Fourth Installment of "Where Things Stand" in Iraq

This is the fourth installment of "Where Things Stand" -- ABC News' effort to take stock of how life has changed for Iraqis since March 2003 when U.S. troops invaded Iraq. We believe this to be the first reliable national poll conducted in Iraq since June 2004.

What We Have Done

As in past years we are trying to help our audience -- and ourselves -- to understand whether Iraq and its people are in better or worse shape than they were prior to the U.S.-led invasion. At a time when "progress in Iraq" has become such an integral part of the political debate in this country (a not always well-informed debate), taking such measurements seems particularly important. Are Iraqis better off now than before the war? Have their lives improved in tangible, quantifiable ways? Are they optimistic about the future? Such questions are what this project is all about.

This is the fourth installment of "Where Things Stand." This time we faced a number of challenges and almost abandoned the project altogether -- because so much of Iraq continues to be a no-go area for our reporters. In the end, we managed to canvass the country in different ways.

ABC News, in partnership with Time magazine, the BBC, Japanese news service NHK and Germany's Der Spiegel newspaper, sponsored a rare and exclusive nationwide poll in Iraq. Conducted by Oxford Research International, the poll of 1,711 Iraqis represents a true nationwide survey of Iraqi opinion. We asked Iraqis about electricity supplies and local security, about the United States, the Iraqi constitution, the upcoming elections, and much more. Well-trained Iraqi fieldworkers interviewed people in 135 different locations around the country. Using the ABC News poll conducted in 2004, we were able to track how opinions have changed over the last 18 months.

We also partnered with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, an organization that trains local journalists in conflict zones (more about the IWPR below). We interviewed and vetted 12 of their reporters, provided them with digital video cameras, and dispatched them -- in six teams of two -- to points across the north, south and central parts of the country. These teams, together with ABC News correspondents and other Iraqi stringers, visited nearly all of Iraq's main regions and cities, collecting stories and videotape wherever they went. They traveled more than 3,000 miles, through a dozen provinces, and interviewed more than 1,000 Iraqis throughout the country.

The poll and the IWPR teams are complemented by a research effort conducted here in New York -- combining interviews with experts, conversations with groups working on reconstruction in Iraq, and assessments of other surveys and research done in Iraq over the past year. On the eve of Iraq's Dec. 15 election for 230 seats in the National Assembly, this reporting offers a broad sense of how Iraqis around the country feel about their lives, about the future and about the vote itself.

What We Found

This latest report is filled with surprises -- and some fascinating paradoxes.

Iraqis are far more optimistic about their individual circumstances than when we last asked these questions; seven in 10 now say their lives are going well, and two in three believe things will improve in the coming year.

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.

Above all, we were struck -- as we have been in previous installments of this series -- by the stoicism and faith of the Iraqi people. Time and again, Iraqis listed their troubles and itemized their complaints only to finish with bold expressions of hope. We met a young man in a Baghdad park named Murtada Mohammed. After telling us how poor services were in his neighborhood, how hard it was to afford goods and then how often he feels fear in his daily life, he finished this way: "Tomorrow will be better -- I know it."

Our poll suggests that there are a great many Iraqis -- across the country, and from many walks of life -- who are like Murtada Mohammed.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting is an international media development charity, based in London and Washington. It aims to strengthen local journalism in crisis-ridden countries by training reporters to be independent journalists. It often collaborates with international and regional media to transfer skills and experience.

The 12 reporters who worked with ABC News volunteered for the project. ABC News paid them a salary and expenses during the reporting period.

The assessments below were derived from a combination of data -- the poll, the IWPR and other reporting, ABC News' own reporting, and the research gathered over the last several months.

Questions were framed with pre-invasion Iraq (i.e., before March 2003) as the baseline. The region described as "central" corresponds roughly to Baghdad and the so-called "Sunni Triangle."

Where Things Stand - Assessments

1) SECURITY

North: Better

Central: Worse

South: Better

Security remains far and away the primary concern for Iraqis; 57 percent say it's what matters most. (The next closest category -- "getting the U.S. out of Iraq" -- draws just 10 percent.) Anecdotally, we continue to hear nightmarish stories about the lack of security -- and important ways in which this problem permeated so many walks of life. And yet the overall numbers -- in the north and south in particular -- suggest that the situation has actually improved.

