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Video by Catherine VIETTE

Latest update : 2009-03-20

Neither the US military nor the Iraqi authorities have announced plans to commemorate the March 20, 2003 invasion that toppled President Saddam Hussein, an anniversary marked only by anti-war protesters and hastened US pullout plans.

AFP - The end of the war beckons, but six years after the US-led invasion, Iraqis are still struggling with daily hardship and the fear of deadly, indiscriminate attacks.
Death tolls have tumbled since early 2008, and in just three months time, US forces are to withdraw from major cities and towns in a prelude to a total pullout from Iraq in 2011.
Yet neither the Iraqi authorities nor the US military has announced plans to mark the March 20, 2003 invasion that toppled president Saddam Hussein and his totalitarian Baath party regime.
It was supposed to bring democracy, freedom and a better life.
For most Iraqis the invasion threw their world into turmoil and danger. The nation plunged into a cycle of sectarian slaughter, Sunnis and Al-Qaeda fought the occupation and the Shiite majority steadily took power.
"Millions of civilians are still facing hardship every day," said International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Jakob Kellenberger on the eve of the anniversary.
"Indiscriminate attacks continue to leave dozens of people killed or injured on a daily basis despite improvements in the security situation in many parts of Iraq."
In 2007, 17,430 Iraqis died in violence. In 2008, 6,772 people were killed. The first two months of 2009 saw 449 die, the lowest official toll since the invasion.
"The humanitarian situation in many areas of the country remains serious despite the Iraqi authorities' considerable efforts to provide basic services such as water and health care," Kellenberger said.
"Further work is required to ensure that the basic needs of Iraqis are met ... the scale of the needs exceeds the emergency aid we can provide."
Despite such precariousness, US and Iraqi officials offer repeated assurances that everything is in place for a smooth transition as American troops pull out and new Iraqi forces take full control.
Two major bomb blasts this month that left more than 60 people dead and maimed scores more served as grim reminders of the risks.
However, fears of a return to high levels of sectarian strife or even all-out civil war are played down.
The authorities are working towards a return to a semblance of something like normal life amid the ruins and mile after mile of heavy concrete blast walls that litter Baghdad.
The tourism ministry has even suggested Iraq is now safe for foreign tourists.
The ministry announced Thursday that the first official Western tour group to enter Iraq since invasion was visiting historic and religious sites.
"This visit is a positive sign for the return of touristic activity to Iraq," ministry spokesman Abdul Zahra al-Telagani said of the five Britons, two Americans and a Canadian on an organised two-week trip.
"It reflects the improvement in the security situation. This is a message to the whole world that the new Iraq is now ready to return to a normal situation with security and stability," he said.
Armed guards dressed as civilians were however protecting the group which was shown smiling on state-run television.
Iraq, under UN sanctions for much of the 1990s, has been off limits to all but the most adventurous of Western tourists for many years.
But the government badly needs to diversify revenues in a country which relies on oil sales for 98 percent of income.
Tourism is a major target for growth, building on the large numbers of religious tourists, particularly Shiites from neighbouring Iran, who have continued to visit major holy sites.
Despite such economic imperatives, no one dare suggests the bloodshed is over.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki never misses a day to make an appeal for all Iraqis, Shiites and Sunnis, to end violence and unite for a better future.
However, on top of the rump Al-Qaeda fighters blamed for most of the near daily bombings, Baath party hardliners led by Saddam's fugitive number two, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, reject reconciliation vowing to fight to the finish.

Date created : 2009-03-20