Property in their ancestral village of al-Owja, just outside Tikrit, remains
subject to US-imposed asset freeze orders, while in Baghdad, their name
slams as many doors as it used to open. And Sheikh Hassan, 62, who boasts
that his 7,000 strong tribe killed many US troops during the 2003-11
occupation, now complains that they are routinely harassed by the security
forces of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.
"At any time we usually have around 50 men in jail – I think we have our
own special reserved wing," he told The Sunday Telegraph over
tea at the Nasseri tribal meeting house in al-Owja, where a tribal family
tree adorns one wall. "Right now as we talk, someone from my tribe is
probably being tortured."
Yet while he admits that Saddam himself could be equally "cruel and unjust"
at times, Sheikh Hassan still grieved bitterly when the Iraqi leader's body
was brought to al-Owja for burial in 2006, fresh from a Baghdad gallows. He
is now in a mausoleum just down the road, which the Iraqi government closed
off last year for fear it was becoming a Ba'athist pilgrimage site.
"How would you feel if France invaded Britain and executed the Queen?"
asked Sheikh Hassan, to nods from fellow tribesmen, some of whom share
Saddam's thick-set features. "At least he gave us development and
security. The British and Americans said they would make things better, but
ten years later it's still a mess."
For all the ease with which Saddam's Iraq fell, building a new one in its
place has proved far harder, as the chaos, terrorism and sectarian slaughter
of the last ten years have proved. And it is not just beneficiaries of the
old regime, such as Sheikh Hassan, who yearn for the old days.
During a tour round the country last month - almost a decade from when I first
reported here - my question to the Iraqis I met was whether would turn the
clock back to the Saddam era if they could. Many, despite the horrors of
that time, said they would.
Among them was Riyadh al-Obeid, a greengrocer on Tikrit's main drag, where the
odd scratched-out mural is all that is now left of Saddam's omnipresent
personality cult. A former army officer, Mr Obeid deserted during the war,
and has found himself on the losing side of every fight that has come his
way since. In 2004, he was arrested as a suspected insurgent after US troops
found a pistol in his house, and spent 18 months in prison. He then joined
the Iraqi police, only to be kidnapped by Sunni extremists in 2006, who
threatened to kill him as a "traitor" and then let him buy his
life back for a $15,000 ransom.
Then, having quit law enforcement for the safety of the fruit and veg
business, he was kidnapped again while in Baghdad in 2008, this time by a
Shia militia targeting Sunnis during the sectarian conflict. Once more, a
ransom payment saved him. He still considers himself among the luckier in
his family. In 2007, militants abducted his cousin along with 13 other men
and beheaded them, demanding $5,000 apiece for the return of their heads in
"All that has happened since the Americans came is that security has got
worse," he said. "I do not long for Saddam particularly, just
someone who rules with justice - an American, an Iraqi, whoever."
Mr Obeidi's tale - a snapshot of the mayhem of the last decade - is extreme,
but not exceptional. Nearly Iraqi I have met tells of similar ordeals -
sometimes at the hands of coalition forces, but more often courtesy of
fellow countrymen, be they religious militias, criminal gangs, or a mixture
of both. For any country, this would be traumatic. For a country used to
police state security - arguably the one benefit of Saddam's totalitarian
regime - it has been doubly so, hence the nostalgia for the tyrant now lying
in al-Owja's parched soil.
True, there is less much less bloodshed now than there was at the height of
war of 2006, when nearly 3,000 people died a month. But carbombs and
other terrorist acts still claim regularly claim 50 lives a week or more, a
level of violence that makes international news when it happens other
countries, but not here.
Such is the continued danger that Britain and most other nations still caution
their citizens against visiting Iraq without armed bodyguards, robbing the
country of much-needed foreign investment and expertise. And the few
foreigners who do visit Baghdad today find a city that looks almost as much
of a police state as it was in Saddam's time, with troops and APCs at nearly
every major street junction.
Thanks to the parlous security situation, many of the fruits that Iraq's
liberators promised ten years ago are only just beginning to arrive. It was
only two weeks ago, for example, that Iraqi Airways flew its first
London-Baghdad flight, connecting the Iraqi capital with one of its largest
diasporas. Grid electricity in one of the world's most-energy rich lands is
still only around 12 hours a day in most areas, thanks to delays in
rebuilding power plants and insurgent sabotage of power lines.
