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Iraq, 10 years on: Did invasion bring 'hope and progress' to millions as Bush vowed?

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. ITV's John Irvine in Baghdad assesses a country that remains gripped by the violence of its sectarian divide.

When the administration of President George W. Bush planned the invasion of Iraq, hopes ran high that the massive deployment of troops and money wouldn’t just result in the toppling of Saddam Hussein: The United States would help create a country that stood as an example to others. 

Ten years ago Tuesday, Bush announced military operations "to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger." He warned that the coalition campaign "could be longer and more difficult than some predict," but vowed to give the Iraqis a "united, stable and free country."

In a speech only weeks earlier, the president had stressed that "a liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions."

In a televised statement to the nation, President George W. Bush announces "early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq."

An estimated $61 billion in U.S. reconstruction funds later, reality has fallen short of these expectations.

An estimated 189,000 people -- including Iraqi civilians, U.S. troops and journalists -- were killed in the war in Iraq since 2003. The country is considered one of the most corrupt in the world, and many of the improvements promised have not materialized. Sectarian tensions regularly explode into open violence.  

And yet Iraq is now OPEC’s second-largest oil producer after Saudi Arabia. It is headed toward becoming the world’s second-largest oil exporter after Russia in 20 years. The civil war that raged after the invasion is over, and elections have been held in which Iraqis vote at relatively high rates.

On the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, NBC News asked Iraqis and experts to assess how life had changed.

Utilities and services
Omar Qais, 34, a private security worker from Baghdad:

In the ten years since guided bombs brought "shock and awe" to Baghdad, almost 4,500 troops and 130,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed and Saddam Hussein has been captured and executed in a mission that has cost nearly $2 trillion. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

“The infrastructure, and the services … were bad, but now it is even worse.”

Mohammad Jabir, 33, unemployed with two children:

“There isn’t ... one good service.  It has gone from bad to worse.”

Iraq is a rich country when it comes to natural resources.

“Iraq stands to gain almost $5 trillion in revenues from oil exports over the period to 2035, an annual average of $200 billion and an opportunity to transform the country’s future prospects,” according to the International Energy Agency.

But much of that wealth has yet to trickle down to the population in the form of jobs and services. 

Unemployment stands at 15 percent and youth unemployment at 30 percent, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Twenty-three percent of the population lives in extreme hunger, it adds.

“Iraq faces considerable challenges in sanitation,” according to a 2010 U.N. report. Only 26 percent of household are covered by the public sewage network, it added.

Karim Kadim / AP

Iraqis sift through garbage for recyclable materials at a dump in the Sadr City area of Baghdad, Iraq, on Sunday. According to the manager of the dump, the people who salvage plastic and aluminum make an average of $8 per day re-selling the materials.

About two-thirds of homes depend on the public water supply as their primary source for drinking water, but a quarter of these reported that they got potable water for under two hours per day, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction’s January 2012 report.

Electricity is the worst-rated service in Iraq, according to the Iraq Knowledge Network, a monitoring system set up by the country’s planning ministry. Households get on average 7.6 hours of electricity from the national grid per day, it said.

Medical services leave much to be desired. In the region, only Yemen has a higher infant mortality rate, for example. Malaria, however, has been almost eliminated, according to the U.N.

Iranian influence
Mahmoud Ali Othman, Kurdish politician and member of the Iraqi National Assembly:

In a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, President George W. Bush announces that the United States and allies "have prevailed" in military operations in Iraq.

“Maybe Iran has benefited more than any other country from what has happened, and some people even say America handed Iraq to Iran. But don’t forget the Iranian regime has had relations with all the Iraqi political forces when they were in the opposition, so this relation has continued after Saddam was toppled.”

Maria Fantappie, Iraq analyst, International Crisis Group:

“Iran's influence, and that of other powers, is directly proportional to the level of instability of the Iraqi government. Potential for Iranian influence increases the moment there is an unstable situation in Baghdad.”

On March 12, the navies of Iraq and Iran signed an agreement that called for joint drills and more cooperation, according to reports in Iran.  This was the latest sign of the deepening links between Baghdad and Tehran, with whom the United States has a hostile relationship.

Khalid Mohammed / AP

Iraqis visit the Shaheed Monument in Baghdad on March 5. Saddam Hussein had the split teardrop-shaped sculpture built in the middle of a man-made lake in the early 1980s to commemorate Iraqis killed in the Iran-Iraq War. The names of hundreds of thousands of fallen Iraqi soldiers are inscribed in simple Arabic script around the base. In recent years, the Shiite-led government has begun turning it into a museum honoring the victims of Saddam's Sunni-dominated but largely secular regime.

And according to reports, Iran helped persuade the government of Nouri al-Maliki to deny American forces judicial immunity against prosecution. Western countries then canceled plans to maintain a military presence in the country after the 2011 withdrawal.

The links go beyond the political and military: Iranian companies are increasing market share in Iraq’s booming economy, and streams of Iranian pilgrims regularly visit the Shiite holy sites in Karbala and Najaf.

