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Analysis: Iraq Two Years After The Invasion: Progress And Challenges

A recent poll of Iraqis has found that more than 60 percent of those surveyed believe that their country is heading in the right direction, more than twice the percentage who thought the same in a poll taken in mid-January.

The poll, conducted by the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) ( between 25 February and 7 March, says much about the progress that has been made in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion to topple the Saddam Hussein regime two years ago.

Much of the progress has been made on the political front in the past year. The interim Iraqi Governing Council appointed by the U.S.-headed Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) as Iraq's first post-Hussein governing authority, passed an interim constitution in March widely hailed as one of the most advanced in the region for its recognition of individual and minority rights. Despite predictions that the country might be heading towards civil war, the CPA successfully transferred power to an interim government in July led by Iraqi National Accord head Iyad Allawi, who oversaw the formation of an interim National Assembly in August.
While salaries have increased, unemployment remains a major problem with officials estimating that nearly 50 percent of Iraqis are out of work.

The most marked achievement thus far, however, has been the national elections. In less than one year's time, the Iraqi Electoral Commission overcame enormous obstacles -- including an unrelenting insurgency -- to hold national elections on schedule on 30 January. They were Iraq's first free elections in more than 50 years and ushered in a new era. A reported 5,171 polling centers out of 5,230 opened on election day and more than 8 million Iraqis cast their ballots in defiance of insurgent attacks and threats.

While Sunnis by and large boycotted the election, they have not wavered in their desire to participate in the drafting of a permanent constitution later this year. Some Sunnis even expressed regret about the election boycott and have subsequently entered into talks with the winning lists in the National Assembly elections in an attempt to assume positions in the transitional government.

In northern Iraq, Kurdish parties appear more united than ever before, having been dubbed the "kingmakers" in Iraq after winning 75 seats in the 275-member parliament. The Kurds see the coming phase as their best chance at securing their rights in the upcoming work on forging a constitution. Meanwhile, the long-oppressed, majority Shi'a are on the cusp of assuming power for the first time in Iraq's history, having won 140 seats in the parliament.

Security remains the biggest threat in the new Iraq and, while improvements have been made in gathering intelligence, and Iraqi citizens appear more forthcoming divulging information on insurgents, progress has been slow. Foreign fighters continue to wreak havoc, targeting government officials, police, and security forces. Kidnappings and beheadings reached a peak in the past year, with foreigners -- particularly journalists -- bearing the brunt of such attacks.

Iraq weathered two violent confrontations last year between rebel Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces, with much of the credit for their resolutions going to Shi'a negotiators led by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Al-Fallujah Brigade, established as a possible solution to the Sunni insurgency and comprised of former Hussein-era troops and commanders, was dismantled in September after only four months when it was learned that members of the brigade were aiding the insurgents.

The dismantling of the brigade was followed by a massive U.S-Iraqi incursion into the city in an effort to root out terrorists based there. The city suffered heavy damage and the insurgency regrouped somewhat in the northern city of Mosul. It appears that Sunni Islamists have come to dominate the insurgency, but Hussein loyalists remain key players. Mounting pressure on Syria appeared, in recent weeks, to have led to the hand over of Hussein's half-brother, Sab'awi Ibrahim al-Tikriti, who was alleged to be funding the insurgency from Syria. The interim government claimed success in the arrests of other former Ba'ath Party insurgents in recent months, as well, and the government claims to be close to capturing what many say appears to be Al-Qaeda's chief in Iraq, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. While there is no apparent end in sight to the insurgency, Iraqi political groups continue to hold fast to the belief that the insurgents' goal is sectarian strife. Consequently, politicians have presented a united front and have encouraged citizens not to allow the attacks to divide them.

Iraqis continue to join the police and security forces despite numerous attacks against them. Iraq remains years away, however, from developing a wholly sustainable security apparatus. A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit recently determined that U.S. commanders and administration officials have inflated the number of trained Iraqi security forces. The latest Pentagon figures said that some 142,000 Iraqis have been trained as police and soldiers. The GAO said these numbers include tens of thousands of policemen who had left their jobs without explanation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2005).

Moreover, the infiltration of Hussein loyalists to ranks within the police, National Guard, and army has arguably become a key component of the insurgency. While actual figures on the number of infiltrators are not known, insurgents have clearly been aided in a number of attacks by inside information. Former Ba'athists have also infiltrated a number of ministries and government institutions, according to officials.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi interim government has moved forward with a plan to retrain Iraqi soldiers from the Hussein regime despite the objection of key political groups. More than 3,000 of these "direct recruit replacements" are on the job in Iraq, according to U.S. Central Command figures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2005). U.S. and interim government officials have argued that an improved vetting process will thwart the infiltration of Hussein supporters into security bodies.

Progress was also made by Iraq on the international front, as NATO states -- including France and Germany, which had objected to the war -- agreed to participate in the training of Iraqi security forces. The interim Iraqi government gained key recognition from Arab League member states, and began reestablishing diplomatic ties with its neighbors. But Syria, Iran, and, more recently, Jordan, have been widely criticized for either directly or indirectly contributing to terrorism in Iraq.

Corruption remains a key problem within government ministries in Baghdad as well as in the Kurdistan Regional Government. There is evidence of "high levels" of corruption in Iraq, particularly in the reconstruction sector, Transparency International said in its Global Corruption Report 2005 released last week.

On the reconstruction front, progress remains hampered by security problems. Recurrent sabotage attacks have led to constant setbacks in raising the levels of electricity and oil output. Attacks on convoys have obstructed the flow of vital reconstruction equipment and foodstuffs needed to fill the monthly food basket still rationed to some 6.5 million Iraqis.

While salaries have increased, unemployment remains a major problem with officials estimating that nearly 50 percent of Iraqis are out of work. Poverty -- 11 percent of Iraqis suffer from extreme poverty and lack of sustenance according to the Health Ministry -- has contributed to an increase in preventable diseases, particularly among children and the elderly. Adult cancer and childhood leukemia rates continue to rise after decades of war that wreaked havoc on the environment. The UN Environmental Program last year launched a $4.7 million pilot project to investigate environmental "hot spots" in the country, but all the effects of war will take many years to fix.

One environmental bright spot has been an internationally-funded project to reinvigorate Iraq's southern marshlands, 93 percent of which were destroyed over two decades by the Hussein regime. Since the program began last year, 20 percent of the drained wetlands are filled again, and 60 percent of the wildlife has returned to the marshlands. Plant species native to the area have also returned and the water quality has proved to be better than expected by scientists studying the area.

Overall, many observers would say that Iraq has made great progress in a short period of time in many areas and, while much work needs to be done in terms of stability, Iraqis, many of whom were quite critical in the early months of the war, appear increasingly optimistic, if not realistic, that change will come. A reported 56 percent of respondents to the IRI survey responded that they are confident that things will "slowly" get better in Iraq.