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Five years ago, there was a children's playground on the flat lot between the brown walls of the Abu Hanifa mosque and the even browner waters of the Tigris River, a rare place for families to escape the incessant turmoil that even then defined life in Iraq.

Residents still reminisce about how boys and girls from the surrounding north Baghdad neighbourhood of Aadhamiya would play on the ancient swing set and seesaw, while women would push strollers through a park shaded by palm trees. Older kids played soccer in a nearby field.

But like so much of the old Iraq, the playground is now gone, replaced by long, ragged rows of white tombstones marking the burial places of more than 4,000 Aadhamiya residents who have died since the war for their country began on March 20, 2003.

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"I used to take my children here every Friday. It was a place to enjoy life," said Muayad Natiq, a 49-year-old resident who was strolling in the cemetery this week. "Not any more. Most of those buried here are teenagers. First, they came here to play games. Then they came here to shoot [at the Shia neighbourhood of Kadhamiya across the Tigris] Now they lie dead here."

On April 9, 2003, the same day the United States Army arrived in Baghdad and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, residents of mainly Sunni Aadhamiya quietly began burying their dead inside the walls of the Abu Hanifa mosque. But there was only room for 250 bodies.

By July of 2006, as the country descended into all-out sectarian war between the minority Sunnis and the majority Shiites, the neighbourhood's residents moved the now-unused swing set and seesaw aside and converted the playground into a cemetery. Almost every day since, 30-year-old Ahmed Akram has buried fresh corpses under the soil.

At first, the white tombstones were laid in orderly rows. But the rows have since disappeared almost completely as groundskeepers bury bodies wherever they can, sometimes up to two dozen dead each day.

Since the U.S. occupation began, more than 4,330 people - more than 1 per cent of Aadhamiya's pre-war population of 300,000 - are buried here. Now there's no more room, and the bodies keep coming, so the cemetery is expanding to the adjacent soccer field.

"Every time I bury someone here I remember that this was a place that we use to come for enjoyment," Mr. Akram said, leaning on his shovel during a break between digging two fresh graves. "Every time I bury a child, I imagine their face asking me why and for what all this happened."

The overflowing graveyard in Aadhamiya is a microcosm of what has happened across Iraq in the past five years. The lowest-end figure for how many Iraqi civilians have died violent deaths since the U.S. invaded is just over 82,000. Other studies, which include deaths indirectly caused by the war, put the figure as high as 1,185,000. Judging from the Aadhamiya graveyard - one cemetery in one neighbourhood of one city in Iraq - the latter number seems far closer to the mark.

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The good news is that violence has fallen in recent months. Sometimes only two or three bodies arrive at the makeshift cemetery during the course of a week.

The bad news is that few here expect the calm to hold. While the U.S. government is taking advantage of the lull to sponsor a rapid-fire series of reconciliation conferences around the country, at street level there's little sense that Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Kurd are ready to patch up their vast differences.

When plans surfaced last month to reopen the Imams Bridge that connects Sunni Aadhamiya to the Shia neighbourhood of Kadhamiya on the other side of the Tigris, residents on both sides protested, demanding it stay closed.

Mr. Akram supported the decision. Last April he buried his 30-year-old cousin, Nabil, who had worked as a translator for the U.S. Army until he was kidnapped by Shia militiamen. The body Mr. Akram buried was mutilated almost beyond recognition. Among other indignities, Nabil's eyes had been torn out and his mouth filled with acid.

"We can never forgive them," Mr. Akram said, his eyes flashing with hate. "Even if we did, they would never forgive us."

JOY, INTERRUPTED

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Five years ago, I stood in Firdaws Square in the centre of Baghdad with a small crowd of Iraqis who cheered as a U.S. military vehicle yanked the signature statue of Saddam Hussein off its plinth. It was hailed at the time by the Americans as the effective end of the war; U.S. President George W. Bush's famous "mission accomplished" speech came just three weeks later.

Standing at the edge of the crowd that April afternoon, I wondered whether it was the end, or just the end of a phase. While the Iraqis joyously beating Saddam's metal head with their sandals seemed genuinely pleased, I was just as struck by the faces of the Iraqis who instead watched the scene from the balconies of nearby apartment buildings. They clutched their children - relieved, perhaps, that the daily bombing by U.S. warplanes was over - but plainly nervous about what was still to come.

