/ 9 April 2008

Deadly fighting in Baghdad as Iraq marks Saddam’s fall

Iraq on Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s iron-fisted regime with the nation still in turmoil, the capital under curfew and a surge of deadly violence in the Shi’ite bastion of Sadr City.

Iraqi officials said three mortar rounds slammed into Sadr City, the eastern Baghdad stronghold of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, killing at least seven people and wounding 24 others.

One mortar round struck the rooftop of a house where a family was having breakfast, killing three members of the family, including two children.

Another mortar struck a nearby tent set up for a condolence service for a person killed earlier in the week, while a third fell on an empty plot.

Clashes in the sprawling Shi’ite district in the early hours killed another six people and wounded at least 15, a medical official said.

Sadr City has been wracked by fighting since Sunday between Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia and United States and Iraqi forces in which at least 55 people have died and scores have been wounded.

The US military says it is chasing ”criminals” firing rockets into Baghdad and the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the Iraqi government and US embassy are sited.

Sadr had last week called for a million-strong anti-American demonstration in Baghdad to mark the anniversary of Saddam’s ouster by US invading forces, but cancelled it on Tuesday ”to save Iraqi blood”.

Baghdad’s streets were empty of cars and trucks after the authorities declared a 5am to midnight vehicle curfew to prevent car-bomb attacks by Sunni insurgents.

Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit was also under a day-long curfew, an Agence France-Presse correspondent said.

‘Nightmare of suffering and destruction’

It took US invading forces just three weeks to defeat Saddam’s forces and topple his regime on April 9 2003.

On that day, US marines put a rope around the neck of a giant statue of Saddam in Baghdad’s Firdoos Square, pulling it down in an act that symbolised the fall of the dictator’s brutal regime.

A jubilant Iraqi crowd ”insulted” the fallen statue by smacking its face with their shoes.

But five years later the American military and Baghdad’s new Shi’ite-led regime are still battling to curb the bloodshed that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than four million.

Fears of an uptick in the violence are running deep after hard-line Sadr, angered by attacks on his militiamen, threatened on Tuesday to end the truce his feared Mehdi Army militia has been observing since August.

US commanders acknowledge that the ceasefire was one of the factors behind a sharp drop in violence across Iraq in the second half of last year.

Although US President George Bush insisted in March that toppling Saddam was the ”right decision”, his commanders are finding it difficult to bring stability to Iraq despite last year’s ”surge” strategy of deploying an extra 30 000 troops.

The top US general in Iraq, David Petraeus, urged in testimony to the US Congress on Tuesday that further troop withdrawals should be held off for at least 45 days after completing the pull-out of the ”surge” forces by July.

Petraeus said the surge had helped make ”significant but uneven” progress in Iraq, while ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker warned that those achievements were ”reversible”.

For Iraqis, the five years since the ouster of Saddam have been a period of turmoil and bloodletting.

”When I saw the American tanks roll into Baghdad, I was happy and full of dreams … dreams of a prosperous Iraq, a developed Iraq. But since then it has become a nightmare of suffering and destruction,” said Sarah Yussef (25).

The war has killed tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians since the US-led invasion. Between 104 000 and 223 000 people died from March 2003 to June 2006 alone, according to the World Health Organisation.

The songs of joy that greeted the American tanks when they reached Baghdad have long since become cries of hatred.

Majeed Hameed, a gift shop owner in Baghdad’s northern Antar Square, said the American tanks rolling on the streets of Baghdad are now seen as ”enemy” forces.

”We can’t describe how savage these barbarians are whose promises were false and full of lies. They came to occupy and cause destruction. We got nothing but disaster,” said Hameed.

Basim Atia, an unemployed man living in Karrada district of central Baghdad, described the toppling of Saddam as a ”black day” in the history of Iraq.

”On that day, all our values were turned upside down. Today we see only killing and sectarianism, and scientists and doctors are fleeing the country.” — AFP