Little more than a week after Saddam Hussein's government dissolved, this small patch of lawn has become the Iraqi capital's most raucous soapbox. The crowds gather at the foot of a marble pedestal that supported a giant statue of Saddam — until April 9. That's when U.S. Marines rolled tanks into central Baghdad and hauled down the statue with a chain. Its fall unofficially marked the war's stunning end. ( Related story: Thousands plan Shiite pilgrimage )
During decades of Saddam's iron-fisted rule, all public gatherings needed official permission. Very few were allowed. Iraqis who dared to discuss politics or to criticize the government risked imprisonment or death.
But like wine from a bottle uncorked after years, Baghdad residents now pour into the streets to argue over politics with strangers.
"No country in the world changes their government like this!" Abbas Shehab, 43, shouts as he waves his hands in the air. Shehab, an artist, stands in the crowd on the traffic island outside the hotel Thursday afternoon. "It's the people who (should) do it, not a foreign army!"
"God helped us get rid of Saddam! Now we want another government, and we don't want anyone like him," says Arkan Daoud, 24. "We need someone like Nelson Mandela." The crowd cheers in agreement. One person shouts: "Who's our Mandela? Who do we know like that?"
Then the crowd notices that a foreign journalist is listening.
"You're American?" asks Haitem Jabbar, 28. "We don't want you Americans to govern us. We thank Mr. Bush, but we don't want the (U.S.) Army here."
The traffic island isn't the only place in Baghdad where people are talking freely these days. In several neighborhoods in this city of nearly 5 million, groups of people gathered Thursday over coffee, at card tables and along riverbanks to talk about the events that have transformed their lives in less than a month.
"We've been meeting on this corner for years, but we've never dared to talk about things," Arsalan Adnan, 31, says. He sits playing dominoes with three friends on a street corner of a west Baghdad neighborhood called Adamiyah. About 30 men around them are deep in discussion about whether Saddam is dead. They can't agree on an answer to that question, but they do agree on something else: "We feel like we've been let out of prison," Adnan says. "We can talk about anything."
A few blocks away, on a bank of the Tigris River, about 30 men gather to talk about how to start repairing their broken city, where basic services such as public water and electricity have been out for two weeks. Some decided to start clearing the river bank of debris so people can get down to the water to do their washing.
It is the lack of basic services that spurs most complaints. "If the Americans don't get the electricity back on, we will take to the streets and fight them!" says Waffi Mahmoud Aswan, 42, an accountant standing on the corner in Adamiyah. "At least with Saddam, there was order in the city." Armed gangs have looted and razed hundreds of building across Baghdad.
Back outside the Palestine Hotel, about 100 people gather at a barbed-wire barrier set up by U.S. Marines to protect the block. Most foreign journalists in the city are staying in the hotel, and politicians back from exile have been meeting inside.
The people outside know the media and Iraqi leaders are in the hotel. "I've been here for six hours. We've all come to talk about our future," says Amer Noel Dawood, 43, who worked as a government communications technician before the war. "When Americans came here, they had no plan for Iraq's future. We need jobs. We need water. We need electricity."
For more than three decades, Saddam's government provided all services to Iraqis. Education and health care were free. Millions worked in civil service jobs. All that is now gone, which has left people with little means of self-support. Many Iraqis hope that the U.S. forces occupying Baghdad will be able to replace some of what they've lost.
Listening to Dawood's complains, U.S. Marine Cpl. Kalo Vass from Redmond, Wash., says: "We're helping you guys. You've just got to be patient."
Despite the many complaints and worries, some in the crowd admit that they enjoy simply gathering in the street.
"This is the first time in my life that I've been able to do this," Jabber says. "We have the freedom to speak."