Iraq: Where Things Stand

ByABC News
March 19, 2007, 7:17 AM

March 19, 2007— -- "We spent a lot of money because I was optimistic that the situation would improve. Now I regret that decision." - Mohammad Hassin, 38, Baghdad restaurant owner

"In our final exams in college, the phone of a female student rang with a Shiite religious song...The professor was a Sunni Kurd and a former Baathist, and he became very angry and started shouting at the girl, telling her what a bad song this is."- Ayman Ali, 23, Baghdad cigarette company employee

"It is hard to say this but years ago I was praying for the death of [former president] Saddam Hussein, but today I wish he could come back to life and was in power again, because at least in his time we used to have safe water, good sewage systems, had food to eat and our children never got diarrhea," - Sahira Saleh, 41 Sadr City resident

"I am very optimistic for the future of Iraq[because] I know its people."- Nizar Hana, Erbil businessman

"We used to live as neighbors for centuries, and there were no problems between us at all. We have married their women, and they have married our women. We attended their parties and wakes, and they did the same. But after the bombings of Samarra, things collapsed between us."- Sattar Jabbar, 41, Shiite imam, al-Jalaika mosque, al-Hahama district north of Baghdad

This report is the product of three parallel efforts: reporting conducted in roughly two dozen cities and towns across Iraq, by ABC News Baghdad correspondent Terry McCarthy, producer Almin Karamehmedovic, the staff of the ABC bureau in Baghdad and reporters from USA Today and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC); a nationwide poll -- one of the most comprehensive opinion surveys ever done in modern Iraq; and research culled by ABC News staffers.

It is the fifth such report since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Each one has differed somewhat in methodology while sharing a fundamental goal: to understand how Iraq and its people are faring, in comparison to the pre-invasion period. Are Iraqis better off today 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.

The conclusions this time are unambiguous, and disturbing. Iraqis report a collapse of basic services, a steep decline in quality-of-life indices, and -- perhaps most significant -- an erosion of hope and faith that the future will bring better times. As ABC News polling director Gary Langer writes of the poll itself, it "paints a devastating portrait of life in Iraq." In the last "Where Things Stand" report (December 2005), even Iraqis who reported great difficulties in their own circumstances told us their lives were going well (71 percent); they believed that post-invasion Iraq was better than Saddam Hussein's Iraq (51 percent) and that their future was bright (64 percent). Today that hope is gone. Only 39 percent say their lives are going well, just 42 percent say life is better than it was under Saddam Hussein, and only 35 percent see better days ahead.

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.

But for the most part, this is an unmistakably distressing portrait of a nation. Only 16 months ago, when we last conducted these surveys, we reported that Iraq stood at a turning point, with "ample reasons for optimism" and a profound faith in the future. Today that faith and optimism seem distant indeed. The question of course is whether a "turning point" has come and gone.

This year's poll was conducted for ABC News, USA Today, the BBC and ARD German Television between Feb. 25 and March 5, 2007. Interviews were conducted with a random national sample of 2,212 Iraqi adults in every one of the country's eighteen provinces, including so-called "oversamples" in Anbar province, Basra city, Kirkuk and the Sadr City section of Baghdad. The results have a 2.5-point error margin.

ABC's Terry McCarthy and other ABC News producers and reporters visited 18 cities and towns across the country. These trips were complemented by reporting conducted for the project by USA Today and the BBC. In many cases ABC News went back to see people we had come to know during earlier versions of the report -- the police chief in Kirkuk, doctors at Nasariyah Hospital, a Baquba engineer and a Basra hotel manager. At every step, we were interested to learn how lives had been changed, for better or worse, since the Americans came to Iraq.