BAGHDAD — It's been more than six years since a bomb ripped away the eyes from Shams Karim, killed her mother and left the little girl, now 7, blind and disfigured for life. Psychiatric drugs help control her outbursts of crying and screaming.
Throughout Iraq there are tens of thousands of victims like her whose lives are forever scarred by the violence of war. Their wounds — and those of tens of thousands of U.S. and other foreign service members — may never entirely heal.
In Baghdad, life goes on much as it has since the Ottoman sultan ruled these parts. Porters force loaded carts through narrow bazaars as amateur breeders' beloved pigeons swoop overhead. The calls to prayer from turquoise-domed mosques provide a rhythm to the day.
Yet the legacy of a war that began a decade ago remains very much a part of life here too. Bullet holes still pockmark buildings, and towers wrecked by American missiles have not fully been rebuilt. Iraqi soldiers in body armor corral cars into road-clogging checkpoints, their fingers close to the trigger, ever wary of the next attack. At 1 a.m., a curfew shuts down the capital's streets, many still lined with blast walls.
It's hard nowadays to find anybody who hasn't lost a friend or relative to the bloodletting that followed the U.S.-led invasion. Shams' mother is buried among the densely packed graves in Najaf, where an ancient cemetery is at least 40 percent larger than it was before the war. Each new bombing sends more coffin-topped cars south to the hot, dusty city of the dead.
The Bush administration had hoped the war that began with airstrikes before dawn on March 20, 2003, would quickly rid Iraq of purported weapons of mass destruction, go after extremists and replace a brutal dictatorship with a pro-Western democracy.
Ten years on, Iraq's long-term stability and the strength of its democracy remain open questions. The country is unquestionably freer and more democratic. But instead of a solidly pro-U.S. regime, the Iraqis have a government that is arguably closer to Tehran than Washington and that struggles to exert control over its country.
Bloody attacks launched by terrorists who thrived in the post-invasion chaos are still frequent — albeit less so than a few years back — and sectarian and ethnic rivalries are again tearing at the fabric of national unity. The top-heavy government is largely paralyzed by graft, chronic political crisis and what critics fear is a new dictatorship in the making. The civil war in neighboring Syria risks sowing further discord in Iraq.
By the time the U.S. military pulled out in December 2011, nearly 4,500 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis had lost their lives. No active WMDs were ever found. The war cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.
In Iraq, the Americans and their allies left behind a broken, deeply traumatized country — a land no longer at war but without peace. The toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime destroyed not only dictatorship but also the mechanism of law and order, enabling the rise of al-Qaida and sectarian, ethnic and class hatreds.
The invasion transferred power overnight to oppressed Shiites and Kurds but left many Sunni Arabs alienated. It established a system of sectarian-based politics that undermined national unity.
And it helped trigger a vicious insurgency that ruined countless lives without regard for religion or ethnicity.