Sixty-one percent of Iraqis now say they feel security is better than it was before the war; that represents a 12 percent increase since we last asked, and a fairly startling counterweight to the prevalent view in the press. Having said that, these numbers are driven almost entirely by Shiites and Kurds who were treated so brutally under Saddam Hussein. By contrast, among Iraq's Sunnis -- for whom "security" was almost ironclad under Saddam -- a whopping 90 percent report their security is worse today. In 2005, the majority of insurgent attacks have been concentrated in four of Iraq's 18 provinces, which are home to roughly 45 percent of the country's population: Ninevah, Al Anbar, Baghdad and Salah ah Din. Attacks have focused primarily on members of the Iraqi Security Forces, members of the Multinational Forces, Iraqi civilians and government officials -- as well as foreign diplomatic and media personnel.

Iraqis who do not feel safe tell us they take a variety of measures to protect themselves. Sixty-seven percent say they avoid U.S. forces; one in two stays clear of checkpoints if possible; and 43 percent are careful about what they say in public. Again, these are figures for Iraqis who say they feel less safe than before.

The impact of security shortfalls remains significant. Violence has hampered reconstruction, in western and central Iraq in particular, and it has meant that badly needed funds for electricity, clean water, education and salaries for health care professionals are spent instead on security. In one stunning measure of "Where Things Stand" in Iraq we found that as of October 2005, approximately $5 billion of the $18.4 billion appropriated by the U.S. Congress for reconstruction in Iraq had been diverted to security needs.

Many parents have become more afraid to allow their children, girls in particular, to attend school, and some Iraqis are too frightened even to visit the doctor when sick.

As mentioned briefly in the introduction, a strange calm pervades some cities where local militias have seized power. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Karbala, a major city in southern Iraq where such militia appear to have infiltrated the police and security forces. It's a development that outsiders, and some locals, view with fear and dismay -- how, after all, can the true authorities hold power and garner respect when bands of armed men outside the government set up checkpoints and rule the streets? Yet many locals -- in Karbala at least -- report that these militias have improved security. An "iron hand" may be at work, and it may be a fleeting calm, but for the moment it is noticed and appreciated.

A final note: The reach of the insurgency was felt by one of our IWPR reporters. While Mustafa Magid Al Dory was filming, he received word that his father, a mechanic, had been shot to death as he drove home. ABC News producer Bruno Roeber reports that Mustafa finished his work, including a visit to the ABC Baghdad bureau to brief the staff on his own reporting. He was distraught but determined -- and as Bruno put it, Mustafa seemed to "exemplify the stoicism of so many Iraqis." Just as the police recruits continue to line up for work in places that have been targeted repeatedly, Mustafa felt -- to use an overused cliché -- that life must go on.

The hope of course is that the political process, which has taken dramatic steps forward in the last year, ultimately will marginalize the insurgents, and that the continued training of Iraqi soldiers and police officers will ultimately yield a force that can effectively combat the foreign jihadists. Optimists note that the insurgents have yet to derail the political process.

Facts & Figures:

Total Iraqi Forces:

December 2003: 162,000 security-related officers

Current: 235,489 security-related officers

Goal: 330,810 security-related officers

Strength of Insurgency Nationwide (Estimate)

November 2003: 5,000

January 2005: 18,000

October 2005: 15,000 to 20,000

Source: Brookings Institution, Iraq Index

Click here for more facts on Iraq by the Brookings Institution.

Iraqi Police and Military Killed:

Jan.-Nov. 2005: 2,209

2003-2005: 1,300

Sources: Iraqi Interior Ministry, Iraq Coalition Casualty Count

Click here for more on Iraqi casualties.

Iraqi Civilians Killed: March 2003 to November 2005:

Estimates range from 10,183 to 30,163 Sources: Iraq Body Count; Brookings Institution, Iraq

Click here for more on the Iraq body count.

2) AVAILABILITY of JOBS

North: Better

Central: Worse

South: Same or Worse

This category divides across both sectarian and geographic lines: In central Iraq, with higher percentages of Sunnis, Iraqis say it has become more difficult to find work. There is optimism in the south and still more in the north, where -- as you will see in the Availability of Goods section -- there has been a significant increase in commerce. Overall, however, only 38 percent of Iraqis say that it is easier to find work today than it was before the U.S.-led invasion.

Unemployment overall is difficult to gauge. There is a growing "informal economy," and many Iraqis have taken second jobs. A U.N. survey published in May 2005 put unemployment at 18.4 percent; this is almost certainly a low-end figure. Using a combination of American and Iraqi official data, the Brookings Institution, a generally reliable source for facts and figures about Iraq, suggests nationwide unemployment currently hovers between 27 percent and 40 percent. As a Karbala student told us, "unemployment is another disease" affecting the nation. (It can be a dangerous disease -- American and Iraqi experts report that the unemployed are increasingly being recruited by insurgents, who offer as little as $50 to participate in an attack.)

