the day it was occupied -- have spurred the government to eschew any formal commemorations.
The anniversary does, however, come at a significant juncture in Iraq, barely 10 days ahead of provincial elections, the country's first polls since US troops withdrew at the end of 2011.
The credibility of the vote has been drawn into question as a result of still-high bloodshed -- a dozen candidates have been killed -- and a cabinet decision for a partial postponement that means only 12 of the country's 18 provinces will go to the polls.
Along with attacks on election hopefuls, violence remains a menace nationwide, with 271 people killed last month, the highest figure since August 2012, according to a tally.
And the anniversary could be the occasion for more attacks.
According to John Drake, an Iraq specialist at risk consultancy AKE Group, the fall of Baghdad is "often seen as a more emotive date for Iraqis than the actual invasion so insurgents may very well seek to mark it with more acts of violence."
Though markedly less powerful than in their 2006 and 2007 heyday, militant groups -- particularly Al-Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq -- remain capable of mounting spectacular mass-casualty attacks, and often target Shiite Muslims and the security forces in a bid to destabilise the country.
The violence is frequently blamed on political disputes between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is Shiite, and many of his erstwhile partners in Iraq's unity government, allowing militants to exploit divisions on the ground which give them room to manoeuvre.
Maliki currently is faced with months of protests in Sunni-majority provinces in Iraq's west and north, where demonstrators complain their minority community is targeted by the Shiite-led authorities.
That dispute, which has lingered since December, could be overshadowed by a simmering row between the central government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region over a tract of disputed territory.
The territory, which stretches from Iraq's western border with Syria to its eastern frontier with Iran, is rich in oil, and diplomats say the unresolved dispute poses one of the biggest threats to the country's long-term stability.