Fourth Installment of "Where Things Stand" in Iraq

Such optimism covers nearly the entire range of living conditions -- significant improvements are seen in medical care, water quality and even in terms of security. This last finding was perhaps most striking: six in 10 Iraqis now say they feel safe in their neighborhoods. The only real exceptions to this optimism in our quality-of-life metrics involve electricity and the availability of jobs.

The bad news: First, while Iraqis are optimistic about their own future, they are actually pessimistic when it comes to the future of their nation.

Only 44 percent of Iraqis say they believe things are going well in their country; 52 percent said they felt the country was "doing badly." Support for the U.S.-led invasion has dropped: In February 2004, 39 percent of Iraqis told us they believed the invasion was wrong, but today that number stands at 50 percent. Even among optimistic Iraqis it appears the U.S. gets little credit for any improvements in their lives. Fewer than one in five Iraqis believes that U.S. reconstruction efforts have been "effective." Most Iraqis now say they "disapprove strongly" of how the U.S. has operated in Iraq. Not surprisingly, the percentage of Iraqis today who oppose the U.S. presence has spiked -- from 51 percent to 65 percent.

The second caveat involves a sectarian divide that has become a chasm.

Virtually all signs of optimism vanish when one is interviewing Iraq's Sunni Muslims. There's more on this in the Local Government section of the report; suffice for now to cite a pair of poll results. While 54 percent of Shia Muslims believe the country is in better shape than it was before the war, only 7 percent of Sunnis believe the same. Optimism about security -- 80 percent of Shias and 94 percent of Kurds say they feel safer -- is absent among Sunnis. Only 11 percent of Iraq's Sunni Muslims say they feel safer than they did under Saddam.

Overall, there is a Rorshach-test quality to all this. One could easily sift through the research and field reporting and conclude that Iraq is in danger of collapse; one could almost as easily glean from the same data that there is great cause for optimism.

At the heart of the "collapse" scenario is a litany of dashed hopes. Many Iraqis cannot understand why -- two-and-a-half years after the Americans arrived -- electricity and sewage are not more reliable, why more reconstruction projects have not reached their neighborhoods, why corruption remains so prevalent and why their local (and in many cases democratically elected) officials have not changed things for the better.

Yet there are ample reasons for optimism: The burgeoning commerce that now touches nearly all corners of the country; an economy growing, thanks in part to the high price of oil; per-capita income up 60 percent, to $263 per month; improvements in health care and education; and the widely held belief that next week's elections will make a positive difference. Seventy-six percent of Iraqis told us they were "confident" the elections would produce a "stable government" -- and despite the sectarian divisions, few Iraqis express concern about civil war.

As far as security goes, there is one more paradox. On the one hand, the proliferation of militia in some cities and towns has unnerved people, and it may prove destabilizing in the long term. On the other, in some places we found people crediting these same guards and gunmen with having improved the safety of their communities.

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