Another slip bore a message of hope. It said simply, "Yes Amreeka."
But it's never that simple in Iraq.
Certainly, many Iraqis wanted to be rid of Saddam. They so desperately wanted what America was promising -- democracy and freedom. But their desire was tinged with a deep-seated fear and mistrust of the United States.
Few could have imagined back then just what America's democracy project would do to their nation. How all that was familiar would be ripped away, how violence would tear communities apart, how society would have to adapt to another brand of evil more terrifying than the fear under Saddam -- one they didn't know how to navigate.
The elation coupled with shock that so many felt as Saddam's statue came tumbling down -- the hope that suddenly a world of opportunities would open -- evaporated almost as quickly as the regime collapsed.
The toppling of the statue in a Baghdad square in April 2003 should have ushered in a vibrant Iraq as the Bush administration promised. Instead, it stands as the pivotal point of lost opportunity. The United States, with no post-war plan, was helpless to prevent the country from falling into chaos.
Devastating mistakes by the U.S. administration in Iraq -- such as disbanding the Iraqi army and the de-Baathification campaign -- alienated a sizeable chunk of the population and lay the groundwork for the Sunni insurgency. Shia militias emerged and thrived.
Ten years on, the war has left more than 134,000 Iraqis and 4,800 Americans dead and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It has left in its wake a nation whose government tends to look to the east -- meaning Iran -- a state the United States cannot rely upon as an ally.
Iraq has been through so much over the last 10 years: Everything that every resident knew to be normal was crushed, tearing down the very fabric, the very essence of society.
Baghdad was home for me, my permanent base, from 2003 to 2010, and since then I have taken or created every opportunity to return. It is something I have had to fight for at times, a battle fueled by -- yes -- my attachment to the country and its people. But also by a fundamental belief that we cannot abandon the story of Iraq, of how it plays into the region's current dynamics and the changes sweeping the Middle East. Nor can we abandon the Iraqi people -- a people still paying the price for a war in which they had no say, a war for them that has not yet ended.
It is their stories I want to share 10 years on because even today the effects of the war and the mistakes America made still linger -- wearing on people to such a degree that many don't recognize their country, don't recognize their countrymen, don't recognize themselves.
To survive the war, when the violence was at its worst, many residents carried two IDs -- one Sunni, one Shia -- to cross front lines. Trash collectors were executed in public because they worked for the government. Religious extremists forced hair salons to shut down, murdering anyone they deemed not "conservative" enough.
Mosques, churches, markets -- everything -- became a target.
The U.S. administration for years continued to insist there was "progress" in Iraq, until the violence became so rampant and widespread there was no denying it anymore.
And the outside world was quickly gripped with "Iraq fatigue." It was the war everyone just wanted to forget. The war that worsened by the day for those who did not have that luxury, for whom there was no escape.
An innocence lost
Ahmed was just 12 when he saw his first street killing. Al Qaeda had taken over his Baghdad neighborhood, and every day at dusk, as the call to prayer would echo across the square, so too would the sound of executions.
At first, Ahmed was plagued with nightmares. But then the killings just became normal, part of the everyday routine.
"When they dragged [the victim] out of the car they would just shoot and leave," Ahmed told me. "He would bleed until he died and the body would stay three to four days until the dogs ate it or the guards at night would take it away to the hospital."
I met Ahmed for the first time on my trip back to Baghdad this year. In the square where he first saw executions, children now play soccer. But the neighborhood is still dangerous; for his safety we're not using his real name.
I was taken aback by how soft-spoken, polite and yet clearly tormented he is. He and his friends were so young they didn't know what death meant: "It was only later that I learned what death was, what al Qaeda was."
They still talk about what they witnessed. Ahmed's goal now at 18: to get out of Iraq, to save what is left of his soul and humanity.
That's not what he -- and millions of others -- dreamt of when the war began, before all the atrocities.
Day after day we journalists tried to condense the intensity, complexity and tragedy that is Iraq into our stories. At one point, just the number of unidentified bodies in Baghdad averaged 3,000 a month. How many times we must have used the phrase, "Bodies bearing signs of torture were found."
It became part of Iraq's daily reporting routine, a phone call made at the end of the day to get that body count, which would then be added to a wire story or rattled off in a live shot.