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 3½ 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—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 multi-ethnic buffer between the region’s bitter rivals, both of which are Iraq’s neighbors: Shi‘ite-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. “Our policy is to prevent it, rather than being able to stand up to it if it happens again. We have to be ready.”
Deep inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone sits the opulent, sprawling edifice that until 2003 served as Saddam’s Republican Palace, with four 13-ft. bronze busts of the dictator on the rooftop, visible for miles around. The busts are long gone. And now, down those same long marble corridors where Saddam once ruled with an iron grip is the office of al-Abadi, who has been charged with creating a prosperous country out of postwar Iraq.
It is a daunting mission. Al-Abadi, 65, seems an unlikely figure to have landed the role. Short and soft-spoken, he does not look like the textbook version of a war hero, yet he has been cast as one in his election campaign. Billboards around Baghdad highlight his role as Iraq’s military commander in chief, who brought the country back from the brink.
An electrical engineer raised in Baghdad, al-Abadi spent more than 20 years in exile in London during Saddam’s regime. He flew home in 2003, just as the U.S. invasion began. As a member first of the governing council and then Iraq’s parliament, he witnessed firsthand the turmoil that followed 2003, which cost 4,500 American lives and an estimated 460,000 Iraqi ones. The invasion uncorked lethal enmities, with Saddam’s hard-line Sunni loyalists staging a bloody insurgency against the U.S. military and their Iraqi allies, and Shi‘ite groups waging battle against both U.S. forces and Sunnis. Iraq has, to many, become shorthand for the unintended consequences of U.S. intervention, and has put American foreign policy on a more isolationist path. President Trump says it was a “mistake” for the U.S. to have intervened.
The Sunni insurgency after 2003 seeded a murderous terrorist cell, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later morphed into a group with designs on the country itself: the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS. In 2014, its fighters seized swaths of territory, including Iraq’s second city, Mosul. With most U.S. combat troops having left the country in 2011, the Iraqi military was badly outgunned, and many fled the jihadists’ path. Al-Abadi was appointed Prime Minister that year, after at least four Iraqi army divisions collapsed in the face of ISIS. Many Iraqis blamed al-Abadi’s predecessor Nouri al-Maliki, a hard-line Shi‘ite politician, for leaving alienated Sunnis amenable to ISIS propaganda.
Dislodging ISIS took over three years. The U.S. military rushed forces to Iraq to help turn back the tide. It was a grueling battle; retaking Mosul involved what U.S. commanders called the deadliest urban combat since World War II. Finally, in December, al-Abadi declared victory, congratulating the country for crushing an “enemy that wanted to kill our civilization.” Little more than a month later, he shudders at how close ISIS came to seizing Baghdad itself. “Do not forget, they tried to establish a state in the region,” he says, sitting in his Baghdad office with a large map of Iraq on the wall. “And they were not a long distance away from achieving their dream.”
Al-Abadi now has a much more complex mission: governing his fractured country, while ensuring that ISIS cannot regroup. He must manage the competing interests of Shi‘ites, Sunnis and Kurds, and the splits within those groups, as well as the interests of the anti-ISIS coalition, including the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Jordan. “Abadi is trying to juggle many different allies,” says Renad Mansour, an Iraq research fellow at the U.K. think tank Chatham House. “He is up against a difficult task.”
After nearly four years in office, al-Abadi claims he has learned some hard lessons from the disaster of ISIS. He believes the key to halting another existential threat is to instill in all Iraqis a sense of nation-hood, connecting them to the central government at least as much as to their tribal and religious leaders. “People must feel part of this country and like they are citizens of this country,” he says. “At the end of the day, we must deliver to the people.”
To do that, he will need to tackle perhaps the toughest problem of all: rampant corruption. The anti-graft organization Transparency International described Iraq in 2015 as suffering “extensive, pervasive corruption across all levels of government and sectors.” When al-Abadi took office in 2014, he discovered 50,000 fictitious “ghost soldiers” on the military payroll, whose commanders were together reaping about $380 million a year. In response, he fired several generals and top officials.