The work rolls remain decimated because of the purging of the old army and much of the old Baathist apparatus. Whatever the political benefits or costs of that much-debated policy, there is no question that it put a great many Iraqi men out of work. Further, the Iraqi government no longer finds it practical or feasible to employ the sprawling work force that existed during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

The good news here is that per capita income continues to rise, even factoring in the unemployed. As mentioned earlier, our poll finds average monthly income at $263, up roughly 60 percent from February 2004. Essentially, if you have a job in Iraq today, chances are you are getting paid a lot more than you were before the war. Salaries and incentives for government workers, teachers, health care workers and others have continued to rise. Teachers and doctors in particular have remarked on this -- and, not surprisingly, students and patients have noticed commensurate improvements in the quality of teaching and health care.

It is also worth noting that there are all sorts of jobs in Iraq today that simply did not exist before the overthrow of Saddam. The proliferation of media is an obvious example: there are no fewer than 10 commercial television stations, 50 radio stations and 100 independent newspapers and magazines now up and running. Obviously this is more important as an indicator of free speech -- but it also opens up a small labor force that did not exist before. The same is true for theaters and production companies hiring actors and actresses, and paying them well. To take one small example: salaries for actors and actresses in television have increased from U.S. $200 for a 30-episode series to nearly $800.

A final note: efforts are being made by the Iraqi government to lure as many as 5,000 expatriate Iraqis back home to fill vacancies in the country's colleges and universities. Thousands of teaching professionals are believed to have fled Iraq during Saddam's rule, and thousands more left after the U.S-led invasion. Here again, salary increases are in play; teachers who might have earned $50 monthly during Saddam's rule are being offered $500 to $700 a month now.

Facts and Figures

Nationwide Unemployment

June 2003: 50 percent-60 percent

September 2005: 27 percent-40 percent

Source: Brookings Institution, Iraq Index.

Iraq GDP: (U.S. $ billions) 2002: 18.4

2003: 12.6

2004: 25.5 (Estimated)

2005: 29.3 (Projection)

3) ELECTRICITY AND FUEL

North: Same or Worse

Central: Worse

South: Same or Worse

Electricity has, from the beginning, been one of the most tangible and visible ways to assess quality of life in Iraq. By many measures, the availability of electricity has improved in Iraq over the past year -- though reliability remains a problem, and throughout the country we continue to hear the complaint: How can the United States of America not manage to fix this problem?

Many people still spend entire evenings with no electricity. Entrepreneurial-minded Iraqis have bought generators and leased power to their neighborhoods -- only to incur the wrath of neighbors when the generators malfunction. Our team in South Baghdad met Saad Nima Lafta, who has bought a generator -- and a rifle for protection. And in a country where electricity comes at such a premium, so too does something as seemingly simple as ice. Many Iraqis have been using five-pound blocks of ice to help cool perishables such as milk and meat. Grocers have also begun using blocks of ice when the electricity goes out. The cost of ice has increased steadily over the past few years.

The influx of electrical appliances -- satellite dishes and televisions, air conditioners and refrigerators -- has boosted demand exponentially. U.S. and Iraqi officials say that demand is simply growing much more rapidly than electricity can be generated. We are mindful that when people report that their availability of electricity is "worse," this may well reflect the fact that their neighborhood is newly stocked with consumer goods.

According to the United Nations, Baghdad's 6.5 million residents enjoyed an almost continuous supply of electricity prior to the war. Pre-war Baghdad, the seat of Saddam's power, typically received ample electricity during the day because Saddam siphoned electricity away from other regions to use in the capital. Today, power is more evenly distributed, to the chagrin of Baghdad residents in particular.

While rural areas and the Kurdish north are getting more power than ever, central Sunni areas have seen marked declines in power availability due to this reallocation. In July 2005, Iraqi Planning Minister Barham Salih said he expected that every Iraq home and business would have restored electricity by the end of 2005. By all accounts, reaching this goal appears far off. As of late August 2005, Baghdad residents were only receiving two hours of power, followed by four hours of no power, per day, while on average Iraqis across the country had power only 50 percent of the day. Again, available statistics vary.