Meanwhile, the much-awaited construction boom that should have turned
Baghdad's crumbling, Arab-Brutalist architecture into a gleaming new Dubai
is still yet to start. Smart new shopping malls and luxury apartment blocks
are still mainly at the planning stage, and the nearest thing to a five-star
hotel is the gloomy 1980s-style Ishtar Sheraton.
Instead, the most notable construction is the miles of 12-foot high concrete
anti-blast walls that snake everywhere across the city. Some are built to
keep warring Sunni and Shia neigbhourhoods apart, others are defences to the
hundreds of suicide bombers who have struck here since summer 2003, when
attacks on aid agencies and the United Nations building marked the start of
al-Qaeda's campaign to derail reconstruction by any means possible.
Yet despite such murderous nihilism, progress has been made. The Iraqi
security forces, who used to roam the city in packs of nervous,
balaclava-clad men, now seem relaxed and in control. Shops that used to shut
at 4pm, if they opened at all, now do brisk business till midnight.
And down by the Tigris, where restaurants once stopped serving local fish
because of the numbers of corpses dumped in the river, new family pleasure
parks are setting up. True, visitors are sometimes frisked for weapons, but
the fact that families finally feel safe to bring their children out at
night tells its own story.
"We opened just four months ago, and security is improving day by day,"
beamed Amjad al Kuzahi, 40, an investor in the Utafiyya Harbour complex,
which has smart restaurants, a fairground and free wifi. "Besides,
things couldn't have got any worse than they were."
If that sounds like grudging praise, Balsam al-Hill, a Baghdad businesswoman
who has also lived in Britain, points out that many things now taken for
granted were forbidden in Saddam's time, such as cellphones, the internet,
and, of course, the right to moan.
"Iraqis may still complain about electricity and security, but they are
earning far more and can buy what they want," she said. "In the
old days, even something like a can of Coke was a luxury. Iraqis do tend to
focus on the negative, but the fact is that now they can vent their feelings
and complain about the government. This is what democracy is."
Admittedly, democracy's reputation here has been tarnished somewhat by the
calibre of legislator that three elections
since 2005 have produced. In Saddam's time, most competent politicians
were either killed or fled abroad, and the lawless years afterwards have
favoured those with guns and money rather than talent. The result has been
parliaments of sectarian warlords, holymen and corruptibles, many of whom
fail to meet their basic briefs as parliamentarians, never mind overcome
Iraq's complex divisions of religion and creed.
Today, the Kurdish north is more of a breakaway state than ever, infuriating
Baghdad by signing its own private oil drilling contracts with foreign
majors. And in ex-Ba'athist strongholds like Tikrit and Fallujah, the Arab
Spring has inspired huge crowds to take to the streets in recent months,
claiming that Iraq's Shia-dominated government now treats them like
second-class citizens. So far they have stuck to peaceful protest, but
already there are fears that Sunni militias may use it as an excuse to take
up arms again. As Michael Knights, a fellow with the Washington Institute
for Middle East policy puts it: "The toxic political environment is
functioning as a life support machine for militant groups that should be on
the verge of extinction by now."
But while the political class squabbles, the country's cultural and
intellectual life is blossoming. Take for example, Baghdad's national
theatre, which, in the manner of Glasgow and Liverpool, is spearheading a "capital
of culture" programme this year.
Here, talk of acting as a profession that challenges the status quo is no
Thespian affectation: many of the theatre's actors have been threatened by
religious conservatives over the years, and it is as fortified as most
Baghdad police stations.
Today, though, it is packed with performers of all ages, some sporting patched
corduroy jackets and equally threadbare ponytails, others part of the new
generation who were just children during the war.
Young and old though, they all talk of a new, secular, liberal Iraq: the one
that Tony Blair and George W Bush promised, and which only now, ten hard
years later, looks like finally being on its way.
"Iraq went from political extremism under Saddam to religious extremism
during the sectarian time", said Emmanuel George Tomi, 52, a film maker
from a Christian opposition family, who fled Iraq for London aged 17 and who
returned in 2005. "I wept when I first came back. What I remembered as
a civilised, European-style city was just in ruins, and it has been so ever
"But I wouldn't go back to the Saddam era. People here are turning away
from religious extremism and towards a secular, liberal society: we're on
the way now."
With that, he turned back to discussing his new movie project with his
companions in the cafe of the theatre, where on the gates outside, a pair of
traditional stage masks show two faces - one happy, one sad.
Ten years on, it is an apt symbol of the Iraqi mood.