Reuters file
Iraqi boys play soccer in front of smoke from raging oil fires billowing above Baghdad on March 28, 2003.
By Richard Engel Chief foreign correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/19/2004 9:10:43 AM ET 2004-03-19T14:10:43

I started to seriously doubt Iraqi construction standards when the Palestine hotel in Baghdad started swaying during the U.S. bombing campaign on the third night of the war. 

It felt like a giant sleeping under the city of 5.5 million was turning over in its sleep, jostling the buildings above. 

I was sitting on a small gas-powered generator on my balcony on the 14th floor as I watched the bombs strike building after building like lightning bolts.

My concerns were, roughly in this order: is the poorly-built hotel going to snap and fall over? Are the Iraqi government agents staying in the hotel going to burst into my room and arrest me for being an American? Are many Iraqis out there dying?  What's going to happen to me tomorrow when I wade out into the Iraqi streets?  What time do I have to file my next report?

War, what war?
At first the Iraqi people, long trained by their tyrannical government not to express any interest in politics or military affairs, pretended not to notice the war. 

State radio encouraged people to go shopping and live their lives "as normal."  No curfew was ever issued in Baghdad throughout the war. 

His Excellency the Leader President, the Faithful Holy Warrior, Saddam Hussein, Commander of the Heroic Armed Forces (as he officially introduced by the state media) didn't want panic or riots. 

The official Iraqi position eventually became ridiculous, however, when the information minister, Mohammed al-Shahaf, an irascible, bespectacled man with a booming nasal voice and a very low boiling point, tried to sell his propaganda to the world.

"Are you considering surrender?" reporters asked al-Sahaf on April 8, 2003, as we saw U.S. tanks rumbling along the western banks of the Tigris River behind him. He crumpled his nose and replied disdainfully that the American "imperialist mercenaries" were nowhere near Baghdad's city limits. 

The next day, the rest of Baghdad fell; and like the statue of Saddam, it fell on its face.

Looting broke out like a plague. Crime surged and the Iraqis blamed the Americans for not stopping it; they still do.

An entirely new country
It took several weeks for a semblance of calm to return, and when it did, it was clear that Iraq was a changed country. 

A member of the Iraqi governing council -- the group of 25 politicians, intellectuals, tribal elders, and religious leaders the U.S. appointed to manage Iraq's transition to democratic self-rule -- told me that in his opinion the Americans thought they could wipe out Saddam's regime and replace it with a new one. But, as he said, they weren't counting on the entire social structure in Iraq collapsing.

After the war, it was clear the Americans weren't just building a new government, but forging an entirely new country.

At first, the American soldiers were uncomfortable in their new role. 

They didn't want to be police. They didn't speak Arabic or understand why the Iraqis weren't more appreciative of what they'd done. The troops had fought hard, won a war, and now wanted to go home -- feelings that became stronger during the summer when temperatures in Baghdad soared over 120 degrees and when guerrilla attacks began in earnest. 

Slideshow: Wounded in the line of duty Eventually, however, the troops did adapt to the new role, understanding they weren't just soldiers anymore, but state-builders too; and increasingly the troops were told they were on the frontline of the war on terrorism. 

Foreign militants, some of them members of al-Qaida, most thinking like al-Qaida, did start crossing into Iraq, joining forces with local radical groups often led by supporters of the former regime. The militants homemade bombs and rocket launchers have taken a heavy toll; more than 400 soldiers have been killed since President Bush declared the end of major combat on May 1, 2003.

There have been high points for the troops too: the siege of Saddam's sons, the capture of the dictator himself, and the many acts of kindness carried out by individual soldiers and commanders, who have handed out toys for Christmas, or simply, as I saw one soldier do the other day, take an old woman by the hand and help her wade though Baghdad's unforgiving traffic. 

Starting to stand again
There have been political upheavals too - a quiet revolution -- over the last year. 

As the Americans have been battling the insurgents, nearly all of them Sunni Muslims like Saddam, Shiite Muslims, 60 percent of the population, have been making a power play unprecedented in Iraq's modern history. 

I saw it begin on the day Baghdad fell. The crowd tugging down the statue of Saddam was made up of nearly all Shiite Muslims. As they dragged Saddam's broken effigy through the streets, they cheered "Long Live Sadr!" referring to a Shiite cleric Saddam had assassinated in 1999.

While the Sunnis chose to oppose the Americans, the Shiites - led by their religious leaders -- welcomed them, focusing their energy on rebuilding Shiite religious and social institutions, long repressed by Saddam. 

The religious Shiites first course of action was to revitalize what's known as the Howza, a network of seminaries based in Najaf, the Shiite spiritual capital south of Baghdad. 

It would be members of these religious schools who would guard hospitals, distribute food and water to poor families, and even direct traffic in the chaotic months after the combat phase of the war.  Slideshow: Year of conflict

One year later, the leader of the Howza, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is arguably the single most powerful man in Iraq, with more influence than the chief U.S. administrator Paul Bremer. 

As the Shiite's influence grows, their leaders have also increasingly grown at odds with U.S. plans to create a new government in Iraq based on power sharing between the three largest groups in the country: Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. 

Al-Sistani's continued opposition to Iraq's interim constitution signed on March 8, for example, is only the latest indication that there are still many battles ahead for control of the next Iraqi government.

Richard Engel is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Baghdad. He just published a book, "A Fist in the Hornet's Nest, On the ground in Baghdad before, during, and after the war."

Video: A family's story


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