Insecurity has hurt the electricity grid. Since June 2005, insurgent attacks have blacked out Iraq's electrical grid twice. A U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress in October 2005 blamed low electricity supplies on "terrorist attacks, substandard operations and maintenance practices, increased and unchecked consumer demand, and an infrastructure that has been deteriorating for years."

A final note: Iraq's Ministry of Electricity has been working with neighboring countries to improve the productivity and reliability of its services. For example, the German company Siemens and Syria's Ministry of Electricity have begun installing three power plants in Syria as part of a new electric grid project to serve Iraq. These plants are expected to be operating in 2006.

Facts & Figures: Average Amount of Electricity Generated (Megawatts):

Pre-War (Estimates):

Nationwide: 3,958

Baghdad: 2,500

January 2005:

Nationwide: 3,289

Baghdad: 985

September 2005:

Nationwide: 4,247

Baghdad: NA (last available April 2005: 854)

Source: Brookings Institution, Iraq Index.

Oil Production:

Crude production (millions of barrels/day)

Pre-War: 2.5

September 2005: 2.10

Crude export (millions of barrels/day)

Pre-War: 1.7-2.5

September 2005: 1.38

4) WATER AND SANITATION

North: Better

Central: Worse

South: Same or Worse

We said it last year, but it's worth repeating: Sewage treatment and clean water matter. It may seem obvious -- but of course those of us who take such things for granted may need a reminder of just how vital these quality-of-life indicators are for Iraqis.

We continue to find anecdotal horror stories of "sewage and garbage everywhere," as one resident in Baghdad's Al-Ra'ay district put it. There are children with stomach ailments and skin diseases caused by fouled water in Al Khahlaa, in the south; children at the Alshid Abdul Wahid Elementary School who cannot drink the water or use the bathrooms; and, most poignant of all, the scene our reporters found at a hospital in Baghdad's Sadr City. Here an ambulance had to plow through sewage on its way in and out, and the hospital staff discovered sewage coursing through hospital rooms, and then faced the terrible choice of whether to clean those rooms slowly and inefficiently, or to pump the sewage directly to the city streets. Ultimately hospital administrators and doctors explained their plight to people in the neighborhood; those neighbors understood, and accepted the decision to pump the filth out -- though that meant that sewage soon coursed along their streets. In many parts of the country people have resorted to buying bottled water -- or even Pepsi -- for their children.

And yet -- despite security conditions that have stalled projects and drastically increased costs, there has been progress during the past year in terms of water and sanitation infrastructure. Available potable water has increased since 2003 by 1.58 million cubic meters per day as a result of U.S.-funded projects. Additionally, Iraqi sewage treatment capacity has increased since 2003 by approximately 890,000 cubic meters per day, providing as many as 3.2 million Iraqis with a standard level of service because of U.S.-funded sanitary sewage projects.

The main station that pumps water to Baghdad has been attacked twice in recent months; contractors must now deal with saboteurs and thieves who have shot or drilled holes into the country's water or sewage pipelines. As a result, water pressure drops, and supplies are contaminated -- leading to much more work, and of course more expenditures. By now it is clear that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority's April 2004 objective of providing potable water to 90 percent of Iraq's population was unrealistic -- U.S. officials have acknowledged as much.

Final note: There has been progress in southernmost Iraq, with the restoration of approximately 40 percent of Iraq's fabled marshlands. The marshlands were drained by Saddam Hussein's regime to punish those who supported the 1991 Shiite rebellion. There had been approximately 3,600 square miles of marshes here; by 2002 only 304 square miles remained. Today, there are 1,400 square miles of marshland. As a result of the restoration and newly installed water treatment and sanitation equipment, nearly 20,000 Iraqi "Marsh Arabs" now have access to clean water.

Facts & Figures:

Percentage of Sewage Treated

August 2003: 25 percent

August 2004: 35 percent

August 2005: 50 percent

Source: Brookings Institution, Iraq Index.

Percentage of Homes Connected to Sewer System

Overall: 37 percent

Baghdad: 80 percent

(<10 percent outside of Baghdad)

Source: Brookings Institution, Iraq Index.

5) EDUCATION

North: Better

Central: Better

South: Better

This remains an almost unqualified success story. In all three parts of the country, large majorities of Iraqis told us they believed education had improved -- both in terms of the schools themselves and the quality of teaching.

Today 74 percent of Iraqis say that schools have improved since Saddam Hussein's time; this appears in part a reflection of their happiness that Saddam himself no longer dominates the texts. But teachers are also better paid, and many schools have been spruced up with the help of reconstruction funds.