This is a far cry from the 1980s, when the two countries fought a war that killed more than a million people.

Rule of law and security
Rawa Naime, head of a local nongovernmental organization:

“Security-wise, it is definitely not better. On the contrary, it is worse.”

March 20, 2003: On a special edition of TODAY, NBC's Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Jim Miklaszewski and Kerry Sanders report on the first day of the Iraq War.

Peter Batchelor, country director, United Nations Development Program in Iraq:

“Quality of life and access to services in many areas are worse than they were 30 years ago. Violence has dropped, but it is still high enough that it limits people’s access to services.”

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui:

“Iraq remains caught in a cycle of torture and impunity that should long ago have been broken.”

Toby Dodge, political scientist and expert on the Middle East:

“Iraq’s special forces are in effect the personal coercive tool of its prime minister, his Praetorian guard, used to secure competitive authoritarianism.”

While the numbers of civilian deaths have fallen from the tens of thousands a year seen after the U.S. invasion and in the ensuing civil war, many Iraqis are not safe from acts of terror and sometimes even from their own government. 

On Tuesday, car bombs and a suicide blast hit Shiite districts of Baghdad and south of Iraq's capital, killing at least 50 people. And on Thursday, a string of explosions tore through the capital. This was followed by a coordinated raid by gunmen of a government building. At least 24 people were killed, and dozens more were wounded.

The violence comes despite the massive numbers added to the country’s security forces. According to The Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank, Iraq’s security forces stood at just under 100,000 in 2003. In 2011 that number had reached 670,000.

Meanwhile, Iraq remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world.  According to Transparency International’s widely recognized rankings, the country came 169th out of a list of 176.

There are regional differences. For example, Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in the north of the country protected under the no-fly zone before 2003, has prospered and been relatively free of violence, although its government has also been rocked by corruption scandals.

Democracy and sectarian tensions
Mohammad Jabir, 33, unemployed with two children:

“Back then, when Saddam was in power, we were oppressed. Now there is freedom. Me as a Shiite, I can practice my rituals, so it is definitely better than before.”

Mohammad Jabir, 33, unemployed with two children:

“Sectarianism is like a slow cancer that is spreading through the Iraqi people.”

Mahmoud Ali Othman, Kurdish politician and member of the Iraqi National Assembly:

One year after the U.S. military pullout, Iraq teeters between statehood and failure. NBC News' Jim Maceda reports.

“The whole government has weak performance because the ministers and the key figures have been appointed on political bases. Qualification comes second. ... This has created a weak performance at the level of the government and at the level of the municipality.”

Rawa Naime, head of a local nongovernmental organization:

“We have suffered from the sectarian violence, especially liberated and cultured women… There are some sides that want the sectarian war that we had in 2006 and 2007 to come back.  But there is a section of our society that does not want that to come back. There are those who love peace, who think there is no difference between Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkomans and Christians.”

Maria Fantappie, Iraq analyst, International Crisis Group:

“The biggest mistake of the 2003 invasion was to understand the country only as composed of three separate communities, without regard to the building of Iraq on the basis of an Iraqi identity."

Under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, members of the Shiite and Kurdish communities were violently oppressed (Hussein also oppressed Sunnis).  Since the fall of Saddam, the majority Shiites have become the dominant group in society.  The government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been accused of fomenting sectarian divisions to secure his party’s position in power. 

While the sectarian violence that swept Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion has receded, there has been a recent increase in deadly attacks against Shiites, the government and security forces. And in recent months, Sunnis throughout the country have staged mass protests to demand fairer treatment from the central government and the release of thousands who they say have been detained illegally.

March 20, 1993: NBC News Special on the first coalition casualties and the first day of the war in Iraq reported by Tom Brokaw, Dennis Murphy and David Bloom.

The unrest is piling pressure on the country's sectarian balance. 

And like so much else in Iraq, those inside and out are not sure whether the future will bring the prosperity and peace promised by the Bush White House, or spiraling violence, insecurity and impunity.

When asked to comment for this story, a State Department official said that both Iraq and the U.S. had "made tremendous sacrifices to deliver this new chapter in our relationship, and our energy is squarely focused on the future."

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, added:

"I’ll leave the retrospectives to the historians to discuss and the Iraqi and American people to assess. ... 

"On Iraqi progress, we understand that many challenges remain in Iraq and that it continues to evolve after decades of isolation and war. It is unrealistic to expect a unified democracy to develop in such a short period of time. Likewise, the evolution that is necessary to resolve the differences found in Iraq will require generational change and a sustained commitment to its democratic and economic development.

"One should not forget to reflect on just how far Iraq has come in a short time.  While there have been short-term setbacks, Iraq’s trajectory is positive."

Iraqi government officials did not respond to requests for comment.

NBC News' Jeffrey Ackermann and Catherine Chomiak contributed to this report.

The last 480 troops left Iraq early Sunday morning in high spirits, happy to be heading home for the holidays. NBC's Richard Engel reports.


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