Voices From Iraq 2007: Ebbing Hope in a Landscape of Loss

ByABC News
February 4, 2009, 2:18 PM

March 19, 2007 -- -- A new national survey paints a devastating portrait of life in Iraq: widespread violence, torn lives, displaced families, emotional damage, collapsing services, an ever starker sectarian chasm -- and a draining away of the underlying optimism that once prevailed.

Violence is the cause, its reach vast. Eighty percent of Iraqis report attacks nearby -- car bombs, snipers, kidnappings, armed forces fighting each other or abusing civilians. It's worst by far in the capital of Baghdad, but by no means confined there.

The personal toll is enormous. More than half of Iraqis, 53 percent, have a close friend or relative who's been hurt or killed in the current violence. One in six says someone in their own household has been harmed. Eighty-six percent worry about a loved one being hurt; two-thirds worry deeply. Huge numbers limit their daily activities to minimize risk. Seven in 10 report multiple signs of traumatic stress.

This is the third poll in Iraq sponsored by ABC News and media partners -- in this case USA Today, the BBC and ARD German TV -- and the changes are grim. In November 2005, 63 percent of Iraqis felt very safe in their neighborhoods. Today just 26 percent say the same. One in three doesn't feel safe at all. In Baghdad, home to a fifth of the country's population, that skyrockets: Eighty-four percent feel entirely unsafe.

IMPACT -- The impact is overwhelming: As violence has grown, measures of basic well-being have plummeted. In 2005, despite the difficulties in their country, 71 percent of Iraqis said their own lives were going well. Today that's been all but halved, to 39 percent. In 2005, two-thirds expected their lives to improve over the coming year. Now just 35 percent see better days ahead.

Again, the sharpest deterioration is in Baghdad, where the number of Iraqis who say their own lives are going well has dropped by 51 points. But it's also down by 26 points in the rest of Iraq. And even outside of Baghdad, just 32 percent of Iraqis feel "very safe" where they live, compared with 60 percent a year and a half ago.

In an equally dramatic reversal, majorities now give negative ratings to each of more than a dozen essential aspects of daily life -- jobs, schools, power and fuel supply, medical care and many more. In late 2005, for instance, 54 percent said their power supply was inadequate or nonexistent; now that's swelled to 88 percent. And in 2005 just 30 percent rated their economic situation negatively. Today that's more than doubled, to 64 percent.

As conditions have sharply worsened, so have expectations for improvement -- an especially troubling result, since hopes for a better future can be the glue that holds a struggling society together. In 2004 and 2005 alike, for example, three-quarters of Iraqis expected improvements in the coming year in their security, schools, availability of jobs, medical care, crime protection, clean water and power supply. Today only about 30 to 45 percent still expect any of these to get any better.

The survey's results are deeply distressing from an American perspective as well: The number of Iraqis who call it "acceptable" to attack U.S. and coalition forces, 17 percent in early 2004, has tripled to 51 percent now, led by near unanimity among Sunni Arabs. And 78 percent of Iraqis now oppose the presence of U.S. forces on their soil, though far fewer favor an immediate pullout.

PERSECUTION -- Iraqis face fundamental challenges. Three-quarters say they lack the freedom to live where they wish without persecution, or even to move about safely. In an open-ended question, 48 percent cite security as the single biggest problem in their lives, up from 18 percent in 2005. (In some locales that soars -- 80 percent in the divided Sunni Arab/Kurdish city of Kirkuk; nearly as high in Anbar, the center of Sunni Arab discontent, and in Shiite-dominated Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.)

Nationally, 12 percent report that ethnic cleansing -- the forced separation of Sunnis and Shiites -- has occurred in their neighborhoods. In mixed-population Baghdad, it's 31 percent. This is not desired: In rare agreement, 97 percent of Sunni Arabs and Shiites alike oppose the separation of Iraqis on sectarian lines.

Nonetheless, one in seven Iraqis overall -- rising to a quarter of Sunni Arabs, and more than a third of Baghdad residents -- say they themselves have moved homes in the last year to avoid violence or religious persecution.

Given all this, for the first time since the 2003 war, fewer than half of Iraqis, 42 percent, say life is better now than it was under Saddam Hussein, whose security forces are said to have murdered more than a million Iraqis.

Forty-two percent think their country is in a civil war; 24 percent more think one is likely. Barely more than four in 10 expect a better life for their children.

Three in 10 say they'd leave Iraq if they could.

VIOLENCE -- The experience of some interviewers working on this poll tells the tale brutally. While most carried out their work fairly uneventfully, others encountered incidents of the violence occurring in the country. In field notes, they reported witnessing shootings, bombings, beatings and kidnappings.

"I saw national guard forces catching some young people and they beat them violently and put guns to their heads and took them to an unknown place," said one. From another: "I saw a bomb exploding against a police patrol and the burning bodies of policemen." A third reported, "In front of me, an explosive went off under an American patrol."

The survey was conducted by a field staff of 150 Iraqis in all, including 103 interviewers, interviewing 2,212 randomly selected respondents at 458 locales across the country from Feb. 25 to March 5. (See related story on how the poll was done.)

STRIFE and STRESS -- Such conditions create a tremendous emotional burden. Anywhere from 72 to 82 percent of Iraqis report anger about what's happening in their country, depression, trouble sleeping and difficulty concentrating on their usual activities -- all potential indicators of traumatic stress.