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Three years later: Insecurity, instability and hope in Iraq

Editor's note: One of CNN's Iraqi producers writes about the atmosphere in Iraq three years after March 20, 2003, the start of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. The name of the writer has been withheld due to security concerns.
Despite the threat of attacks, Iraqis still shop at open-air markets such as this one in Baghdad.



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Saddam Hussein

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Every day when I wake up in the morning, before having breakfast, I call my two married sisters who live in different neighborhoods. I call them for one simple reason: To make sure they're OK.

"We heard some explosions and gunfire yesterday night but we are all fine, how about you?" my older sister asked me the other day over the phone.

I live with my parents in northern Baghdad, in a mixed neighborhood of Sunnis and Shiites. We've lived in this neighborhood for 15 years, side by side, Sunnis, Shiites and some Kurds. Before, we didn't know who was a Sunni, who was a Shiite. Now, it seems it's all we know.

Everyone in my family has a mobile phone. This way we can always be in touch. Always check in with each other. It's essential because nobody can ever predict what's going to happen on any given day in Iraq. When I leave in the morning, I never know if we will all be back at home that night.

To get to work, it takes 15 minutes from my house, but that's on a good day. There is almost always traffic, convoys and checkpoints.

But that isn't the worst part. Instead, the bigger fear is roadside bombs, car bombs and suicide bombs that explode -- many times targeting U.S. and Iraqi forces, but instead killing civilians. And then there are the insurgent attacks on government convoys and drive-by shootings that leave innocent bystanders dead or wounded.

I usually get a ride to work from my younger brother. But on days when I'm worried about attacks, I find my own way. If something happens, I don't want my brother to get hurt. In those cases, I usually take the bus. Not the easiest way to get to work, but the other day it gave me a chance to find out what is going through other Iraqis' minds.

Was it better under Saddam?

As I rode on the bus, most people started out quiet, but within minutes the silence was broken.

"Look! I cannot believe this could happen to us," an old man said pointing his finger at a line of cars that stretched for more than a kilometer outside a gas station -- amazed that an oil-rich country is dealing with an oil crisis for its own people.

"Habibi (my dear), our oil is being stolen by the Americans and the new Iraqi government. What oil are you talking about?" another man replied.

It's not a view shared by most in Iraq, but it is a view that some hold.

Across the aisle, an old woman who sat quietly listening to the exchange in a simple manner brought the debate to an end. "We do not want anything but to live in Iraq safely."

Iraqis often speak of fuel shortages, a lack of electricity, the void in stability, all the things that deeply affect their daily life. Some also speak of the past.

"Life was much better under Saddam," one man said from the back of the bus.

But he couldn't finish the sentence. An angry man at the other end of the bus, turned around and yelled, "What was better under Saddam? Give me one example. Are you talking about the wars Saddam put us through? Or the mass graves that he created during his era? Or the torture centers? Tell me one thing that was better under Saddam and I will applaud you."

As we approach the third anniversary since the fall of that towering statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in central Baghdad, there are many who have no desire to look back.

"Let's not talk about life under Saddam because it has gone away with the past. Now we have a new life, a new political process and a new government," chimed in a young man sitting in the front next to the driver.

Every Iraqi has a story to tell
Iraqis watch as U.S. Marines pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square in April 2003.

Everything in Iraq is new, from the government to the violence. But all of it is rife with constant difficulties. For Iraqis, patience is wearing thin.

Eleven of us were on the bus that day -- everybody giving a different opinion about the current situation. Some criticized the Iraqi government, others the United States, and some blamed Saddam loyalists. And, of course, many blamed the terrorists who kill Iraqis daily.

Listening to the exchange was remarkable because it never could have happened under Saddam. Before the war, nobody could voice frustration or anger.

There was no free press to question politicians. Now, when there is so much to talk about, we can finally exercise that right. Whether riding the bus or sitting at restaurants, talking freely has become part of the atmosphere everywhere.

Every Iraqi has a story to tell. And sitting on the bus I couldn't help but think of mine. I remembered my friend Hussam, who died a few months ago when gunmen killed him near his home for no reason.

I remembered the car bomb that exploded near my house a few days ago wounding three people I know. I remembered the incident that happened a few weeks ago when, while working on a story, I was surrounded and beaten by gunmen because I was a journalist.

My story didn't start after the war. It started as a child under Saddam. I remember that, in my early 20s, I was sent to a prison for a month and tortured because I did a report on Iraqi TV showing an American flag.

For Iraqis in Baghdad, there is one thing that more than anything else concerns us. "It never happened before, Sunni killing Shiite and Shiite killing Sunni," said the man who described life being better under Saddam.

We all wonder if Iraq will descend into a civil war, especially after hundreds of Iraqis died in just a few weeks after the bombing of the Shiite golden dome in Samara.

"Who said that they are Iraqis that bombed the shrine? I believe they are terrorists who came from abroad to create strife among Iraqis because Sunnis and Shiite lived together in peace for hundreds of years," the same man said.

No looking back

Barbers are being attacked by insurgents angry that they are clipping Muslims' beards.

After 30 minutes, I finally reached my destination. Before the bus stopped, I turned and asked everyone if they have any hope for the future. Four of the 11 said, "Inshallah," Arabic for, "If God wills it." The others kept silent.

I understand their silence. It's hard for Iraqis to predict what will happen in the coming years. The situation here is complicated. Most of my friends voice hope, they share my view that at least we are past the Saddam era. Under Saddam, I felt like I just went through the motions. I felt dead inside, with no hope that I would ever see him gone and no future while he was in power.

But now before my eyes, I am seeing my people killed. We never expected to live through an era of such fear and anxiety. I cannot accept what is happening now, but still I do not want to turn back.

I remember one day when my mother was watching news on local TV as they showed the aftermath of an explosion that missed a joint U.S. and Iraqi military convoy, but killed two nearby children.

Tears ran down her face, as she cried in silence. I approached her, hugged her shoulder and asked her in this moment as she sat there crying, "Hey Mom, if you could return to the days before the war, would you?"

She looked at me for a while -- and still crying, shook her head slowly and said, "No."

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