"With Saddam gone, at least there's hope."
"It's hard to even think about what it used to be like before," said Abdul-Karim Mahdi, a 45-year-old employee of the Ministry of Public Works.
"We used to live in fear. We used to unplug the phones whenever we talked with each other inside the house. With Saddam gone, at least there's hope."
Two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, his entrenched government and social order, the outlines of the country's future are beginning to emerge.
With a newly elected parliament in a position to maneuver a radically transformed nation, Iraqis enter their third year of a new era hardened by two years of violence.
Iraq's Shi'ites have waited 1,000 years for power, first under the Ottoman caliphate, next under the Sunni-led monarchy established by the British and finally under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam.
For the smart and energetic, the new era has meant new opportunities for riches and growth.
Mohammed Sabah was oblivious to the rains last week outside his office on Sanaa Street, Iraq's equivalent to Silicon Valley. He was too busy cutting computer-networking cables and punching numbers.
The 27-year-old networking maestro, his gold wedding ring still gleaming from his recent marriage, boasted that he and his partner earn more putting together computer systems for new companies, and the new government, than any of the ministers in the government.
The biggest deals for Byte Matrix, his company, included a $10,000 contract with Baghdad International Airport and a $40,000 deal for Iraqna, the cell-phone company.
Despite occasional kidnappings for ransom, armed robberies and hijackings of trucking shipments, business and technology in Iraq is moving quickly ahead.
"At the time of Saddam, we were 100 years behind and now, we are 200 years ahead," he said. "We are moving along side by side with the latest technologies. Whatever new science is out there, we can get it daily."
Now, the market is wide open, said Safwat Rashid, a wholesaler of hardware and industrial machinery on Rashid Street.
"Before, we couldn't get things from abroad. Now, everything we need, we can get, and at a good price," he said.
Despite grinding poverty among many, Iraq two years after the war finds itself in many ways a wealthier place than under the last years of Saddam. Back then, middle-class families were forced to sell off family heirlooms to pay the rent.
Now, salaries have increased 20- and 30-fold among ministry employees. By some estimates, the number of cars on the streets of the Iraqi capital has tripled.
Iraqi households now have satellite television.
Rain floods the fields of Makaseb, a small farming village just west of the capital, adding to the gloom that descended two years ago and has yet to lift.
Before the war, the Sunni Arab village was a favored resting stop for Saddam, who trusted its residents so much he used to wander over from one of his palaces nearby unaccompanied by his ordinary retinue of bodyguards.
He so loved Makaseb — perhaps because it reminded him of his birthplace in a small village near Tikrit — that he showered locals with cash, gifts, privileges and jobs.
"My president," began Dr. Ahmad Alwash Shalaan, a physician who lives here with his family, "used to visit us and give everyone money. He used to give the young people work on his farms."
But with Saddam and his largess gone, the village is fading away. "Now, about 90 percent of the people from Makaseb no longer work here," he said. "The village has been changed forever."