Iraqis see hope drain away
By Susan Page and Omar Salih
Jobs gone and schools closed. Marriages delayed and children mourned. Markets bombed and clean water in short supply. Speaking freely now a dangerous act.
And hope lost.
Four years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Iraqis describe daily lives that have been torn apart by spiraling violence and a faltering economy. The bursts of optimism reported in a 2004 public-opinion survey taken a year after the invasion and another in 2005 before landmark legislative elections have nearly vanished.
Face-to-face interviews with 2,212 Iraqis � a survey sponsored jointly by USA TODAY, ABC News, the British Broadcasting Corp. and ARD, a German TV network � find a nation that in large measure has fragmented into fear. Six in 10 Iraqis say their lives are going badly. Only one-third expect things to improve in the next year.
That represents a dramatic deterioration in just 16 months, a reflection of how the security situation and quality of life in Iraq have unraveled. In an ABC News poll in November 2005, seven in 10 Iraqis said their lives were good and nearly as many predicted things would get better.
Now, said Zaid Hisham, "You worry about everything." The 29-year-old Shiite engineer has postponed plans for his wedding until he can find a job. He and other Baghdad residents were interviewed by USA TODAY to supplement the poll findings. "When I go out, my family calls me every five minutes or whenever there is an explosion � there are many � to see if I am still alive. It's worry, worry all the time. You can't see your future, and you can't even try to put an outline for your future."
"We are in hell," said Solaf Mohamed Ali, 38, a Shiite woman who works in a bank.
Not every Iraqi makes such dire assessments. There are significant differences in outlook within the country and among its groups.
Kurds, who make up 15%-20% of the population and are largely independent in northern Iraq, describe the fewest problems and express the most optimism about progress in the next year. Shiites, who make up about 60% of the population and suffered discrimination and brutality under Saddam Hussein, say they're struggling, but many remain hopeful about Iraq's long-term future. Sunni Arabs, another 15%-20% of the population and the group that lost power when Saddam was ousted, express almost universal desperation.
Conditions in Baghdad are worse than elsewhere for Sunnis and Shiites. Of the 429 Baghdad residents surveyed, not one felt safe in his or her own neighborhood. Everyone interviewed in the capital said he or she often avoided even going outside because of violence.
Beyond Baghdad, the security situation was better, albeit only relatively so. One-third called their neighborhoods safe; two-thirds said they weren't. Outside the capital, 38% said they often avoid leaving home; 42% stay away from markets, and 59% watch what they say.
Across the country, Iraqis say the basics of day-to-day living have deteriorated. On each of 13 aspects of life � from security to the availability of cooking fuel and medical care � a majority rated conditions as bad. In not a single case did a majority predict things would get better in the next year.
The poll, taken Feb. 25-March 5, has a margin of error of +/-2.5 percentage points.
The Sunday Times in London published a poll Sunday of 5,019 Iraqis taken by a British firm, Opinion Research Business, from Feb. 10-22. It found that Iraqis by 49%-26% preferred life under the new government to life under Saddam.
In the USA TODAY/ABC News Poll, Iraqis by 43%-36% said life was better than before the invasion. That's a decline from the optimism in the November 2005 survey, however, when by 51%-29% Iraqis said life was better.
The survey focused in large part on Iraqis' daily lives.
Most Iraqis say they have altered their daily routines to accommodate the realities of violence:
•More than two-thirds are careful about what they say about themselves to other people.
•Fifty-five percent try to avoid passing by public buildings, often the target of suicide bombers.
•Fifty-four percent stay away from markets and crowded areas.
Four years of upheaval have taken a toll on Iraqis' mental health. Most report symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Three in four say they have feelings of anger and depression, trouble sleeping and difficulty concentrating on work.
Nadeem Nustafa Ahmed, 31, a Sunni, hides the fact he has a job to avoid being robbed � or worse. "I haven't changed my car despite wanting to badly, but people were killed when they started to have new cars and showed they were well paid," he said.
