On the fifth anniversary of the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq, the country still finds itself in the middle of a brutal war which shows no signs of abating despite the death of hundreds of thousands of people.
The US-led war on Iraq that toppled the brutal regime of dictator Saddam Hussein entered its sixth year on Thursday with millions of Iraqis still battling daily chaos and rampant bloodshed.
Five years ago on March 20, 2003, US planes dropped the first bombs on Baghdad, and within three weeks invading troops toppled Saddam's regime but left US forces battling a resentful and rebellious people.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said the invasion ended Saddam's era of "torture and tyranny" but acknowledged that present-day Iraq was awash with "violence and terrorism" while "corruption has become a dangerous disease."
Five years on, Iraqis and US and allied forces face daily attacks from insurgents and Islamist militants, and fighting between armed factions from both sides of Iraq's Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide continues.
The war has killed tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians -- between 104,000 and 223,000 died between March 2003 and June 2006 alone, according to the World Health Organisation -- and more than 4,000 US and allied soldiers.
"The war has been an unlimited disaster in terms of US foreign policy, in terms of stability in Iraq and in the Middle East," Joost Hiltermann, Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group, told AFP.
"I can only hope the US finds a way to navigate itself out of the mess without allowing Iraq to fall apart."
US President George W. Bush defended the war that has already cost his administration more than 400 billion dollars but admitted the human cost was high.
"The answers are clear to me: removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision -- and this is a fight America can and must win," he said in a speech at the Pentagon.
Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden also issued a video message voicing his determination to fight the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said the "savage acts" of the US-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan "haven't ended the war, but rather increased our determination to cling to our right, avenge our people and expel the invaders from our country."
Hans Blix, the former chief UN weapons inspector, in an article for Britain's Guardian newspaper, slammed the Iraq war as a "tragedy -- for Iraq, for the US, for the UN, for truth and human dignity."
On the streets of Baghdad, fear of Saddam's hated secret police has been replaced by a new terror.
Abu Fares al-Daraji, a tobacco shop owner in Baghdad said Americans "brought our way things we never knew like terrorism and the killings we see on the streets."
And in the United States, the war is deeply unpopular, with activists staging demonstrations demanding an immediate withdrawal of US soldiers.
"This war needs to end and it needs to end now," said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice.
Bush has taken heart from signs that the bloodshed has fallen, but even the commander of US troops, General David Petraeus, admits that Baghdad has made insufficient progress towards national reconciliation.
"Scoring a military victory is easy, but a political victory is more difficult to achieve," said Mustapha Alani, director of security studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband admitted that "building the peace after the war has been much more difficult than people expected."
The International Committee of the Red Cross said the plight of millions of Iraqis who still have little or no access to clean water, sanitation or health care was the "most critical in the world."
Nevertheless a "surge" in US forces, which over the past year increased the level of troops to more than 160,000, has helped reduce the violence in central and western regions.
At the same time, radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has ordered his powerful Mahdi Army militia to refrain from attacks on Iraqi and US security forces.
However, Liwa Sumaysim, a top leader with the Sadr movement, renewed a call for the withdrawal of American forces.
"US forces must depart as they are invaders and brought us nothing but terror, destruction and bloodshed," he said.
Insurgents continue to carry out spectacular attacks, such as a bombing on Monday in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala that killed 52 people.
A a national unity conference on Tuesday -- undermined by a boycott from two key parliamentary blocs -- Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki boasted that Iraq's sectarian civil war was over.
On Wednesday he visited, for the first time since becoming premier, Baghdad's Sunni bastion of Adhamiyah where he promised the Sunni Arabs jobs as a reward for their fight against Al-Qaeda.
The same day, Iraq's presidency council approved a law to hold provincial elections, a key demand of Washington to boost national unity.
The economy, the main concern of Iraqis after security, is also a wreck. Unemployment is running at between 25 and 50 percent of the workforce, according to government figures.
Oil exports, the country's main money-earner, are a key source of contention between rival political factions.
Iraqi officials say production is at 2.9 million barrels a day, higher than pre-war levels when Saddam's Iraq was under UN sanctions. Oil analysts believe it is really around 2.2 million.
Public services like water and electricity have yet to be fully restored, despite billions of dollars having been spent on often badly managed reconstruction projects.
Government calls for Iraqi refugees to return to help rebuild the country have been largely ignored. Fewer than 50,000 have returned from neighbouring Jordan and Syria, while more than two million have fled.
Last year, the US embassy in Baghdad documented a high level of corruption at all levels of Maliki's administration.
Date created : 2008-03-20