20 years after U.S. invasion, young Iraqis see signs of hope


BAGHDAD — On the banks of the Tigris River, young Iraqi men and women in jeans and sneakers danced happily to a local rapper on a recent evening as the sun set behind them. It is out of this world. After which terrorism happened. American invasion 20 years ago.

Iraq’s capital is full of life, its residents enjoying an unusually peaceful break in a painful modern history. The open book market of the city is full of buyers. Wealthy young people travel in muscle cars. A few gleaming buildings gleam where bombs once fell.

President George W. Bush described the US-led invasion launched on March 20, 2003 as a mission to liberate the Iraqi people. He overthrew a dictator whose rule had kept 20 million people in terror for a quarter of a century. But it also shattered a unified state in the heart of the Arab world. Between 2003 and 2023, approximately 300,000 Iraqis, as well as 8,000 US soldiers, contractors and civilians, were killed.

Half of today’s population is not old enough to remember the life of Saddam Hussein. In interviews from Baghdad to Fallujah, young Iraqis lamented the chaos that followed Saddam’s ouster, but many were optimistic about new freedoms and opportunities.

Editor’s note: John Daniszewski and Jerome Daley were in Baghdad when the American bombing began 20 years ago. He returned to report how Iraq had changed – especially for the youth.

In a chandelier-lit reception room, President Abdul Latif Rashid, who took office in October, spoke glowingly of Iraq’s prospects. The perception of Iraq as a war-torn country is frozen in time, he told The Associated Press: Iraq is rich; Peace has returned.

If young people “have a little patience, I think life in Iraq will be a lot better.”

Most Iraqis are not that fast. The conversation begins with a bitter account of how America destroyed Iraq. But speaking to young Iraqis, a generation feels ready to turn a page.

Safa Rashid, 26, is a writer who discusses politics with friends at a coffee shop in Baghdad’s Karada district.

He said that after the attack, Iraq fell apart, violence reigned. Today is different. He and like-minded colleagues freely discuss solutions. “I think young people will try to fix this situation.”

Noor Al-Hada Saad, 26, a PhD candidate and political activist, says her generation has been leading protests against corruption, demanding services and calling for inclusive elections – and she has until then. They will not stop until they create a better Iraq.

Blast walls have given way to billboards, restaurants, cafes, shopping centers. With 7 million inhabitants, Baghdad is the second largest city in the Middle East. The streets are full of commerce.

There are occasional clashes with remnants of the Islamic State group in northern and western Iraq. This is one of Iraq’s long-standing problems. The second is corruption. A 2022 audit found that a network of former officials and businessmen stole $2.5 billion.

In 2019-20, youth protested against corruption and lack of services. After 600 were killed by government forces and militias, parliament agreed to electoral changes to allow more groups to take power.

The sun is setting over Fallujah, the capital city of Anbar region – once a hotbed of activity for al-Qaeda in Iraq and later the Islamic State group. Beneath the girders of the city’s bridge across the Euphrates, three 18-year-olds return home from school for lunch.

In 2004, the bridge was the site of an eerie tableau. Four Americans from military contractor Blackwater were ambushed, their bodies dragged through the streets and hanged. For 18-year-olds, it’s a story they’ve heard from families — unrelated to their lives.

One wants to be a pilot, two wants to be a doctor. Their focus is on good grades.

Fallujah sparkles with apartments, hospitals, amusement parks, a promenade. But officials were wary of allowing Western reporters to wander around at random, a sign of lingering uncertainty.

“We lost a lot – whole families,” said Dr. Hatifa Elisawi, a mosque leader recalling the war years.

These days, he enjoys the security: “If it stays like it is now, it’s perfect.”

Sadr City is a working-class suburb in eastern Baghdad, home to more than 1.5 million people. On a polluted street, two friends shop side by side. Haider al-Saadi, 28, is repairing tires. Ali Al Mamdavi, 22, sells firewood.

He scoffs when told of the Iraqi president’s promises that life will get better.

“It’s all talk,” Al-Saadi said.

His colleague agrees: “Saddam was a dictator, but the people were living better, in peace.”

Khalifa OG raps about the hardships of life and sneers at authority, but isn’t overtly political. A song he performed with Tijla mocked the “sheikhs” who wielded power in the new Iraq through wealth or connections.

24-year-old Abdullah Ruby could barely contain his excitement. “It certainly makes peace easier” for such parties, he said. His half-brother, Ahmed Ruby, 30, agreed.

“It hurt us a lot … it had to stop,” Ahmed Rubai said. These youths say that communal hatred is a thing of the past. They are not afraid to make their voice heard.

18-year-old Mohammad Zawad Khamen works in his family’s cafe in a poor neighborhood in Baghdad. He resents the militia’s grip on power as a hindrance to his sports career. Khamen is a footballer, but says he cannot play in Baghdad’s amateur clubs – he has nothing to do with militia-related groups.

“I wish I could go to London, my life would be different.”

A new Iraq holds more promise for educated young Iraqis like 38-year-old Momal Sharba.

Once a lecturer at the Middle Technical University in the violent Baquba, Sharba left Iraq for Hungary to pursue a Ph.D. On Iraqi scholarship. He returned last year, intending to fulfill his university obligations and then return to Hungary.

Sharba became a biker in Hungary but never imagined that he could pursue his passion at home. Now, it’s got a cycling community. He also sees better technology and less bureaucracy.

“I don’t think European countries were always like they are now,” he said. “I believe we need to go through these stages as well.”

John Deniszewski is AP’s vice president of standards and editor-at-large. Jerome Dele is the chief photographer in Johannesburg, South Africa. AP reporter Qasim Abdul-Zahra and Abby Sewell, AP’s Syria, Lebanon and Iraq news director, contributed from Baghdad.

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