In the years since, Maliki has become a de facto dictator. In Anbar Province and parts of Baghdad, he is now bitterly referred to as a "Shia Saddam." Pictures of his less-than-photogenic face in front of an Iraqi flag hang above many of the countless checkpoints around the capital. When I see his visage looming over us yet again as we sit in traffic, I comment to my fixer, Ali, that his image is now everywhere, just as Saddam's used to be. "Yes, they've simply changed the view for us," Ali replies, and we laugh. Gallows humor has been a constant in Baghdad since the invasion a decade ago.
It's been much the same all over Iraq. The US forces that ousted Saddam Hussein's regime immediately moved into his military bases and palaces. Now that the US has left Iraq, those same bases and palaces are manned and controlled by the Maliki government.
Saddam Hussein's country was notoriously corrupt. Yet last year, Iraq ranked 169th out of 174 countries surveyed, according to Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index. It is effectively a failed state, with the Maliki regime incapable of controlling vast swaths of the country, including the Kurdish north, despite his willingness to use the same tactics once employed by Saddam Hussein and after him the Americans: widespread violence, secret prisons, threats, detentions, and torture.
Almost 10 years after US troops entered a Baghdad in flames and being looted, Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth. There are daily bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations. The sectarianism instilled and endlessly stirred up by US policy has become deeply, seemingly irrevocably embedded in the political culture, which regularly threatens to tip over into the sort of violence that typified 2006-2007, when upwards of 3,000 Iraqis were being slaughtered every month.
The death toll of March 11th was one of the worst of late and provides a snapshot of the increasing levels of violence countrywide. Overall, 27 people were killed and many more injured in attacks across the country. A suicide car bomb detonated in a town near Kirkuk, killing eight and wounding 166 (65 of whom were students at a Kurdish secondary school for girls). In Baghdad, gunmen stormed a home where they murdered a man and woman. A shop owner was shot dead and a policeman was killed in a drive-by shooting in Ghazaliya. A civilian was killed in the Saidiya district, while a Sahwa member was gunned down in Amil. Three government ministry employees in the city were also killed.
In addition, gunmen killed two policemen in the town of Baaj, a dead body turned up in Muqtadiyah, where a roadside bomb also wounded a policeman. In the city of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, gunmen killed a blacksmith, and in the northern city of Mosul, a political candidate and a soldier were both killed in separate incidents. A local political leader in the town of Rutba in Anbar Province was shot and died of his injuries, and the body of a young man whose skull was crushed was found in Kirkuk a day after he was kidnapped. Gunmen also killed a civilian in Abu Saida.
And these are only the incidents reported in the media in a single day. Others regularly don't make it into the news at all.
The next day, Awadh, the security chief for Al Jazeera in Baghdad, was in a dark mood when he arrived at work. "Yesterday, two people were assassinated in my neighborhood," he said. "Six were assassinated around Baghdad. I live in a mixed neighborhood, and the threats of killing have returned. It feels like it did just before the sectarian war of 2006. The militias are again working to push people out of their homes if they are not Shia. Now, I worry everyday when my daughter goes to school. I ask the taxi driver who takes her to drop her close to the school, so that she is alright." Then he paused a moment, held up his arms and added, "And I pray."
"This Is Our Life Now"
Iraqis who had enough money and connections to leave the country have long since fled. Harb, another fixer and dear friend who worked with me throughout much of my earlier reportage from Iraq, fled to Syria's capital, Damascus, with his family for security reasons. When the uprising in Syria turned violent and devolved into the bloodbath it is today, he fled Damascus for Beirut. He is literally running from war.
Recent Iraqi government estimates put the total of "internally displaced persons" in Iraq at 1.1 million. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis remain in exile, but of course no one is counting. Even those who stay often live as if they were refugees and act as if they are on the run. Most of those I met on my most recent trip won't even allow me to use their real names when I interview them.