Even as Washington is recasting the narrative of the Iraq war in terms of the troop withdrawal and campaign promises, Iraqi citizens say they're still caught in the same old story of frustration and fear. U.S. combat troops have now left the country, leaving behind an unfinished $53 billion rebuilding plan and some 50,000 personnel to advise and assist the populace. Meanwhile, President Obama is scheduled to speak about the end of America's seven-year military engagement in Iraq in a speech on Tuesday that will, among other things, officially change the code name for the U.S. mission from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn.
But the rosy "rebranding" of the conflict, as some have called it, is hardly playing well in the bazaars of Baghdad and other embattled cities and towns where Iraqis of all stripes are scratching their heads over how charting their own course can possibly be a good thing. After all, a snapshot of today's Iraq is grim, and perceptions of an American retreat have the Iraqi streets rippling with anger and incredulity.
"What have the Americans accomplished for this country that they can now decide to just leave?" asks Hasnaa Ali, 42, a Baghdad schoolteacher who is heading home with a bag of groceries to prepare her family's iftar meal the daily breaking of the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. "We don't have clean water or electricity. Prices for everything are very high. There is no security, no jobs, no housing." She adds, "If their goal in coming here was to grant us freedom and democracy, how can they leave us when we are sunk in blood and trash? How can they hand Iraq over to our Iraqi politicians? Does the American President think we will be safe with such politicians? I don't think he understands them as well as we do."
The U.S. insists that Iraqi security forces are continually improving. In a statement, U.S. embassy spokesman David Ranz in Baghdad said, "Iraqi's ability to chart their own future is a direct rebuke to those who would rule by fear, intimidation and violence. The United States will stand with the Iraqi people as they continue to demonstrate courage and resolve in the face of brutal attacks and tragic losses." That is little comfort to many locals. "The Iraqi people are eager to have a sovereign country, but at the same time they do not want the Americans' departure to lead to the spilling of Iraqi blood. No one here wants to see the return of sectarian war such as in 2006 and 2007," says Hameed Fadhil, a professor of political science at University.
Meanwhile, a new government has yet to form more than six months after the inconclusive U.S.-backed national elections. So far, the glacial pace of negotiations to build a working coalition has been an exercise in partisan squabbling, exposing Iraq's still deep sectarian rifts and the decline of Washington's political leverage. Despite almost daily announcements of increasingly complex electoral equations meant to break the deadlock, even optimistic predictions for the process run to weeks or months.
Worse, caretaker Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki put the country on a high terrorism alert after an onslaught of coordinated car bombings, shootings and suicide attacks struck police and security stations in at least 14 cities and towns on Aug. 25, leaving some 55 people dead and hundreds wounded. The timing and broad scope of the strikes, which were claimed by an al-Qaeda offshoot called the Islamic State of Iraq, has the government bracing for more. "These attacks are a serious and important indicator. We cannot allow the [al-]Qaeda network to reorganize itself again," Ministry of Defense spokesman Mohammed al-Askari tells TIME.
Al-Askari says operations are under way in all the provinces to hunt down terrorism cells and quell the threat of more attacks. He says, "Our troops are ready," and predicts that Aug. 31 the day Obama is scheduled to speak will be "a normal day." Even so, last week's assaults have petrified the public and reinforced the dire assessments of Iraq's unproven security teams. Ahlam Saeed had her suspicions confirmed the hard way. One minute the 53-year-old widow with nine children was shopping in Baquba, capital of the once restive Diyala province; the next she woke up on a hospital stretcher, her leg severely damaged from a suicide bomber who had targeted a nearby police station. "If the Iraqi forces aren't even capable of protecting themselves, how can they protect us? How come a suicide bomber is capable of reaching the city market in Baquba? If he came from outside the city, how could he get through 20 checkpoints?" asked Saeed after the attack on Aug. 25. "I never had any faith in our security forces, and I'll say it again: I don't trust them."
As a Baghdad trash collector, Ali Nasar, 26, has a unique perspective on a view held by many Iraqis. "When the occupation forces came to Iraq, it was good they got rid of Saddam [Hussein], but in fact everything got worse: security, electricity, water and garbage which is good for me. But when they leave, nothing will be improved or return to the way it was," says Nasar. "No matter if the Americans are here or not, Iraq is a ruined country."