BAGHDAD — With the arrival of 2009, Iraq has achieved, at least on paper, something it hasn't enjoyed since American troops entered the country almost six years ago and toppled the long ruling Baath party regime of Saddam Hussein: the declaration that it is a sovereign nation, free of a United Nations mandate that allowed the U.S. to run Iraqi affairs.
U.S. troops are still here, of course, and will be for some time. Under a new bilateral security agreement, however, they must defer to Iraqi officials, seeks arrest warrants and judicial orders before detaining people, and by June largely withdraw from Iraq's cities.
Those changes won't be evident all at once, and some are open to interpretation. U.S. officials insist their forces will remain at the Joint Security Stations that they man with Iraqi troops inside Baghdad possibly after the June 30 deadline for being out of the cities.
There's no doubt, however, that Jan. 1 marks a major step in Iraq's evolution. U.S. officials already have moved out of Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, which they'd used as their headquarters since U.S. troops took control of Baghdad, and are occupying a brand new, sprawling 104-acre U.S. embassy complex that's America's largest in the world.
Never miss a local story.
Still, Iraqis aren't willing to say that the bad years of sectarian bloodshed are over or that what's taking place will lead to better days.
They expect a power struggle over territory between the Arabs and Kurds in the north. With provincial elections scheduled for later this month, they worry about political rivalries that could lead to violence. They're still unsure of the government — and a future they can't predict.
Open-air markets are busy once again, stores have reopened and historic cafes, bookstores and restaurants have been rebuilt. The paralyzing fear and tragedy in 2006 and 2007, when sectarian killings and rampant explosions forced Iraqis to cower in their homes, seems largely to have passed. It's difficult, however, for hope to return so quickly after so much bloodshed.
At the Shaabandar Cafe, an intellectual institution on al Mutannabi Street, Baghdad's historic book-selling district named for an Iraqi who became one of the most famous poets in Arab history, loyal patrons have returned after the cafe, which burned after a terrorist bombing in 2007, was rebuilt.
Mohammed Kadhim al Khashali feels little joy as he sits at his desk at the front of the cafe, as he's done for 50 years, with a book of Iraqi folklore in front of him, collecting from his patrons for the tea and conversation. On the wall to his left five pictures hang with a black strip across the top. His four sons and grandson were killed in the 2007 bombing.
Just five years ago he had four educated sons and 13 grandchildren, he said. He'd realized his dream of building a gathering place for intellectuals to discuss poetry and philosophy — a place where tourists could learn about Iraq's history and culture. Now in his cafe, rebuilt with government money, his eyes are weighed with sadness.
"I considered myself a prince before," he said. "The printing houses and coffee shop are rebuilt, but life has changed. I went from a father living with his sons to a father living to support his children's orphans . . . life became torture."
His wife is gone now, too. He says she died of grief. Outside, the sounds of drills and saws underscore the change on a new al Mutanabbi Street built over the rubble of the old and scarred one.
Between the neighborhoods of Adhamiyah, a Sunni Muslim enclave, and Kadhimiyah, a Shiite one, the Aimma bridge is once again open after years of being closed to stop warring religious factions from killing one another.
Now residents from one neighborhood frequent the other neighborhood. It's not unusual to hear Shiite chants blasting from a car caught in the gridlock of Sunni Adhamiyah. Still, it isn't yet normal.
Busloads of pilgrims, some visiting the Shiite shrine in Kadhimiyah, others visiting the Abu Hanifa Sunni mosque in Adhamiyah, are ordered from their vehicles before they cross the bridge. Soldiers pat them down, search their vehicles and send them on their way.
Under the bridge lies a cemetery of almost 6,000 graves. It opened on July 5, 2006, at the height of the sectarian killings, when Sunni families had no other place to take their dead. The danger was too great. Ninety-five percent of the dead here were killed by Shiite militias, said Ahmed Akram, who oversees the cemetery.
Above him, cars buzz between the Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods. Here in "The Martyrs Cemetery," however, there's a sea of death that many think won't be forgotten.
"Do you think Iraq will be clear of vengeance with the blood that has been spilled? Never!" Akram said. "Revenge cannot be forgotten. There is no success in this war."
Akram recounts the acid burned corpses, the heads and the tortured bodies he buried. He blames the American invasion. Then, in almost the same breath, he worries that the violence will begin again with the withdrawal of American troops.
"What did democracy give us? It gave us cemeteries. They (the U.S.) succeeded. They succeeded in making people kill each other, " he said. "Despite that, the place that (the U.S.) destroyed needs their presence because the people will kill each other again and Iraq will be on fire."
Last week, he said, was proof of his point. A bombing in Kadhimiyah killed 24, including a Sunni mother and daughter, who were being washed for burial on Wednesday. Perhaps they'd finally gotten the nerve to revisit the Shiite district and never made it back.
Will Iraq ever recover its sense of well being?
Akram is unsure. "I live with the dead and for that my heart is dead," he said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY