This is the third 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 went in.
Watch Peter Jennings' reports from Iraq on "World News Tonight" this week.
This time we faced very different challenges -- and almost abandoned the project altogether -- because so much of Iraq had turned into a no-go area since our last report. Our own correspondents and producers could not take the long reporting trips they took the last time. Polling organizations either refused to participate or charged prohibitive rates, again because of the security situation, so a complete nationwide poll would have been extremely difficult.
In the end we managed to canvass the country, in different ways.
We partnered with The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), an organization that trains local journalists in conflict zones (more about the IWPR below). We interviewed and vetted 20 of their young reporters, provided them with digital video cameras, and dispatched them -- in 10 teams of two -- to points in the north, south and central parts of the country.
These teams visited 23 cities and towns throughout Iraq during the first weeks of January 2005, and collected stories and videotape everywhere they went. On the eve of Iraq's elections, this reporting offers a broad sense of how Iraqis around the country feel about their lives, about the future, and about the vote itself.
Separately, we dispatched stringers across the country to survey Iraqis -- asking the same baseline questions we had asked in the earlier installments. Those questions covered issues which Iraqis say matter most to them: security, health care, education, electricity, water supply, the quality of local government, the availability of jobs and the availability of goods (short summaries follow in this article, but for more detail, click on the related stories in the left-hand column).
For all these criteria we asked: Has the situation improved? Worsened? Or have things remained roughly as they were, before the war began?
The surveys were conducted in 27 cities and towns; we interviewed more than 1,300 Iraqis. It must be stressed that this is by no means a scientific poll.
The survey and the IWPR teams were complemented by a research effort in New York -- combining interviews with experts, conversations with groups working on reconstruction in Iraq, and assessments of other surveys done in Iraq over the last six months.
To start with, a cliché: What a difference a year makes.
The 2004 Where Things Stand project was completed in early March. At the time the lack of security was an overriding concern -- but it was not nearly as profound a problem as it has become.
The insurgency has metastasized -- with consequences felt most profoundly in the central part of the country. Important parts of central Iraq -- Fallujah, Ramadi and Baqubah in particular -- are now danger zones, and virtually off-limits for reporters. (Our survey teams were able to work in these areas; the IWPR teams did not). The violence has spread to infect Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city and until recently an area of calm and significant progress.
Security troubles continue to create other problems -- i.e., limiting access to hospitals, restricting commerce, and in some cases causing parents to keep their children out of school.