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
An Iraqi Army soldier looks out at the Tigris River at sunrise near the Martyr’s Bridge in downtown Baghdad. The rusted hulks of abandoned river barges and party boats lie half-sunk near the banks, reminders of a once-bustling economy and nightlife.
A man fixes informal power lines in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad that were damaged early the same morning by a large explosion nearby. The blast was one of 12 coordinated attacks on the morning of Dec. 22 that killed upwards of 60 Iraqis. Due to Iraq’s perpetual power shortages, private generators supply the bulk of citizens’ electricity, and do-it-yourself power lines hang like spiderwebs all over Baghdad.
Family members warm themselves beside a garbage fire in the alley behind their home. Garbage collection has remained a consistent problem throughout Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Many Iraqis remember the “Saddam era” with nostalgia, as much for the cleanliness of the streets as for the absence of checkpoints and car bombs.
Barber shops like this one in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad are popular places for young Iraqi men to hang out in their free time. They are one of the signs that a degree of normalcy has returned to the city.
A mother and daughter at the Kadhimiya Mosque in Baghdad before Friday prayers. The mosque contains the shrines of the ninth and twelfth Shiite imams and is one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. Thousands of pilgrims flock to Kadhimiya from within Iraq and from throughout the realm of Shiism, which includes Iran, Bahrain, Lebanon, and small communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iraq is also home to the shrine of Ali ibn Talib, the fourth Caliph of Islam and the first Shiite imam, and the shrine of his son Hussein, who was killed by a Sunni army in Karbala and is a heroic martyr to Shiites.
Gardens and Amusement Park
A man pushes a stroller at the entrance to the Al-Zawra’a Gardens, an amusement park connected to the Baghdad Zoo. The park contains a large Ferris wheel, a spinning tea cup, bumper cars, and a giant inflatable slide, along with games and food stands. The zoo and the park are popular destinations for families looking for a safe place to take a break from Baghdad’s congestion.
A woman walks a group of young girls to school while a fire rages following a large explosion on the morning of Dec. 22 in the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad. The Karada bombing was one of a dozen coordinated attacks that day targeting shops, schools, and government offices that killed upwards of 60 people and wounded more than 100. Successive attacks throughout January have killed more than 250 Iraqis. Shiite pilgrims making their way to Karbala to commemorate the death of the martyr Hussein have been frequent targets, adding to fears that sectarian tensions are rising.
Seif Abdel Sadeh
Seif Abdel Sadeh, 18, was hit by one of a pair of explosions in Sadr City on Jan. 5 that killed 12 Iraqis. Seif suffered burns to his face and had to have one of his legs amputated. Although bereft, Seif’s father Abdel Sadeh was not at a loss for words: “These attacks are proof that the political parties are going to start tearing this country apart now.”
A day laborer waits for work in Sadr City on the first day of the New Year. Four days later, explosive devices in the same area killed 12 Iraqis, mostly day laborers.
Mustafa, 21, a day laborer from Sadr City, a Shiite slum in Baghdad, hopes a minibus will pull up and offer him a job. Mustafa (he would give only his first name) quit school at age 15 to support his disabled father, his mother, and his six younger siblings. He said the economy is so slow now that he sometimes earns the equivalent of only $60 per month. He sympathizes with youth who have participated in Arab Spring demonstrations throughout the Middle East: “I wish I could be with them. Our situation is exactly the same.”
Sayyid Hazim al-Araji
Sayyid Hazim al-Araji, a follower of the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, delivers a sermon at Friday prayers on Dec. 23, in the Kadhimiya Mosque in Baghdad. The previous day, coordinated bombings in Baghdad killed 60 or more people. In his sermon, al-Araji stressed Iraqi unity, accused American spies of plotting continued bombings, and commanded al-Sadr’s followers to refrain from retaliating against their Sunni neighbors.
Sheikh Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman al-Dulaimi
Sheikh Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman al-Dulaimi in a gazebo over the Euphrates River at one of his properties in North Ramadi. Ali Suleiman was one of the first sheikhs to rise up to fight al-Qaeda in the predominately Sunni Anbar Province as part of the Awakening movement in 2006. Today, Ali Suleiman says the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is trying to “destroy Anbari tribal society.”
Sheikh Issa Ibrahim Hassan, an Awakening leader who commanded a force of 350 volunteers during the “surge,” poses for a portrait in his 40-foot-long reception room. Only 30 of his men went on to find jobs with the official Iraqi security forces after the “surge,” and Sheikh Issa says he feels betrayed by the American and Iraqi governments.
Maryam al-Rayes, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, at the elite Iraqi Hunting Club in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood. Al-Rayes dismisses Sunni outrage over a controversial arrest order issued by al-Maliki against Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, a senior Sunni politician, as pure spin. She says Iraqis are wrong to accuse al-Maliki of consolidating his power and making moves toward autocracy. “There can never be another government that lasts for 35 years anymore, because the government has to change every four years.”
Cranes tower over the 11-acre frame of the unfinished Al-Rahman Mosque, commissioned by Saddam Hussein prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion. The hulking concrete structure is an imposing landmark. Saddam planned to build the largest and second-largest mosques in the world, and the al-Rahman is actually the smaller of the two. Shiites loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr took over the mosque in 2003, and construction has been at a near standstill for much of the past decade.