Despite that, al-Abadi has managed to make only a tiny dent in the dizzying graft during his time in office. He describes the anti-corruption fight—his main election promise—as somewhat overwhelming. “People are calling on me to put corrupt people into prison,” he says. “Where do you start?” Perhaps, some would reply, with the biggest culprits. Yet that could include powerful figures and leave al-Abadi himself politically vulnerable. “No one really important ever goes to jail,” says Kirk Sowell, head of a Middle East–focused risk consultancy. “If [Abadi] cracked down hard, there would be blood in the water.”
Yet on the streets of Baghdad, patience is wearing thin. Many Iraqis are too young to remember life under the hated dictator Saddam—about 40% of Iraq’s 37 million people were not even born when the U.S. invaded in 2003, according to U.N. statistics. Young Iraqis do not necessarily see themselves as having been liberated; they simply want a good government and decent prospects. “I want to get out of Iraq because I see no good future here,” says Mustafa Jassim, 25, a qualified fine-arts teacher working as a juicer in a downtown Baghdad market.
Al-Abadi says he sees job creation as urgent. One obvious way to employ large numbers of Iraqis is to begin repairing the war damage. In February, representatives from dozens of countries and hundreds of companies gathered in Kuwait for a conference on reconstructing Iraq after years of battle, which devastated large parts of Mosul and shattered infrastructure elsewhere. Done successfully, it could be a “peace dividend,” says U.S. Ambassador Douglas A. Silliman, speaking from the Green Zone. “Abadi is focusing not on rich donors but on reshaping the economy,” he says. “He is trying to give people hope that tomorrow will be better than yesterday was.”
Two weeks earlier, al-Abadi had told me it would cost about $90 billion to rebuild the country—a job he believes is key to halting another onslaught. In late January, he invited TIME to sit in on a closed-door meeting in the old palace, with ambassadors from the U.S., Britain, Japan, the U.N. and others, to discuss the upcoming Kuwait conference. He warned the diplomats that rebuilding Iraq quickly and effectively was crucial not only for people’s daily lives, but also in order to stave off further terrorist threats. “It is a huge task,” he told them.
Yet the country raised just $30 billion for its rebuilding effort, perhaps because governments are waiting to see if al-Abadi will be re-elected in May. The U.S. favors the Western-educated al-Abadi. But his powerful opponents inside Iraq, many backed by Iran, will likely squeeze him for concessions.
There’s good reason for many to believe this moment of cohesion will be fleeting. ISIS unified Iraq even as it divided it, with many Iraqis bound together in their mutual hatred for the jihadists. Now with ISIS largely gone, the familiar ethnic schisms have resurfaced among the majority-Shi‘ite population, the once powerful Sunnis and the minority Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan held a referendum last September to declare independence from Baghdad, prompting a swift crackdown from al-Abadi. Now his re-election in May rests on fragile alliances that may not please every-one. In February, the Institute for the Study of War, in Washington, D.C., warned U.S. officials that they should prepare for a possible pro-Iranian Iraqi government after May.
The combat-ready Shi‘ite militia forces, whose reputation and influence have grown hugely after years of fighting ISIS, may come to the fore. Grouped together as the Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, the dozens of groups—most backed by Iran—joined the war effort alongside the Iraqi army, though at far lower pay. Now they expect recognition, including more political power.
“Victory was assigned to Abadi’s name, but Iraqis knew very well who defeated ISIS,” says Bassem Qassim, the militia fighter who drove us into the countryside; he is a member of the Badr Organization, a military and political group with ties to Iran, which comprised the biggest militia force in the PMF.
With his potbelly and gray mustache, Qassim does not look like the model of a hardened fighter. Yet he rushed to join the battle against ISIS in June 2014, after watching Iraq’s Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani tell his followers on TV to fight the jihadists. Thousands complied. Qassim fought for years, moving from one battlefront to the next, each time setting up a thermal camera and firing mortars at ISIS. “They called me the ISIS terminator,” he says.
