BAGHDAD (AP) – Along the Tigris River, young Iraqi men and women in jeans and sneakers danced with joyful abandon to a local rapper on a recent evening as the sun set behind them. Worlds away from the terror that followed the US invasion 20 years ago.
The Iraqi capital bustles with life as its residents enjoy a rare peaceful interlude in a painful modern history. The city’s open-air book market is packed with shoppers. Wealthy young men cruise in muscle cars. A few glittering buildings glitter where bombs once fell.
President George W. Bush called the US-led invasion launched on March 20, 2003 a mission to liberate the Iraqi people. She overthrew a dictator whose rule terrified 20 million people for a quarter of a century. But it also broke up a unified state at the heart of the Arab world. About 300,000 Iraqis were killed between 2003 and 2023, along with more than 8,000 US military, contractors and civilians.
Half of today’s population is not old enough to remember life under Saddam Hussein. In interviews from Baghdad to Fallujah, young Iraqis bemoaned the chaos that followed Saddam’s fall, but many hoped for new freedoms and opportunities.
Editor’s note: John Daniszewski and Jerome Delay were in Baghdad 20 years ago when the US bombing began. They came back for this report on how Iraq has changed – especially for young people.
In a reception room decorated with chandeliers, President Abdul Latif Rashid, who took office in October, spoke enthusiastically about Iraq’s prospects. The perception of Iraq as a war-torn country is frozen in time, he told The Associated Press: Iraq is rich; Calm has returned.
If young people “have a little patience, I think life in Iraq will improve drastically.”
Most Iraqis are not nearly as optimistic. Talks begin with bitterness over how the US left Iraq in tatters. But when you talk to younger Iraqis, you sense a generation ready to turn a page.
Safaa Rashid, 26, is a writer discussing politics with friends at a cafe in Baghdad’s Karada district.
After the invasion, Iraq was devastated and violence reigned, he said. It’s different today; He and like-minded people openly talk about solutions. “I think the young people will try to fix this situation.”
Noor Alhuda Saad, 26, a Ph.D. Candidate and political activist, says her generation is leading protests denouncing corruption, demanding services and seeking inclusive elections — and they won’t stop until they build a better Iraq.
Blast walls have given way to billboards, restaurants, cafes, and malls. With 7 million inhabitants, Baghdad is the second largest city in the Middle East; Streets teem with commerce.
There have been occasional clashes with remnants of the Islamic State group in northern and western Iraq. It’s just one of Iraq’s ongoing problems. Another is corruption; A 2022 audit found a network of former officials and businessmen stole $2.5 billion.
In 2019/20 young people protested against corruption and lack of services. After 600 people were killed by government forces and militias, Parliament approved electoral changes to allow more groups to share power.
The sun beats down on Fallujah, the capital of the Anbar region – once a hotbed of Iraq’s al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State group. Carrying the city’s Euphrates Bridge porters, three 18-year-olds come home from school for lunch.
In 2004, this bridge was the scene of a gruesome tableau. Four Americans from the Blackwater Military Company were ambushed, their bodies dragged through the street and hung. For 18-year-olds, it’s a story they’ve heard from families – irrelevant to their lives.
One wants to be a pilot, two want to be doctors. Your focus is on getting good grades.
Fallujah shines with apartments, hospitals, amusement parks, a promenade. But officials were wary of letting Western reporters walk around unaccompanied, a sign of ongoing insecurity.
“We lost a lot – entire families,” recalled Dr. Huthifa Alissawi, a mosque leader, of the war years.
Today he enjoys the security: “If it stays like this, it will be perfect.”
More than 1.5 million people live in Sadr City, a working-class suburb in eastern Baghdad. Two friends have shops next to each other on a polluted avenue. Haider al-Saady, 28, repairs tires. Ali al-Mummadwi, 22, sells wood.
They scoff when they hear the Iraqi President’s promises that life will get better.
“It’s all talk,” al-Saady said.
His companion agrees: “Saddam was a dictator, but people lived better, more peacefully.”
Khalifa OG raps about life’s difficulties and satirizes authority without being overtly political. A song he performed alongside the Tigris mocks “shaykhs” who wield power through wealth or connections in the new Iraq.
Abdullah Rubaie, 24, could barely contain his excitement. “Peace certainly makes it easier” for parties like this, he said. His stepbrother Ahmed Rubaie, 30, agreed.
“We were in a lot of pain… it had to stop,” said Ahmed Rubaie. These young people say that cult hatred is a thing of the past. They are not afraid to make themselves heard.
Mohammed Zuad Khaman, 18, slaves away in his family’s café in a slum of Baghdad. He is annoyed that the militias have seized power as an obstacle to his sporting career. Khaman is a footballer but says he can’t play in Baghdad’s amateur clubs – he has nothing to do with militia gangs.
“If only I could go to London, I would have a different life.”
The new Iraq offers more prospects for educated young Iraqis like Muammel Sharba, 38.
As a lecturer at the Middle Technical University in once-violent Baquba, Sharba left Iraq to pursue a PhD in Hungary. with an Iraqi scholarship. He returned last year, planning to fulfill commitments to his university and then return to Hungary.
Sharba became a biker in Hungary but never thought he could pursue his passion at home. Now he has found a bike community. He also notes better technology and less bureaucracy.
So he wants to stay.
“I don’t think European countries have always been the way they are now,” he said. “I believe that we must also take these steps.”
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