I took a drive around Baghdad that day and got an early taste of how the next few years would go for Iraq's new American conquerors. As we drove through the Shia slum that was then called Saddam City (it has since been renamed Sadr City, after the father of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr), crowds of seemingly jubilant young men surrounded our car.

Having just come from the happy scene at Firdaws - and having bought into the mainstream wisdom that the Shiites, who had been violently oppressed by the Sunni Mr. Hussein, would be happy to see the Americans - we expected more of the same in Sadr City.

"Yes, Bush!" a few shouted as we scribbled in our notebooks. Just then, the back right window exploded, covering me in shattered glass and opening several cuts on my arm and hands. Someone had shot at us, our driver concluded, and we sped away. As we left Sadr City behind, some of the youths who had greeted us a moment before picked up stones and hurled them at our back window.

WAR, WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

Buried in the international news pages this week, behind the New York sex scandal and soaring oil prices, was the less-shocking revelation that American investigators have concluded - five years after the fact - that there was absolutely no link between Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

The exhaustive study of some 600,000 official Iraqi documents - everything from tedious cabinet memos to records from interrogations carried out by the dictator's feared mukhabarat secret service - found there was "no smoking gun (i.e. direct connection) between Saddam's Iraq and Al Qaeda." The Pentagon was so ruffled by the findings of its own report that it made sure the document was hard to obtain, only mailing CD copies to those who specifically asked for it, rather than holding a news conference or posting it online.

It may not seem like big news now, but it's worth pausing to reflect that no weapons of mass destruction were ever found and now there's no proof that the regime was ever linked to al-Qaeda. (Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the primary insurgency group, sprang up after the U.S. invaded.) Before the war, then U.S. defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed the evidence of a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq was "bulletproof." Vice-President Dick Cheney touted the risk that Saddam's WMD could find their way into the hands of "terrorists" interested in striking inside the United States, as al-Qaeda had on Sept. 11. It's clear now that none of those risks really existed.

The other, less-frequently stated justification for the war was the widely held belief among neoconservatives in the Bush Administration that invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein would start a chain reaction throughout the region, creating what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called a "new Middle East." The idea that liberating Baghdad would trigger a wave of democratic, pro-Western change was a powerful one with many adherents in the White House and the Pentagon.

There was a flicker of hope that Mr. Bush had indeed unleashed something remarkable. Lebanon voted a pro-Western government to power in 2005 after the so-called "Cedar Revolution" that saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets to demand - and get - an end to Syria's 29-year military presence in their country.

Pro-democracy activists held demonstrations in Cairo that challenged authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak and his own secret services. Dissidents in Damascus began to speak out more boldly against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Even Arabs who opposed the Iraq war and held a long-standing grudge against the United States for its support of Israel quietly admitted that something positive had come out of the change of power in Baghdad.

But the democracy wave came crashing to a halt in early 2006 when Palestinians elected the radical Islamist, fervently anti-Western Hamas movement. Though the vote was hailed by international observers as the freest and fairest election the Arab world has ever seen, the White House quickly decided it couldn't tolerate Hamas in office and headed an international boycott of the new government.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood also displayed its street-level power with a surprising showing in parliamentary elections. With the Islamists seemingly on the rise across the region, Mr. Bush stopped agitating for more democracy in the Arab world and re-embraced the authoritarian kings and presidents of old.

So what's left? What remaining justification is there for a war that has killed 4,000 U.S. soldiers and, by most estimates, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis?

Only the notion that Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein. That's a statement most Iraqis agree with, albeit with many caveats.

A LIFE OF FEAR

Ilham Ibrahim had as much reason as anybody to hate Saddam Hussein. An ethnic Kurd, her husband Abdel Khaleq was hanged by Mr. Hussein's minions in 1980 because of his membership in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party of Iraq's current president, Jalal Talabani.

But five years into Iraq's latest catastrophe, as sectarian violence rages, the 50-year-old widow has found reasons to think well of the dictator she once loathed.

Four years ago, as Sunni extremists from al-Qaeda in Iraq strengthened their hold on Iraq's third-largest city, Mosul, she made the mistake of playing a song on the family's stereo praising Imam Hussein, the Shia martyr who died in the seventh century under Sunni swords.

The gaunt-faced Ms. Ibrahim immediately realized the danger in which she'd placed her family. She opened the door and could tell from the reaction of a gunman on the street that the family had inadvertently identified themselves as Shiites living in a Sunni-controlled area. With her grown daughter and son, she fled that day to join relatives in Baghdad, leaving all their possessions behind.

