BAGHDAD — It was sunset, and the pedestrian-only streets around Baghdad's famous double-domed Kadhemiya shrine were clogged with Iraqi families and Iranian pilgrims shopping, eating popcorn or making their way toward the glittery sanctuary.
The only signs that nearly a decade of war and occupation had interrupted such leisurely evenings were the concrete blast walls surrounding the shrine and a cluster of Iraqi soldiers wearing castoff gear as they lounged in an office of the militant anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
Then a terrifying noise — more a loud click than a boom — scattered the pigeons and set off a stampede among panicked worshipers who'd been crowding the entrance of the shrine. When they realized moments later that the disturbance had been just a large generator switching on, people in the crowd laughed and cracked jokes about being scared of even balloons.
An Iraqi politician's face darkened the next day when I recounted the bomb-scare episode during a tour of his family's centuries-old gardens.
"You have to find the fly in the ointment," he complained, before switching the talk back to date palms and orange blossoms.
Iraqi leaders are trying their best to prove wrong all the naysayers who predicted that the U.S. military's withdrawal last December would precipitate the country's immediate collapse and de facto annexation to Iran. They tout a decline in terrorist attacks, vibrant entrepreneurship and, above all, the recent Arab summit, which was billed as Shiite-led Iraq's return to the region's mostly Sunni Arab fold.
However, 10 days in Baghdad, after an absence of more than a year, made it apparent that post-American Iraq remains an unstable, deeply sectarian state that's verging on authoritarianism under the veneer of a U.S.-friendly Muslim democracy.
Many Iraqis — Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds alike — fear that the U.S. withdrawal has given Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a conservative Shiite Islamist, free rein to consolidate power and turn himself into an intractable strongman.
Those worries were only compounded when the White House last month named Brett McGurk the new U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. As adviser to the past three envoys, McGurk had garnered a reputation among Iraqi political elites as a die-hard Maliki booster who turns a blind eye to the prime minister's emerging dictatorial streak.
"They basically sent someone from Maliki's office," one Sunni politician grumbled privately about the Obama administration's choice.
Iraqi officials emphasized the fact that the Arab League, the region's premier diplomatic organization, had convened its annual summit in Baghdad late last month. They said it was a sign that Iraq was back in the Arab fold after decades of isolation from its neighbors during more than eight years of American occupation. That made the conference's price tag — in excess of $500 million — worth every penny.
Iraq was back, leaders declared, ready to stake its place in a region teetering between the old authoritarian order and untested revolutionary movements.
Ah, spring! remarked one Iraqi journalist, taking in the mild weather after undergoing a search by a bomb-sniffing dog outside the summit.
Yeah, Arab Spring, another Iraqi replied sarcastically, watching the invasive security procedures of his countrys paranoid, fragile government.