"I can say that my house is like a police station now," said Samer Jaleel, 22, a Sunni student. "The outer wall is 2.5 meters (just over 8 feet) high. We changed the doors into higher and stronger ones. Not only us, but all the houses in the street did the same. Before, we had a very nice street where you could walk and see the gardens. Now it looks like many small jails in one street."
By far, Iraqis rate security concerns as the biggest problem facing their nation and themselves. Four in five say they have encountered violence near their homes:
•Close to half, 44%, say U.S. or coalition forces have been involved in unnecessary violence nearby.
•Four in 10 report kidnappings for ransom in their neighborhoods.
•Three in 10 have had car bombs explode or snipers' crossfire erupt close to home.
Kurds are relatively sanguine: Two-thirds say they feel "very safe" in their neighborhood. In contrast, fewer than one-third of Shiites and only 3% of Sunnis agree.
"I don't feel safe even at my home," says Munaf Mahmood Lafta, 35, a Sunni taxi driver. "My brother was taken from his house by people wearing Iraqi commando uniforms. That was on Jan. 12, 2006, and we don't know where he is even now. My mother died from her sadness. So where is the safety you speak about? No safety at all and no security � not in our neighborhood, nor in my house."
Lafta blames the disappearance of his 22-year-old brother, now presumed dead, on Americans and Shiites. "If you want the truth, now in Iraq every Sunni is hating every Shia, and vice versa," he said.
Hasoon Alak Saheen, 33, no longer feels free to take his donkey cart to sell kerosene in Sunni neighborhoods. "From the way I look, they will know I am Shiite and they will kill me," he said � a fate he has seen befall other vendors.
He returned to selling kerosene after enlisting with the Iraqi police in 2005. Although he appreciated the paycheck and the way people treated him, his wife protested that the police job was too dangerous.
To deal with security concerns, 13% of those surveyed have changed jobs and 15% have moved; 18% of those with children have changed their schools.
In all, more than one in six Iraqis say someone in their own household has been physically harmed by violence, and nearly half have a close friend or immediate family member who has been injured.
Even some of those whose sect suffered under Saddam recall that time fondly. "I miss those good old days," said Jasim Mahmood Rajab, 60, a Shiite businessman. "I had my work and my social life, and now � nothing. I'm ready to pay everything I have to sit at Abo Nowas Street and eat fish at night."
Before the war, Abo Nowas Street, which runs along the Tigris River, was lined with outdoor cafes. They are shuttered now.
"I always talk to other girls in the bank remembering our old days when we were going shopping, or even walking in the streets," Solaf Mohamed Ali said. "Now we speak about all those things like a nice dream that is hard to get."
And the next generation?
Shiites are the most optimistic that their children will have a better life than they have had; two-thirds express optimism about that. So do half of the Kurds polled. But seven of 10 Sunnis predict that their children's lives will be worse.
The pessimism was universal among the Sunnis who live in Baghdad: 100% of those surveyed said their children would have a worse life than they have had.
Some Iraqis say they regret having borne children to be brought up amid such hardship.
Zina Abdulhameed Rajab, a Shiite doctor, is so alarmed by the children she has treated who were injured on their way to school that she is keeping her 2- and 4-year-old sons at home. Her mother has moved in to help babysit.
"Whenever I watch my kids laughing or playing, I can't be so happy from inside my heart because I don't know what the next day will bring," she said. "I really regret the birth of my kids here."
She added: "I wish I could put them back inside me so I would know all the time where they are and how they are doing."
Many Iraqis have curtailed their ambitions for their children, and some yearn to leave their native land. Three in 10 say they would move to a different country if they could. Not quite half of those say they are making plans to go.
"Before the war, my aspirations were to watch my kids growing up, going to the best schools and to have the best education," said Hana' Kareem, 40, a Shiite teacher whose children are 20, 17 and 13.
"My biggest hope now is only one thing: I wish if I had more money so I could offer to move them outside Iraq, so they can have a better life and a better education � just like every kid outside Iraq."
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