But there they encountered the wrath of the Shia militias. Fourteen months ago, the mutilated corpse of Ms. Ibrahim's brother Sabah was discovered. After the family had been persecuted by the Sunnis for being Shia, Sabah was killed for being Kurdish in a city of Arabs.

"We can't live like this. At least we had security under Saddam," Ms. Ibrahim says during a shift sewing and folding linens, a job that pays her $5 a day, plus lunch, and that she considers herself lucky to have. But she despairs for the next generation. "I just want my son to get married and have a job, but there's no hope for him. I'm thinking about him all the time. There's no hope for his future in this country with the explosions and the killing. Everything keeps getting worse."

THE FUTURE TENSE

That's not completely true, statistically speaking. For six consecutive months, from August to January, the number of violent deaths in Iraq fell each month, dropping 60 per cent from the peak of the country's civil conflict, before a spike back up again in February.

The U.S. government credits the so-called "surge" - the decision last year to deploy 30,000 extra soldiers in Iraq, most of them in Baghdad. Today there are close to 157,000 troops in the country. But the surge has had a lot of help.

Perhaps the most important development in Iraq during the past year has been the rise of the Sahwa, or Sunni Awakening, councils. After four years of escalating violence, the tribal sheiks who have always held sway in the predominantly Sunni parts of the country decided they'd had enough of al-Qaeda in Iraq, with its mostly foreign Arab leadership. Mobilizing 80,000 Iraqi fighters - who receive monthly salaries of $250 from the United States - they rapidly drove al-Qaeda in Iraq out of areas that had long been effective no-go areas for the U.S. Army and the Iraqi government.

While al-Qaeda still controls swathes of the northern city of Mosul, and has repeatedly shown that it can still strike targets anywhere in Baghdad, the change has been dramatic in Anbar province, once the heart of the insurgency, and in Sunni areas of the capital.

"The people, the population, are saying we've had enough of AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq]terrorizing the population. They're stepping forward and saying they're part of the solution," said Colonel Michael McBride, the U.S. commander for the province of Salahuddin, a region north of Baghdad that was Saddam Hussein's ancestral homeland and an early bastion of the insurgency. "These are people who were fighting us [a few]months ago."

Coupled with radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's decision in August to pull his Mehdi Army off the streets for six months (a ceasefire he recently extended for six more), the decision of key Iraqis to stop fighting the U.S. Army had as much to do with the recent calm as any action taken by the feted new U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus.

The bad news is that both the Awakening councils and Mr. al-Sadr are thought to be just playing for time. Many believe the tribal sheiks saw that Iraq's Sunnis stood to lose an all-out civil war with the Shiites, so agreed to oust al-Qaeda and temporarily go on the American payroll in order to regroup and rearm. Similarly, Mr. al-Sadr is believed to have called the truce so that he can focus on his studies and attain the title of ayatollah - better positioning him to come out on top for the power struggle still ahead.

And the real turning point, some analysts argue, was the victory of the Democrats in the 2006 congressional elections and the growing possibility that a Democrat could succeed Mr. Bush in the White House. The endgame - the battle for control of Iraq after a complete or partial U.S. withdrawal - is now in sight. "After the 2006 elections there was a broad realization that our departure, if it's not imminent, is going to happen at some point and that maybe [the U.S. Army]is not the real enemy," said a former intelligence analyst now based in Baghdad. "By paying so much money to little groups, we're solidifying and reinforcing the fragmentation, creating a situation where we have to be the overseers and referees."

BACK TO BAGHDAD

Returning five years after the invasion, I'm struck more by what hasn't changed than what has. The convoys of armed vehicles still speed through the streets day and night and helicopters buzz incessantly overhead. The thud of explosions distant and near is as much a part of the daily cacophony as the frustrated honks of drivers stuck at checkpoints and the whir of generators compensating for the city's failed electricity grid.

There have been changes. Many of the Humvees and armoured personnel carriers now carry Iraqi flags, and they're driven by soldiers from the country's beleaguered national army. It's a clear sign of progress, unless you're a Sunni Muslim who sees the army as one more sectarian militia, this one controlled by the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

My friends and colleagues tell me that it's far better than in 2006 and 2007, when all-out sectarian warfare was raging and suicide bombs and exploding cars claimed hundreds of lives almost every day on the streets of Baghdad. The declining casualty figures back that assessment. But to my eyes and ears, Baghdad today is a more lawless and dangerous place than the city I knew in 2003 and 2004. That hardly feels like progress.

