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Where does Iraq stand now — 20 years after the U.S. invasion?


Twenty years ago today, the U.S. bypassed the United Nations and began its invasion of Iraq - a sovereign nation. The pretext for that war was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. It was a false premise. What began with airstrikes three weeks later toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Then came the U.S. occupation and years of overlapping conflicts - first an insurgency, then a sectarian civil war, then an ISIS takeover of much of the country. About 4,600 American troops died, and at least 270,000 Iraqis were killed. Most of the dead were civilians, and millions of Iraqis are still displaced. On the anniversary of the day it all started, NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us with the view from Baghdad. Hi, Ruth.


FADEL: So, Ruth, how are Iraqis reflecting on this day - this anniversary?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, Leila, I'm in Firdos Square now which you might remember is where...

FADEL: Yeah.

SHERLOCK: ...The statue of Saddam Hussein was famously torn down in the days after the invasion. Now there's big fountains behind me and palm trees, but there's not much going on to mark the anniversary. You know, for lots of Iraqis, this is a pretty muted or sad day. I spoke with one couple who was walking home across the square with these giant bunches of flowers because the woman, Zainab, had just graduated from Baghdad University. Her husband, Mazen Hussein, was actually in the square when the Saddam statue fell.

MAZEN HUSSEIN: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: He said, "you know, Saddam ruled for 35 years. And in just a matter of days, he was removed from power." He says it was overwhelming. He was 12 at the time and felt very, very afraid.

FADEL: Right.

SHERLOCK: And he and his wife, like many people here, did not support the invasion. And lots of Iraqis I've spoken with in these last few days feel that the invasion set Iraq on this kind of path to destruction with all the sectarian wars that followed. Some people I've spoken to say, you know, they'll mark today by remembering the loved ones that have been killed these years.

FADEL: You know, the last time I was in Baghdad was probably over a decade ago now, and it was a city of towering blast walls separating neighborhoods. Car bombs were still pretty common. What's it like today?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, it is generally better. Those blast walls you mentioned, there are fewer of those. Some of the checkpoints have been removed. And at nighttime, there's music spilling out onto the streets from restaurants and bars. But, you know, life is still really hard for Iraqis in general. There is a - still a security situation, some attacks by ISIS, roadside bombs and militia violence, but also almost worse for many people in their daily lives is the fact that the health care system, the education system here, is crumbling. Even things like electricity are sporadic. So, you know, life remains really hard. And one of the things I think is telling is that lots of the young people I speak to here, some of them are politically active, trying to have - hold protests for better governance, but also they'll say, you know, if they had the chance, they would leave this country.

FADEL: Now, Ruth, you also went to Fallujah, the scene of some big U.S. battles. What did your trip there say about where Iraq is today?

SHERLOCK: Well, you know, listeners might find it surprising because Fallujah looks pretty great these days. There's these really big construction projects around. I spoke to one Iraqi investor who's putting, you know, almost $30 million of his own money into a luxury housing project there. I also met Souad Mikki. She teaches English at a school there, and I asked her about the future.

SOUAD MIKKI: I hope it will be better. I hope. I hope it will be better.

SHERLOCK: Do you feel like it will be better, or you don't have trust in the future?

MIKKI: No. I don't trust the future, but I hope - not trust.

SHERLOCK: You know, after the U.S. invasion, this city was then taken over by ISIS, and then there was a war to oust them. So it's hard for people to enjoy the stability and feel secure about the future. Even that investor I mentioned, he said he's committing this money because as a former soldier, he's not against taking risks.

FADEL: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Baghdad. Thank you so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.