BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The irony is enormous. More than 200,000 American forces topple one of the world's most hated and tyrannical dictators. In short order, however, the liberators are seen as the occupiers -- targeted and reviled by many of the people they came to free.
Iraqis say a long list of ill-advised American moves fueled an insurgency, created chaos and plowed the ground for today's harvest of terrorism.
The occupation formally ends Wednesday and some Iraqis already are wondering whether the pain and anguish of 14 months of American rule will be remembered more fondly than Saddam Hussein's brutal 23 years in power.
Iraqis say some of U.S. policies bred hatred for the Americans and broadened the appeal of the insurgency. Others say they created a culture of violence that may take years, or maybe decades, to dismantle. Pessimists believe they may not see peace again in their lifetime.
The frustration felt by Iraqis has been deepened by the failure of the U.S.-led occupation to secure essential services, especially electricity, and recent disclosures that Iraqi detainees were abused and sexually humiliated by their American guards.
"It would seem that the Americans are not familiar with Iraq, the mentality and customs of its people," said Abdul-Ghafour al-Samrai, a senior Sunni Muslim cleric. "They followed base and provocative policies that won them enemies and revenge-seekers."
Resentment toward the "liberators" has been fed by some of the practices of the U.S. military -- like detaining women, searching private homes and the accidental killing of Iraqis. An Iraqi tendency to exaggerate and indulge in conspiracy theories has helped fuel such negative feelings too.
Bashing America or blaming it for the ills of their society or economy has become almost a tradition to many Arabs for decades. Iraq is no exception, and many here often forget to mention that the removal of Saddam has given them the kind of freedoms that, while not entirely unbridled, are hard to find in the rest of the Arab world.
"When difficulties persist, it is natural for people to express resentment at those in authority -- especially when the latter are foreign powers exercising authority as an occupier," Peter W. Rodman, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told a House subcommittee June 15. "It is no surprise that there is a desire in Iraq to see an early end to occupation. We share that desire."
Failure to prevent the looting and arson that swept most of Iraq in wake of Saddam's downfall is often cited as the first of America's mistakes in Iraq. Insurgents are believed to be killing American soldiers with arms and ammunition stolen from military depots.
"The American decision not to intervene and stop the looting has laid the foundation for kidnappings, murder and thefts that we suffer from today," said lawyer Diaa al-Saadi.
Next on the list comes the disbanding of the army, a 400,000-strong outfit that many believe could have served as an effective force for law and order. The decision to purge the state of former members of Saddam's Baath party is another that critics cite as a negative part of the occupation legacy.
"Making hundreds of thousands of soldiers -- who had taken their weapons home with them -- redundant, was obviously not a recipe for stability," Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
The de-Baathification policy has meant that hundreds of thousands of qualified Iraqis who had no choice but to enroll in the Baath to secure a livelihood under Saddam could not contribute to Iraq's reconstruction effort.
L. Paul Bremer, the American occupation governor, has ordered the reinstatement of many Baathists in their jobs. The government of Iyad Allawi, to which Bremer will hand power on Wednesday, plans to invite back to active service entire units from Saddam's army to fight the insurgency and capture terrorists.
However, some say the move may be too late.
The insurgency in Sunni areas west and north of the capital as well as in Baghdad is believed to be masterminded by former senior army officers and fought in large part by junior and noncommissioned officers. Baathist professionals, like doctors and school teachers, are believed to have sought employment outside Iraq.
The lack of security has had a devastating impact on the life of Iraqis and, in turn, intensified charges that the Americans were to blame.
Thousands, mostly civilians, have been killed over the past year in suicide car bombings, attacks on security forces or just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of Iraq's cities now resemble communities under siege, with many becoming deserted at night.
Concrete blast barriers, coils of barbed wire and sand-filled bags are everywhere in Iraq. Grim signs warning that "deadly force" will be used against those approaching military camps or coalition offices exemplify the precarious security and the heavy-handed methods it has given rise to. Hardly a neighborhood in Baghdad is without a site of destruction, either from the post-Saddam violence or the U.S.-led bombing campaign of last year's war.
Unemployment is said to be around 30 percent, power outages last longer than they did a month ago and waiting for hours in gas lines has become routine.
The almost daily carnage in Iraq has led some to talk with a hint of nostalgia about life under Saddam when they could walk the streets anytime without fear. But -- just as many Russians still look back fondly on the rule of Josef Stalin when millions are said to have been killed -- they don't mention the brutal nature of the Saddam regime, held responsible for the disappearance or murder of tens of thousands of Iraqis.