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Iraq war trauma still fresh, but 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion, for many there's at least hope

20 years since U.S.-led invasion of Iraq
Returning to Baghdad 20 years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 06:02

Baghdad — Monday marks 20 years since the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Twenty years since U.S. airstrikes and cruise missiles lit up the night skies over Baghdad in an opening salvo of "shock and awe."

"Operation Iraqi Freedom" quickly led to the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. But the war claimed the lives of about 4,500 U.S. service members and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

President George W. Bush's justification for the war rested on the claim that Hussein had "weapons of mass destruction." Those weapons were never found, but the war had a massive impact on the lives of millions of Iraqis almost from the moment American ground troops started converging on the capital.

U.S. Marines chain the head of a statue of Saddam Hussein before pulling it down in Baghdad's al-Fardous square April 9, 2003, while an Iraqi waves the U.S. flag. RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images

Just a few weeks into the invasion, a group of Iraqi civilians gathered around a towering statue of Hussein in Baghdad and attacked it, venting years of pent-up frustration at the dictator. Television cameras captured the event and broadcast it live around the world as a unit of U.S. Marines tied a rope around the statue and yanked it over.

The Iraqi crowd beat it with sticks and shoes and then dragged its decapitated head through the streets. While the man himself wouldn't be captured until December of that year, that moment came to symbolize the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

But the battle for Iraq had only just begun. Removing Hussein from power sparked a ferocious insurgency and a long and bloody sectarian conflict.

CBS News journalists reflect on covering the Iraq War, 20 years after it began 03:44

"We've been through a lot," said Ahmed al-Jaboury, who was only 13 when his country was invaded. Over the next few years, he "saw things no one should see… lived days no one should live."

His wife Muhja was just nine when the war started. She said at first, there was hope for a better life. But for Ahmed and Muhja, like millions of people across the country, hope quickly gave way to despair.

Kidnappings and bombings became a daily occurrence as the al Qaeda branch in the country grew stronger. That group eventually morphed into the terrorist organization known as ISIS, which the U.S. would spend almost a decade fighting in Iraq, neighboring Syria and elsewhere — a fight that continues today.

"One day I opened the door, waiting for my friend to go to school, I found two kids, maybe four or five years old, in front of our house," remembered al-Jaboury. Both of the young children were dead.

Muhja experienced similar horror.

Ahmed and Muhja al-Jaboury speak with CBS News at their home in Baghdad, Iraq, just ahead of March 20, 2023 - 20 years after the U.S.-led invasion began to topple Saddam Hussein. CBS News

"My mom was taking me to school," she recalled. "We saw dogs eating dead bodies. I will never forget that in my life."

"The whole situation was critical," said al-Jaboury. "Scary, yeah, of course, because, like, you open the door and there's like 10, 15 soldiers in the door, just looking at you. So, it's very intimidating."

"After 2006, 2007, things started to get better, maybe for three or four years," he said. But then, "ISIS came."

"At that time, we didn't know what to do. We didn't expect anything from our future, because the future can go very bad very quickly."

He said it felt like his country would always be at war.

People walk and shop at the Shorja market in the center of Iraq's capital Baghdad, March 19, 2023. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty

Today, Baghdad looks and feels more secure. 

The capital's shops and markets bustle. Most of the concrete blast walls and barbed wire are gone. Many Iraqis say they're determined to put the country's troubled, bloody history behind them. 

 U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Alina Romanowski, on a visit to Washington D.C., told CBS News that while "there's still much more that all of us could be doing," she believes Iraq is "on a cautiously optimistic path."

"I think there are a number of things that are working now. First of all, I think you have a government [of Iraq] that is committed to improving the lives and the services for Iraqi people," Romanowski said. "I think also it is a government that is very clearly interested in building a future for Iraq."

There are still some serious challenges ahead. Iran's influence in the country continues to be a problem, and 2,500 U.S. troops are still in Iraq. The top U.S. general in the country told CBS News their primary role now is to ensure that ISIS can't regroup to launch a new attack.

Iraq faces political turmoil as leaders try to form new coalition government 04:14

For a generation of Iraqis who've grown up during the various grim chapters of the devastating war, it can be hard to let hope overcome fear.

"I'm waiting for the next thing to happen," al-Jaboury told CBS News. "Every day we wake up in the morning and you expect the worst. Every single day."

"Always after a bright day, disaster will come. That's why we are afraid of these bright days," he said. "We still don't have electricity. We still don't have a good internet connection… The infrastructure is getting worse and worse and worse." 

Despite the lingering fear, the couple got married in October and they're expecting their first baby in September, and they're determined to stay in Baghdad.

"The current government is doing something for the situation. Maybe not perfectly, but they are doing something," accepted al-Jaboury. "Still, this is just a hope for a brighter future."

"Right now, in my opinion, the change that has happened in Iraq up until now, was indeed for the better," Muhja said. "There are many things that make me think that. Our situation is better... we are now more open to the world."

After decades of bloodshed and sanctions, it may still take years to build a peaceful future for Iraq's people. But for the first time in a very long time, there is at least hope.

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