BAGHDAD — It was sunset, and the pedestrian-only streets around Baghdad's famous double-domed Kadhemiya shrine were clogged with Iraqi families and Iranian pilgrims shopping, eating popcorn or making their way toward the glittery sanctuary.
The only signs that nearly a decade of war and occupation had interrupted such leisurely evenings were the concrete blast walls surrounding the shrine and a cluster of Iraqi soldiers wearing castoff gear as they lounged in an office of the militant anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
Then a terrifying noise — more a loud click than a boom — scattered the pigeons and set off a stampede among panicked worshipers who'd been crowding the entrance of the shrine. When they realized moments later that the disturbance had been just a large generator switching on, people in the crowd laughed and cracked jokes about being scared of even balloons.
An Iraqi politician's face darkened the next day when I recounted the bomb-scare episode during a tour of his family's centuries-old gardens.
"You have to find the fly in the ointment," he complained, before switching the talk back to date palms and orange blossoms.
Iraqi leaders are trying their best to prove wrong all the naysayers who predicted that the U.S. military's withdrawal last December would precipitate the country's immediate collapse and de facto annexation to Iran. They tout a decline in terrorist attacks, vibrant entrepreneurship and, above all, the recent Arab summit, which was billed as Shiite-led Iraq's return to the region's mostly Sunni Arab fold.
However, 10 days in Baghdad, after an absence of more than a year, made it apparent that post-American Iraq remains an unstable, deeply sectarian state that's verging on authoritarianism under the veneer of a U.S.-friendly Muslim democracy.
Many Iraqis — Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds alike — fear that the U.S. withdrawal has given Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a conservative Shiite Islamist, free rein to consolidate power and turn himself into an intractable strongman.
Those worries were only compounded when the White House last month named Brett McGurk the new U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. As adviser to the past three envoys, McGurk had garnered a reputation among Iraqi political elites as a die-hard Maliki booster who turns a blind eye to the prime minister's emerging dictatorial streak.
"They basically sent someone from Maliki's office," one Sunni politician grumbled privately about the Obama administration's choice.
Iraqi officials emphasized the fact that the Arab League, the region's premier diplomatic organization, had convened its annual summit in Baghdad late last month. They said it was a sign that Iraq was back in the Arab fold after decades of isolation from its neighbors during more than eight years of American occupation. That made the conference's price tag — in excess of $500 million — worth every penny.
Iraq was back, leaders declared, ready to stake its place in a region teetering between the old authoritarian order and untested revolutionary movements.
Ah, spring! remarked one Iraqi journalist, taking in the mild weather after undergoing a search by a bomb-sniffing dog outside the summit.
Yeah, Arab Spring, another Iraqi replied sarcastically, watching the invasive security procedures of his countrys paranoid, fragile government.
Behind the scenes, the summit was utter chaos, with the long-simmering mistrust between the Kurd-led Foreign Ministry and the Shiite-led Interior Ministry exploding into arguments over the slow issuing of badges, a lack of accommodations for hundreds of accredited journalists and hours-long convoy delays at checkpoints.
The manager of one of the conference hotels said the summit reeked of corruption. The hotel he oversaw had cost more than $20 million to renovate, but there was no way all that money had gone into the project, he said, pointing out the many imperfections. He said his company could've built an 800-room deluxe hotel in Dubai for that price.
"So where did all the money go? In the bellies!" he said with a laugh, patting his midsection for emphasis.
On social media platforms, Iraqi leaders were ripped as tasteless for serving VIP guests a dessert of dates dipped in 24-karat gold in a war-ravaged country where thousands of women were forced to sell off their gold to pay their husbands' and sons' kidnap ransoms.
On Baghdad streets, the reaction was more nuanced. Many Iraqis acknowledged the public-relations value of the summit and its goal of restoring the country's regional ties at a time when the Arab world is grappling with a wave of rebellions and conflicts.
"If the intentions of the summit were good, then maybe Iraq can stand on its feet again," said Bassam al Bahrani, 48, who lamented that sales in his clothing store had dropped 50 percent in the past two months. "Now that the Americans are gone, things should stabilize. There are no more excuses."
Sectarian and ethnic tensions still run deep, though, and politicians of all backgrounds said Maliki was resorting to heavy-handed, sectarian-based tactics to fend off attempts to weaken his grip. Iraqi politics are beset with entrenched internecine battles that continue to prevent any semblance of a unity government.
Just before the summit, Sunni politicians say, security forces swept through Sunni enclaves, rounding up hundreds of young men who've yet to be charged or released. The families are too scared to complain to the Shiite-led authorities.
The pattern of targeting or marginalizing young Sunni men left one of my Sunni colleagues debating whether to transfer her 18-year-old son to a school in a mixed-sect district so that the Shiite-dominated college selection boards wouldn't automatically dismiss his application as being from a Sunni neighborhood.
With sectarianism so institutionalized now, my friend said, it was doubtful that any of the government's halfhearted national reconciliation initiatives could blunt the leftover pain from years of civil war.
"It's like when trust is lost between husband and wife," she told me one night as our car was stopped at a checkpoint outside the Kadhemiya shrine. "You can try to patch it up, to make it better, but I doubt it will ever be whole again."
The day the conference ended, routes that had been scrubbed of Shiite iconography for the Sunni rulers' visit once again were adorned with posters of the militia commander Sadr or renderings of the revered imams Ali and Hussein. Even state properties — bus terminals, a train depot, for example — casually display Shiite flags or portraits, sending an unmistakable message to any Sunnis with business in those buildings.
"The message is: 'Get out,' " said Omar Mashhadani, a Sunni, the former spokesman for Parliament.
Malikis supporters insist hes a nationalist, dismissing widespread criticisms that the leader is not only sectarian but isolationist, surrounding himself with trusted yes-men from his own Dawa Party.
Supporters also shrug off the fact that Maliki has gotten rid of Iraqs top two Sunni officials: Vice President Tareq al Hashemi is a fugitive in a sectarian-motivated murder case, while Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al Mutlaq is barred from Cabinet meetings in apparent violation of the Constitution after publicly suggesting that Maliki was on the path to dictatorship.
Ismail Zayer, an Iraqi newspaper editor and pro-government commentator, said he didn't agree with everything the prime minister was doing, but justified such tough measures as serving a national rather than sectarian agenda: to prevent Iraq from fragmenting in the aftermath of a devastating U.S.-led military occupation.
"If there's anyone who divided Iraq into Sunnis and Shiites, it was the Americans," Zayer argued. "What did they do in Korea? Two Koreas. Vietnam? Two Vietnams."
The constantly expanding powers of conservative Shiite Islamists have inspired a backlash among some concerned Iraqi communities; not just Sunnis, but also secular Shiites, liberals and artists, as well as the few remaining Christians.
They wonder what happened to all those promises from 2003 about Iraq becoming a pluralistic nation with Western-style guarantees of civil liberties. Instead, they say, Iraqis got a country where the once-treasured national orchestra can't even play for fans in the southern Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala because religious authorities have deemed musical performances un-Islamic.
Hatif Farhan, a 46-year-old photographer, couldn't resist a mischievous chuckle as he described the local art community's latest act of sedition against the self-appointed censors: an exhibition in a famous Baghdad gallery, composed solely of nudes. Farhan, sounding proud, said, "Even the veiled women came."
"We insist on doing this as a reaction," he said. "I took photos and put them on Facebook so that people outside would know that not everything is closed down. We are still here."
(Allam, who's now based in Cairo for McClatchy, was Baghdad bureau chief from 2003 to 2006.)
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