Five years ago, the world stood still as the statue of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, was toppled in downtown Baghdad.

On that day, I had mixed feelings, happy and sad. Finally, our tyrant was no longer ruling us, but sadly, our land had become occupied.

The image of the US soldier placing the American flag over Saddam's head horrified me. It was a clear American message, not only to us Iraqis, but to the whole world: we got rid of Saddam and now we are in control of Mesopotamia.

New beginnings

After that happened, I never expected life to resume as usual.

But it did.

Shortly after the fall of the tyrannical regime, I returned to school to complete my final year of college. I rose above the hard times that all Iraqis were facing in those times. There was no electricity or water, but there was the will to survive and reason to be hopeful.

The presence of American troops was something very strange for me. I didn't want them in the country, but I also did not want them to leave until they fulfilled their promises of bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq. I remained hopeful, day after day, of finally being able to experience these new things.

During the first election in 2005, I was a journalist covering the war.

The day I was assigned to cover the first elections was one of the happiest days in my life. Despite the danger al-Qaeda terrorists posed, I was delighted to see my fellow Iraqis going out to the polling centres in massive numbers.

Their happy faces and their purple-coloured fingers gave us hope that our lives would be changed dramatically.
 
Hope crushed

And our lives did change - for the worst.

Not all sectors of Iraqi society voted in the
elections in 2005 [AFP]
The elections were not representative of all Iraqis. The Sunni politicians did not vote and urged Sunni Iraqis not to participate in the elections. Al-Qaeda fighters threatened to kill Iraqi voters who lived in the areas they controlled.

As a result, the parliament and the government did not represent all sects and religions in the country.

And that is when the problems began.

The Shias, who won the majority of seats in the parliament, were attacked en masse by Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters, who dismissed the government and accused it of being appointed by the Americans.

Al-Qaeda expanded its list of enemies beyond the Americans and the Shia government to include all of Iraq under its brutality. Civilians became easy prey to catch and kill, as did non-Muslims.

Target: Iraqis

On a Sunday evening in August 2005, car bombs targeted the Christian minority as they prayed in their churches.

When I went to cover the first explosion, a second bomb exploded, targeting a church near me. Shrapnel fell over the car. People started running out of the church covered with blood, wounded by the shattered glass of the church. Men were carrying fainted and wounded women.

I ran out of the car and headed towards the scene, taking out my camera and shooting some pictures. Ambulances and police vehicles surrounded the area, trying to rescue as many people as they could.

Suicide explosions became the trademark of al-Qaeda and some other armed Sunni groups. To ensure that one American or Iraqi policeman was killed, the foreign fighters were not reluctant to kill whoever else was present.

In 2005, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a restaurant during breakfast killing 40 Iraqi civilians and two policemen. He was targeting the policemen. Two hours after the explosion happened, I went to the scene and witnessed what is now a haunting memory.

Dead bodies were buried under the rubble and rescue workers were carrying the dead bodies, one after the other in groups. In front of me sat a young boy next to his father's body. His cries and tears are engraved in my mind forever.

When I got back to the car, I sat silently and let loose my own tears.

Sectarian war begins

Because of the relentless attacks against Shia civilians, militias who loyal to Shia religious clerics surfaced and began taking on the Sunni insurgents - not by fighting them face-to-face, but by killing Sunni civilians.

Remains of the Shia shrine of Ali al-Hadi and
Hassan al-Askarri in Samarra [EPA]
The attack on the Askari shrine in Samarra, 110 km north of Baghdad, which was revered by Shias across the world, only made things worse. The Sunnis became the ones to blame for its destruction.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who masterminded this attack, initiated what no one had imagined possible - a sectarian war in Iraq.

The first week after the shrine bombing, I was assigned to go to the Baghdad morgue.

There were reports that Badr troops, the Shia militiamen run by the Iraqi-born cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and the Mahdi Army, another Shia militia controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr, rampaged through the houses of Sunni civilians to avenge the Samarra attack.

When I arrived to the morgue, my eyes couldn't believe what I was seeing: corpses everywhere, with some showing signs of torture with electric drills.

Some of them were missing arms, legs and even heads. Because the morgue refrigerators could not contain all the dead bodies, many were thrown in the corridors and hallways of the building.

Outside, people screamed and cried over their lost relatives. I asked the registrar to give me the exact number of the killed and tortured.

The computer monitor, which displayed the pictures of the dead bodies and their tag numbers, confirmed the chaos and mourning outside: 1,300 people were killed during the first week after the shrine attack.

It was a tough day for me.

Ghost town

The sectarian strife turned Baghdad into a city of ghosts. Streets were deserted, shops were closed and people lived in extreme fear of being killed by the other side's fighters.

Streets were emptied after sectarian war took
root following the Samarra bombings [EPA]
Baghdad's secular atmosphere was buried under extremism. Women were forced to wear scarves and men were killed for wearing shorts.

Car bomb explosions happened almost every day, leaving Iraqis too scared to go out, especially to the markets where each car bomb killed at least 100 people.

Baghdad residents no longer live in mixed neighbourhoods.

The violence drove out and displaced the people from other sects. Now we have a Sunni neighbourhood and a Shia one, and maybe one relatively mixed one.

With every passing year, the people are losing faith in the politicians they voted for. The parliament and government concentrate on minor issues, ignoring real needs like electricity, water and other basic services.

Hatred has overflowed from the groups of fighters and now taints the lives of ordinary people. They no longer trust each other. Most of the country's educated people have either left or been killed.

A new election

In 2009, Iraq will experience a third election. This one, I hope, may change Iraq for the better.

Ordinary Iraqis tell me that they don't want the sectarian strife to continue destroying their lives.

Most of the Iraqis realise that going to the polling stations in 2009 will not be like voting in 2005. During these four years, Iraqis have been able to distinguish who should be ruling them.

Following the road of democracy can be bloody. It took many countries several years to successfully practise their democracies.

Iraq is not alone in this regard. People now realise what real democracy is.

In 2009, they will change the country, hopefully for the better. Then, the Americans can leave Iraq and we can be completely sovereign.

Bassam Sebti was a Washington Post special correspondent in Baghdad from 2003-06. He is working toward an MA in Writing Studies at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

Source: Al Jazeera