Iraq: Where Things Stand

Optimism in Iraq has been shredded by violence that has touched a staggering number of Iraqis directly; today 53 percent report having a close friend or immediate relative who's been hurt or killed. A full 80 percent report attacks nearby -- car bombs, snipers, kidnappings, armed forces, fighting each other or abusing civilians. As Terry McCarthy reports, "car bombs and death squads have torn apart the fabric of a society where one third of all marriages used to be mixed, and people rarely asked or cared whether someone was Sunni or Shiite."

In central Iraq especially, a profound schism has opened between Iraq's Sunni and Shia Muslims. Already in December 2005, we reported that differences were growing between the groups on a range of questions -- about Iraqi politics and their lives more generally. The February 2006 bombing of the Shiite shrine at Samarra widened the divide dramatically, and drove many Iraqis on both sides to violence. Today the divide is mirrored in public opinion: 70 percent of Shiites and 83 percent of Kurds -- groups brutally suppressed by Saddam Hussein -- still favor the invasion. But 98 percent of Iraq's Sunnis -- who were empowered under Saddam -- say the invasion was wrong. Roughly half of Shiites say their lives are going well; only 7 percent of Sunnis say the same.

The violence and sectarian divide have conspired to bring down ratings for several critical aspects of daily life -- jobs, schools, power and fuel supply, and health care, to name a few. Just 16 months ago, majorities rated eight of 10 categories as "good;" today a majority in each case rank these areas as "bad." While less dramatic than the violence itself, these quality-of-life indicators continue to matter greatly to the Iraqi people.

The United States -- which only three years ago won at least grudging praise for its invasion and credit for positive developments -- today comes in for withering blame. Three years ago 51 percent of Iraqis opposed the presence of American forces on their soil; today 78 percent are opposed. Perhaps most disturbing from an American perspective, 51 percent of Iraqis now tell us it would be "acceptable" to attack U.S. or coalition forces in Iraq; in early 2004 the figure was 17 percent.

Four years on, silver linings are hard to come by. The Kurdish north remains an island of relative calm and prosperity by nearly every metric (save electricity and fuel). Certainly Iraq's Kurds believe life is improving. Having said that, ABC's Terry McCarthy discovered different ethnic tensions in Kirkuk -- not Sunni vs. Shia, but Turkmen vs. Arab vs. Kurd. Commerce continues to grow in many places, despite all the problems. And the prospect of passage of an oil law raises hopes for a more prosperous and equitable future in many parts of the country. Amid all the violence we have also found vestiges of an indomitable Iraqi optimism. Anecdotally, these are best exemplified by the Baghdad emergency-room physicians who never shrink from their work, the police recruits who keep lining up for duty, and the ballet school students still dancing, though their piano teachers are gone. Overall, for all the troubles, a majority of Iraqis -- 58 percent -- say they want Iraq to remain a single, unified state.

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