A day after the statue of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad's central Firdous square, Zeyad Kasim was relieved that the Baathist government's reign of terror was nearing its end.
|Four years after the US invasion, Baghdad's Firdous square is a quieter place[AFP]|
"I stood in front of the house watching, M1 Bradleys, Humvees, Abrams tanks, APC's. I was impressed. Most of the Americans were so young. They waved at us, and I waved back. Everyone in the street looked happy," he would later recount on his blog Healing Iraq.
But four years later, Kasim's hopes for a brighter, happier future have all but been stifled.
"The level of chaos that Iraq is presently witnessing is unprecedented in the history of the country," the former dentist told Al Jazeera.net.
"Long gone is the social harmony that has characterised Iraq for centuries. Instead, it has been replaced with hatred, prejudice, mistrust and an insatiable desire for revenge. I do not recognise my Iraq any more."
In 2006, Kasim moved to the US to pursue an advanced degree in journalism.
Fear replaces hope
On the fourth anniversary of the Firdous square incident, debate on whether the US-led invasion of Iraq has been worth the cost in human lives, monies and resources still dominates headlines.
But Iraqi bloggers, who have come to be seen as alternative sources of news and information on the war-ravaged country, believe foreign media is failing to ask the right questions.
BT, a journalist who worked with US media organisations in the Iraqi capital before moving to the US to study and who wishes to remain anonymous, says he is astounded how "the American people around me are unaware of the reality I went through and the daily fear and horror my people are still going through in Iraq in the past four years".
In his blog Treasure of Baghdad, BT recounts how once peaceful Baghdad neighbourhoods have succumbed to sectarian politics and violence.
He laments the loss of hope that Iraq could have emerged from an era of dictatorship and reconstruct itself into a young democracy.
"I can barely recognize Baghdad these days," he told Al Jazeera.net in an email exchange.
"Baghdad once was the setting for the famous Arabian Nights, but is now comprised of wreckage, rubble, destroyed buildings, burned houses, empty bridges and streets. People in Baghdad have changed as well. Fear, anger, and pessimism haunt their lives. They worry about everything."
Hidden sectarian strife
|Communal relations in Iraq declined sharply following a series of attacks on mosques[AP]|
But blogger 24 Steps to Liberty, a journalism colleague of BT's who is also studying in the US, believes that Iraq's problems began before the invasion and were only allowed to rise to the surface once Saddam Hussein was removed from power.
"The culture in Iraq dramatically changed after the invasion," he says.
"The hatred and hostility that were forced to stay inside many people's minds were suddenly released with no law to prevent the revenge mentality in the community. That started brutal sectarian-motivated and massive assassinations that eventually led Iraqis to hate each other".
Like BT, 24 Steps believes Iraqis have lost hope.
In the first three years of the occupation of Iraq, many bloggers chose to remain in Baghdad and other main cities. Some saw hope that the violence and lawlessness, exemplified by the looting immediately after Baghdad fell, would eventually ebb and order would be restored.
But now that such bloggers as Kasim, BT and 24 Steps have left the country, there is a pronounced fear that Iraq will soon be drained of the very human resources required for its reconstruction and rehabilitation.
"In 20 years, Iraq will have lost all its teachers and professors and the children now are not getting education. Who will lead Iraq in 20 years? Who will teach the next generations?" asks 24 Steps.
In an interview with Al Jazeera.net Riverbend of the blog Baghdad Burning, acknowledged that many Iraqi professionals she knows have left or are preparing to make permanent moves.
"The only Iraqis tasting democracy after four years of America's catastrophe, are the ones who had the insight to leave Iraq behind and attempt to continue their lives somewhere safe, free from American 'liberation'," Riverbend, who describes herself as a 28-year-old computer specialist, said.
Her blog Baghdad Burning has spawned two books, a play, a possible screenplay for a motion picture and several nominations for prestigious literary awards including being shortlisted as a finalist for the 2006 Samuel Johnson Prize for contemporary non-fiction.
When she first began blogging her writings were sobering but there was always a hope that the political momentum would overcome the daily violence.
"I remember four years ago, we would tell ourselves it would take at least five years for things to be 'normal'- and that was the pessimistic view," she told Al Jazeera.net.
"Five years! Who could wait five years for security, electricity, water and stability? Now, upon entering the fifth year of this catastrophe, only a miracle will bring the modicum of normality millions of Iraqis fervently desire."
Many Iraqis have given up entirely on such a miracle, however. The United Nations estimates that at least two million Iraqis have left the country in the past four years with most settling in Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
|Tens of thousands are now displaced from their homes inside and outside Iraq|
They have established their own schools, businesses, restaurants and even bakeries.
But neighbouring countries are beginning to feel strained at the influx of so many refugees. Egypt, like Syria and Jordan, last week enforced more stringent visa restrictions on incoming Iraqis.
Nevertheless, Iraqis are pouring out of the country at such a pace that the United Nations estimates 10% of the population will have left by the end of 2007.
Some say they will never return, while others fear they will be unable to return.
For 24 Steps, those are trepidations he would rather not entertain.
"My fear is that in a few years I will be called 'an exile'," he said.