A visit to a Diwaniyah school was typical: our reporters found praise for teachers and the supply of books, but also criticism because computers and other technical upgrades had been promised and as yet not materialized. The headmaster, Muthanna Abu Teeba, told us salaries had been raised across the board, and that faculty morale had risen -- then complained about mold in classrooms and the absence of computers.

Two problems persist, particularly in central Iraq. First, the deteriorating security situation has driven some parents to keep their children, particularly young girls, at home for fear of attack. Second, thousands of skilled teachers and university professors fled the country during Saddam's regime, and shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, also due to security concerns. As previously noted, significant efforts have been made by the Iraqi government to combat this exodus and lure qualified teachers back to their classrooms. The government has offered as much as $700 monthly to teachers who last earned roughly $50 a month.

USAID has had a significant impact in this area, having helped print and distribute more than 8 million math and science textbooks to Iraqi schoolchildren since 2003, while training nearly 52,000 secondary school teachers and administrators. USAID has also been at the forefront of distributing hundreds of thousands of desks, cabinets, chalkboards and more than 3 million school kits to Iraqi schools across the country. (It is sad but worth noting how little credit the U.S. receives for these efforts. It may be, as ABC producer Bruno Roeber suggests, that Iraqis are often afraid to give public credit to the Americans.)

As for Iraq's universities, they suffered "heavy looting" following the U.S.-led invasion, and according to Salah Adhab, a senior official in the Ministry of Higher Education, many of these facilities have yet to recover. According to a United Nations study, 50 university teachers have been killed and nearly 84 percent of higher education establishments had been "destroyed, damaged and robbed" since the end of the war.

Facts & Figures:

Literacy:

North: 56 percent

Central: 60 percent

South: 63 percent

Baghdad: 78 percent

Males: 74 percent

Females: 56 percent

Source: UNDP, Iraq Living Conditions Survey, published May 2005

Highest Education Level Completed

North: 7 percent higher; 30 percent elementary, 24 percent never attended school

Central: 9 percent higher; 31 percent elementary, 22 percent never attended school

South: 10 percent higher; 30 percent elementary, 24 percent never attended school

Baghdad: 16 percent higher; 27 percent elementary, 13 percent never attended school

Source: UNDP, Iraq Living Conditions Survey, published in May 2005.

6) HEALTH CARE

North: Better

Central: Same or Worse

South: Same or Better

This remains a tough area in which to gauge progress. Without question there is exponentially more money spent today on health care than there was during the final years of Saddam's rule. Whether this money is being efficiently spent or fairly distributed is up for debate.

While health care may be "available" to all Iraqis, hospitals throughout the country remain in need of renovations and repair, and they often operate without the most basic medicines, or with ill-functioning equipment. Like Iraqi households, hospitals and health centers are affected by the degraded water and sanitation systems, and the on-again, off-again supply of electricity.

In central Iraq, complaints about health care were common. According to Dr. Ayad Abdul Kadhem of Sadr Hospital, "Almost anything is better than being a doctor in Iraq right now. The situation is so difficult in the medical field that many of us want to quit." The head of the ER at Baghdad's Yarmouk Hospital spoke passionately to us about the psychological toll he and his colleagues have felt -- and scores of doctors have, in fact, left Iraq in the past few years. The mass exodus of Iraqi doctors has had a devastating effect on the health care system in Iraq.

Still, by 62 percent to 36 percent, Iraqis told us that the availability of health care was "good." We heard positive reports from patients at Al Nasiriyah General Hospital in Basra -- compliments for doctors who, like so many Iraqi teachers, have been the beneficiaries of salary upgrades in the last two years.

In efforts to improve the health care system and to bring back many of Iraq's doctors living abroad, salaries for doctors have been increased dramatically, from $20 a month before the war to more than $200 a month, according to Iraqi Deputy Minister of Health.

Final note: USAID has provided supplemental doses of Vitamin A to more than 600,000 children under 2 and 1.5 million lactating mothers since the war began. In addition, USAID has helped provide skills-training sessions to approximately 2,500 primary health care professionals and 700 physicians.

7) AVAILABILITY OF GOODS

North: Better

Central: Same or Better

South: Better

The proliferation of goods in Iraq has become something of an explosion.

Looser borders, the lifting of sanctions and more disposable income have made new products and foods available to more Iraqis since the war began. The 27 percent to 40 percent of Iraqis who remain unemployed have of course suffered in terms of their purchasing power. Even for the most basic foods, costs have doubled since the fall of Saddam.