FALSE PROMISE OF PEACE

On the day that Saddam Hussein's statue came crashing down, Mahmoud Sami was among those who celebrated, albeit quietly and within the confines of his own home. Watching the event on Fox News on an illegal hidden satellite dish, he was both excited and scared. He was elated that the dictator was gone, but nervous about the demons he was sure Iraq's new "freedom" was about to unleash.

For the first three months of the occupation, the 40-year-old did little but try to find food and fuel for the home he shares with his brother and elderly parents. Electricity was sporadic and fuel was in such short supply that it became normal to spend days in line waiting for a single can of gasoline. Eventually, as he became accustomed to the new norms, he reopened his small hardware store in the Karada neighbourhood.

He is a Sunni Muslim, the neighbourhood is predominantly Shia, but he thought nothing of it. He'd had a store there for 15 years.

He went quietly about his business as the angry whirlwind of politics and war consumed the city around him. He celebrated the day Mr. Hussein was captured in the spider hole near Tikrit, felt his elation dim as he watched the Shia-dominated government stage a sectarian show trial that prosecuted and hanged the dictator. He was encouraged by the secular government of the U.S.-installed prime minister Ayad Allawi, then worried by developments under his more sectarian successors, Ibrahim Jaafari and Mr. al-Maliki.

On Feb. 22, 2006, the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, one of the holiest sites to Shia Muslims, was destroyed by an explosion that obliterated its golden dome. Mr. Sami was in his modest front yard as the news of the attack spread. Within hours, the quiet, mixed street on which he had lived his whole life was sucked into the burgeoning civil war.

A group of a dozen armed Shia gunmen appeared on his street looking for Sunnis. One of them, a teenager, shouted "Are you a Wahhabi?" referring to the radical strain of Sunni Islam practised by Osama bin Laden and his followers. Mr. Sami, who has more interest in English soccer than in religion, smiled, waved and went inside, locking the door behind him.

Two days later, he was dragged out of his car in the Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City and threatened at gunpoint, again simply because he was Sunni. "I was laughing, I didn't know what was happening," he recalls. He escaped because a Shia friend intervened. But even his friend told him never to return to the area.

Eventually, he stopped going to his hardware store, finally selling it to a Shia neighbour for less than the value of his inventory.

"We never knew what democracy was before, now we have the worst democracy in the world," he said in an interview at his family's middle-class home, where he keeps an AK-47 rifle tucked in a cupboard for protection.

A supporter of the U.S. invasion, he feels betrayed by what followed. "In the beginning it was good," he says, his 65-year-old mother nodding in agreement. "But everything after that was a mistake. Now I think freedom could have waited. Maybe for another 10 years."

***

Before the war, Baghdad's Sunni and Shia Muslims tolerated each other. All that changed almost instantly when Sunni insurgents bombed one of Shia Islam's holiest sites. Now Iraq's capital is divided along ethnic lines. Many were killed and even more moved into ethnic enclaves or fled the city.

1,423: Civilian deaths for the month of July 2006

Nov. '04

28 Coalition deaths

82 U.S. deaths

THEN

12.9 Million: Population with potable water

16-24: Hours of electricity per day in Baghdad

2.58-million: Oil production in barrels per day

6.2-million: Population with working sewerage

833,000: Landline phones

80,000: Mobile Phones

$518: Gross Domestic Product per person

NOW

20.4-million: Population with potable water

7.3: Hours of electricity per day in Baghdad

2.47: Oil production in barrels per day

11.3-million: Population with working sewerage

1.1-million: Landline phones

10-million: Mobile Phones

$1,687: Gross Domestic Product per person

Estimates of persons internally displaced between

February 28, 2006 and January 10, 2007

546,078: individuals on the move since February of 2006*

Shia families

3,325 families left for Basra after February 2006

1,720 families left for Muthane

6,500 families left for Najaf

Sunni families

657 Families left for Kirkuk

2,677 families left for Ninevah

Other families

880 Kurdish families left for Erbil

3,800 families left for Dohuk (religion not listed)

*The IMC estimates an average of 6 people per family.

SOURCES: BROOKINGS INSTITUTION; INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS; IRAQ BODY COUNT

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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