Where Things Stand in Iraq

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.

What We Found

To start with, a cliché: What a difference a year makes.

Security Breakdown

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.

Our issue-by-issue breakdown follows below -- but here are a few other highlights and headlines:

Quality of Life Problems

People in central Iraq now report more serious problems with their quality of life. The vast majority of Iraqis we surveyed in the center say unemployment, electricity supplies, and water quality are worse today than before the war.

Success Stories

The shining success involves the availability of goods -- huge majorities in all three regions report improvement in this area.

Another across-the-board winner is education -- both in terms of the quality of teaching, and new work done to rebuild schools.

We found several examples of a basic, commonsense rule: Show people some tangible progress (a rebuilt bridge, a new sewage system), and they will tell you life is getting better.

Perhaps the most remarkable finding is a positive one: Iraqis are hopeful and optimistic despite the profound difficulties they face in their daily lives. The surveys and the anecdotal interviews are filled with examples of people who told us, "We feel less safe," "We have less money," "We have less electricity," etc. -- and then closed by saying, "We believe our lives are getting better."

Optimists and pessimists alike seem to hold out hope for the elections. Nationwide, more than three-quarters of our respondents said (a) they plan to vote and (b) they believe in democracy. Jan. 30 is seen as a watershed -- even by those who say they intend to boycott the vote. One is certainly left with the impression that people will be less likely to tolerate problems after the election.

Optimism in the face of so many quality-of-life complaints is perhaps the most interesting finding in this report.

We checked our surveys against the most recent national poll conducted in Iraq and found similar sentiments. The International Republican Institute's November 2004 survey found a wave of specific complaints, and then asked a basic question: "Do you believe your life one year from today will be better or worse?" Sixty-six percent of Iraqis answered "better," and only 13 percent said worse.

This is consistent with the sentiments voiced by the 1,300 Iraqis we spoke to. Most said their lives were better today than before the war, and most thought they would be better still in a year's time.

Enthusiasm for the election appears overwhelming. In that same IRI poll, 83 percent said they intended to vote; in our survey more than three-quarters of the people we spoke to said they planned to go to the polls.

This enthusiasm represents a desire for change, the thrill of casting a meaningful ballot, and a conviction that sovereignty really will return to Iraqis once the votes have been cast.

Above all it is reflection of patriotism. Time and again we heard a simple yet profound comment, along the lines of this one, from an unemployed man in Al Muthene province: "My love of the country will push me to vote."

About the Survey -- and the IWPR

All the questions in the survey were framed with pre-invasion Iraq (i.e., before March 2003) as the baseline. And the region described as "center" corresponds roughly to Baghdad and the so-called Sunni Triangle.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) 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 journalists to transfer skills and experience.

The 20 reporters that worked with ABC News volunteered for the project. ABC News paid their expenses during the reporting period.

Finally, a note regarding the assessments. They were derived from a combination of the data -- the surveys, the IWPR reporting, ABC News' own reporting, and the research gathered over the last several months.