If al-Abadi wins a second term as Prime Minister, he will need to reckon with the thousands of war veterans like Qassim whose bravery has brought strong applause from grateful Iraqis—even those wary of the influence that Iran wields over the militia groups. “They deserve all our respect,” says Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, an Iraqi military spokesman. “They are fierce fighters.”
There’s also the unresolved question of the U.S. forces whose support was instrumental to defeating ISIS. U.S. officials have indicated that they intend to wind down their presence in Iraq. There are currently about 5,200 U.S. military personnel in the country, according to Colonel Ryan Dillon, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, down from 170,000 in 2007. Iraqis are split on this; military officials say they are still heavily dependent on U.S. support and fear a resurgence of the jihadist threat if the U.S. leaves. “We do not want an unfinished job,” al-Abadi says. Others, however, can’t wait for the U.S. to be gone. “They have no role in fighting. They have no role in staying,” says Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a Baghdad member of parliament who sits on the security and defense committee. “Most Iraqis would want them to leave, with a big fat thank-you.”
Iraq’s future should be bright, at least on paper. Its mammoth oil reserves total about 148 billion barrels, the fifth largest on earth, and it has considerable untapped gas. There is also plentiful fertile land for agriculture, with two long rivers that snake across hundreds of miles. There are glimpses everywhere of that potential future in Baghdad, a city of 7 million. One January evening, TIME dined on a street jammed with teenagers celebrating the start of a school break in a row of restaurants packed with families—a scene that would have been unimaginable 15 years ago.
Nonetheless, Iraq remains deeply scarred by war. And it is those scars that could well reopen, if left to fester in resentment and disappointment. That much is clear when you drive just 35 miles west out of Baghdad to a place that has seen years of violent conflict: Fallujah. Few places in Iraq so well encapsulate the battles over the past 15 years as the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the U.S. occupation, and a decade later under ISIS.
For Americans, the city that was home to 320,000 people before ISIS still evokes chills. In 2004, four Americans working for the defense contractor Blackwater were ambushed and killed, their mutilated bodies dragged through Fallujah’s streets by cheering residents, who then hanged two from the iron bridge that spans the Euphrates River. The killings led to a bloody retaliation by U.S. forces, including the killing of unarmed protesters. What followed was the start of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which took root among Fallujah’s narrow alleyways.
Fifteen years on, there is still a deep bitterness among many in Fallujah against the U.S. military. “The U.S. entered Iraq saying they had liberated us,” says Hamid al-Arssan, deputy chairman of the Fallujah city council, sitting in his office, which overlooks the infamous bridge. “But they dismantled services with no future plan.”
Fallujah now has fresher traumas. ISIS-affiliated groups seized the city in January 2014. While most people fled the city, nearly 60,000 endured more than two years under ISIS rule. For those who -remained, the risks were lethal.
In June 2014, as Iraqi forces fought to retake the city, Soufian Kher Allan Mohsen, 52, piled his wife and five children into a car to leave. It was a fateful decision. On the edge of town, a missile exploded near his vehicle, killing his wife and three of his children. Mohsen was badly injured, with his left arm mangled and his face disfigured. A former professional handball player, he now works in a store selling bird-hunting gear. He describes his life as a grim psychological struggle. Months ago, he applied to the government for compensation for his dead family members. “They gave me a receipt, but I’ve had no answer,” he says, as he flips through pictures on his phone, showing his wife lying dead in a blue and gold headscarf and his 17-year-old son’s corpse on a gurney.
As Iraq emerges from the fog of another war, the damage is not only to buildings and infrastructure. That, in the end, is reparable with enough money. The ravaged psyches and the cycle of hatred could prove far more difficult and lengthy to fix.
For now, Iraqis appear weary of conflict and desperate for peace. “We have given a lot of sacrifices in this war to push the terrorists out,” al-Abadi says. ISIS, he adds, “caused millions of displaced people. They killed many people.” Just another in a chain of events—the unforeseen consequences—that followed the night the first U.S. bombs fell on Baghdad 15 years ago.