The day after the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, I arrived in Baghdad to explore the country they left behind. It was Dec. 19, 2011, the same day that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a controversial arrest order against a senior Sunni rival, throwing the country into yet another political crisis. In the ensuing weeks, the government ground to a halt and a wave of violence swept the country, leaving some 250 Iraqi civilians dead.
The explosions were evidence enough that Iraq’s problems are far from over, but so too were the daily blackouts, the heaps of smoldering garbage, and the universal sentiment among Iraqis that their own political leaders—especially al-Maliki—are responsible for the continuing malaise. Time and again, Sunnis and Shiites swore to me that the nightmare of street-level sectarianism was over—but normal Iraqis may not have the power to prevent the meltdown. As they navigate warrens of concrete blast walls and security checkpoints, trying to breathe life back into their cities, Iraqis are united by a common fear: that their politicians will drag them into another sectarian war, one in which civilians, again, will be the victims.
Words and photography by Elliott Woods