And yet Iraqis as a whole are on something of a spending spree. Ownership is up by 10 percent for cars; up by 14 percent for air conditioners; up by 18 percent for bicycles; and 62 percent of Iraqis now say they have mobile phones. (Less than two years ago the figure was 6 percent.) Bananas and soft drinks, American spaghetti sauce and European cheeses -- all items that were extremely difficult to come by during Saddam's regime due to sanctions and government mismanagement -- are widely available today.

According to an Iraqi customs official at the Iran-Iraq border crossing of Zurbatia, more than $80 million worth of non-oil goods passed through his checkpoint in 2004. Overall, during the first 10 months of 2005, nearly $650 million worth of goods was exported from Iran to Iraq; Iran's Commerce Ministry estimates that figure could top $1 billion in the next year, thanks to the sale of goods ranging from fruits and vegetables to electrical appliances and building materials.

A final note: housing prices in Baghdad have nearly quadrupled since the Saddam era. In the North, ABC's Jim Sciutto discovered a mini-boom in housing with units selling for as much as $200,000. Experts believe this rush for real estate was due initially to the anticipated return of Iraqi exiles once Saddam was deposed. Elections in January 2005 and the new interim government, however, seem to have increased prices further.

8) LOCAL GOVERNMENT

North: Better

Central: Worse

South: Better

It is worth noting that when we last published this report, 11 months ago, there had been no elections in Iraq, and no constitutional referendum. Iraqis and the outside world were girding for the possibility of widespread and disruptive violence at the polls.

Today, faith in the electoral process runs high (with the exception of the disaffected Sunnis) and confidence in public institutions has risen. This is particularly true for the Iraqi Army -- up from 39 percent to 67 percent, and the police -- up from 45 percent to 69 percent. A smaller majority say they are confident in their local and national leaders -- but as we said at the outset, seven in 10 Iraqis believe the Dec. 15 elections will improve their lot. Another interesting development: basic interest in politics has soared. The percentage of Iraqis reporting such an interest has gone from 39 (November 2003) to 69 today. Asked what sort of government they wish for, 57 percent of Iraqis told us they would prefer a democratic state; 26 percent answered "strong leader"; only 14 percent expressed a preference for an Islamic state.

The geographic division used in this report is perhaps least relevant here. While a slim majority nationwide (51 percent) approve of their local government, sectarian differences are obvious. Iraq's Shiites and Kurds -- two populations widely persecuted under Saddam Hussein -- are not surprisingly filled with hope and high expectations for the country's current and future political leaders. By large margins, Shiites and Kurds approve of the recently adopted constitution and are confident that the elections will bring positive change. They also give the young Iraqi government generally good marks. The contrast among Sunnis is stark: Only 27 percent approve of the constitution; 48 percent say they are confident regarding the elections; and only 12 percent believe the government has done a good job.

Few Iraqis say they believe the country is on a course for civil war. Yet these sectarian differences, and the disaffection of the Sunnis generally, would seem to present one of the greatest challenges facing Iraq.

9) OTHER

WOMEN'S ISSUES:

Our poll found considerable support for women's rights. Ninety-nine percent believe women can be doctors; 80 percent say they can serve in public office; and 78 percent say women should be allowed to "instruct men in their work!"

Al-Mahaba radio station -- Iraq's first independent woman's radio station – was launched in 2005.

Women's softball is a brand-new phenomenon -- we're not sure how widespread! -- since the Americans arrived.

Source: Ismael Khalil Ismael, founder and chairman of the Iraq Baseball Union

DRUG USE: Anecdotal reports of heavier use -- sparked by relaxed enforcement and the wish to escape the trauma of daily violence. n.b.: one gram of heroin cost $415 before the invasion; now it's only $20 to $25

INCREASE IN MARRIAGES: Weddings are on the rise since the fall of Saddam Hussein. This is likely due to a rise in government salaries and an end to compulsory military service, freeing more young men for marriage. It may also be reflective of newfound optimism.

Overall

There is no question that Iraq stands at a turning point. So many of the questions raised in this report could turn one way or another based on how next week's election proceeds -- less in terms of who wins and loses, but more in terms of whether it is conducted peacefully, and with the approval of a solid majority of the Iraqi people.

Clearly, there are signs of optimism within the report; equally clear, Iraqis are impatient with the American presence and eager to take the reins of their new nation. That sentiment -- expressed in one way or another by Sunni, Kurd and Shia alike -- could well result in more public pressure in the U.S. to bring American forces home, or at least draw the numbers down.

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