Iraq may not yet be a good place to live — but Iraqis say things are definitely a lot less bad than a year ago, when the U.S. committed an extra 30,000 troops to curb violence here.
Fifty-five percent of Iraqis now say their own life is going well, up from 39 percent 12 months ago. And 62 percent say security in their local area is good, up 16 percentage points from last year. These results, from an ABC poll carried out across Iraq and released today, paint a picture of a damaged country that is gradually starting to pull itself together again.
"Believe me, the situation is a million times better than it was before," says Um Tiba, a radio talk show host in the town of Fallujah.
She has an hour-long show every day – her listeners call in with problems about their families or their relationships — and few people talk about the war with her.
For the first time in three years, people told our pollsters they were more concerned about social and economic problems than about violence — only a quarter now say security is the main concern in their lives. The poll was conducted last month, Feb. 12-18.
The picture is not completely rosy. One in four respondents said they had experienced a car bomb or other violent attack in their neighborhood in the past six months, and in some areas in the north, violence is still widespread. Only 13 percent of respondents from the northern city of Mosul said their local security was adequate.
Attitudes toward Americans are ambivalent. On the one hand, Iraqis are deeply uncomfortable with the occupation — 73 percent say they oppose the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil. When asked whether the U.S. troop surge has contributed to the drop in violence, a little more than half say no. But in a telling reality check, when asked whether U.S. troops should leave Iraq now, only 38 percent agreed — the majority wants U.S. troops to stay until security is guaranteed.
In the southern Shiite city of Karbala, Shatel Nimer Raheem said that the "occupation is the thorn in the side of the Iraqi people," and he thought the occupiers should leave "today." But when he was asked about how the United States should withdraw, he said "they should prepare the ground so the Iraqis left behind are in control."
Interestingly, as security improves, so do people's economic situations. Fifty-seven percent of Iraqis now say their household finances are good, an increase from last year. Average earnings are up from $322 a month at the beginning of 2007 to $403 a month now. Not only are markets booming, but there is a lot of construction, evidence that people are investing their own money in the expectation that the security situation will continue to improve. At the main checkpoint leading into Fallujah they see an average of 160 trucks a day coming in with cement and blocks.
The biggest problem ABC News encountered across the country was the lack of central government help. Even as peoples' lives were improving at a local level, Baghdad was contributing very little to reconstruction. Universally, people complained about the lack of services — 62 percent said medical care was bad, 81 percent complained about a lack of fuel, and — worst of all — 88 percent said they were not getting enough electricity.
One engineer in Fallujah, standing underneath new electricity pylons, said "it is true they have put up wires and transformers — but what is the use? There is no power."
At a hospital in Nasariyah in the south, we came across Adnan Hamdan Ulaiwi, a 38-year-old soldier, who told us he had been waiting four days for an operation on his arm. Each time he turned up they told him the surgeon was too busy. "If you know someone influential they will take your papers and call your name — if you don't know anyone, you just have to wait."
Although the situation appears to be generally improving, there are some stark sectarian divides — while 62 percent of Shiites and 73 percent of Kurds say their lives are going well, that drops to just 33 percent of Sunnis, who believe the Shiite-led government actively discriminates against them. And the number of Iraqis who say they would like to emigrate is increasing — 36 percent now say they would like to leave if they could. In the Kurdish north we met a group of Christians who had fled the violence in Baghdad and Mosul, and had found shelter with a local priest in the town of Zakho. Several dozen of them were taking an English class. When asked how many people in the room wanted to go to another country, they all put up their hands, laughing loudly at my question.
Most Iraqis, however, are staying — for one thing, it is now much harder for Iraqis to get into Syria or Jordan, as both countries have tightened their border controls with Iraq significantly. And although the war is far from over, many Iraqis are starting to think that the worst might now be over and life will continue to improve. Forty-six percent of Iraqis say they expect life to be better in a year's time. After five years, many say they've waited long enough.