Fifteen years on from the U.S. invasion and with ISIS in retreat, Iraq is trying to build a peace that lasts
By Vivienne Walt/Baghdad
On a crisp afternoon in late winter,
Bassem Qassim, a 55-year-old militia fighter, drives past a checkpoint on the edge of Baghdad,
where the city’s clogged traffic gives way to sheep grazing and villagers tending small crops next to their houses.
A couple of dozen miles farther, he stops the car in a tiny hamlet
to show how perilously close the Islamic State came to taking the Iraqi capital during its stampede into the country in 2014.
He points to a cluster of trees on the edge of a small community.
"They were right here,” says Qassim, who fought a fierce battle against the jihadists for 3.5 years.
This was our line of defense."
The sleepy dot on the map does not look like a war front.
And yet, after years of conflict, countless fault lines like this crisscross Iraq,
leaving riven communities and millions of upturned lives in their wake.
Now, as the country digs out from its grueling war against ISIS,
it is trying to forge from its victory a lasting peace
for the first time since the U.S. led a military invasion of Iraq in March 2003, in defiance of the U.N., to overthrow the autocrat Saddam Hussein.
Fifteen years on, TIME returned to Baghdad to speak to Iraqis of almost every stripe,
from battle-hardened fighters and grieving civilians to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
All are trying to determine how they can finally prosper, and whether this relative calm can last.
Having all but obliterated ISIS’s caliphate, Iraqis are grappling with a question that had largely receded during years of fighting,
and that now looms large over the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12:
Can their country emerge as a functioning democracy, with its Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish populations relatively united?
And can it do that without the safety net of the U.S. military?
If it succeeds—and it is a big if—
如果做到了 - 这是一个很大的假设-
Iraq could become that beacon of freedom that U.S. officials once promised 15 years ago, in arguing for a war many now regard as a disastrous decision.
"We have sacrificed a great deal of blood and treasure for the future of Iraq,” says Lieut. General Paul Funk, the top U.S. commander in the country.
He believes that under ideal circumstances, Iraq could act as a multiethnic buffer between the region’s bitter rivals,
both of which are Iraq’s neighbors: Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia.
"I see in Iraq the future of the Middle East," he says.
Yet if Iraq fails and slips back into conflict, the country could again play host to the region’s violent proxy wars—
potentially embroiling the U.S. in a yet another protracted engagement.
Already, ISIS survivors have begun to launch attacks, and Iraqi leaders believe that they are attempting to regroup.
No country can withstand such onslaught,” al-Abadi tells TIME.