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Is life for Iraqis improving?

Five years after the US invasion, some see flickers of hope.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2008

Hanging in there: Two of his four printing plants have closed. His family lives in Jordan. But Muwaffaq Abu Hamra (left) sees hope in the decline of violence in Baghdad in recent months.

Sam Dagher

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Five years ago, every textbook printed at the Al-Saadoun publishing company had to have a color photo of Saddam Hussein on the first page.

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On a recent morning, the noisy printing presses were churning out thousands of booklets promoting the ideas of Shiite Muslim clerics. That would have been unthinkable under Mr. Hussein's regime.

For company owner Muwaffaq Abu Hamra and his prominent Shiite family, the fall of Hussein means religious freedom – the ability of more than half the nation's population to publicly practice their faith without official persecution.

"The Americans did what we could not do: they removed Saddam," says Muwaffaq. "We are indebted to them for that. But we are now close to forgetting this good deed because of the suffering of the past five years."

The experiences of Muwaffaq's family mirror the hardship and determination of many Iraqis since the US invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003. Muwaffaq, like many of his countrymen, today finds fresh hope in the significant drop in violence and sectarian killings over the past few months.

When asked how they expect things to be one year from now, 45 percent of Iraqis said things would be somewhat better or much better, according to the results of a poll commissioned by the BBC and ABC News and released Monday. That's up from 29 percent six months ago, but lower than in 2005. The poll shows that Shiites and Kurds are more optimistic than Sunnis.

But many Iraqis and outside analysts regard the current situation as little more than a fragile cease-fire unless the political order that has been cemented over the past five years is changed. The inability of the Shiite-dominated government to move forward on issues ranging from sharing oil wealth to sharing power with Sunnis is blamed for fragmenting and polarizing the nation in a way never seen before in its contemporary history.

Era of free speech and religion

Few appreciate the distance Iraq has traveled in terms of political and religious freedom more than members of the Abu Hamra family, who are devout Shiites.

Behind a warren of towering concrete blast barriers, workers in their Baghdad printing plant are producing newspapers of all leanings. In Hussein's day, there were only state-sanctioned newspapers. Today, there are 268 privately owned newspapers and 54 commercial TV stations.

The plant is also producing booklets and posters commissioned by an association belonging to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The walls are teeming with religious slogans and posters of revered Shiite figures past and present, put up by employees.

All of this would have led to the closure of the business, and possibly the execution of all the employees and their extended families, during Hussein's rule, according to Abu Hamra. Back then, government agents inspected his publishing house three times a day to make sure no prohibited materials were being printed.