Twenty years after the US invasion, young Iraqis see signs of hope

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. It’s a world away from the terror that followed the US invasion 20 years ago.

Iraq’s capital is full of life, its residents enjoying a rare peaceful interlude in a harrowing modern history. The city’s open-air book market is crowded with buyers. Wealthy young people cruise around in muscle cars. A few gleaming buildings gleam where the bombs once fell.

President George W. Bush called the US-led invasion, which began on March 20, 2003, a mission to liberate the Iraqi people. He overthrew a dictator whose rule had kept 20 million people in fear for a quarter of a century. But it also fractured the unified state at the heart of the Arab world. About 300,000 Iraqis were killed between 2003 and 2019, along with more than 8,000 US military personnel, 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 lamented the chaos that followed Saddam’s ouster, but many hoped for the dawning of 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 to get this report on how Iraq has changed, especially for the youth.


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

If the youth are “a little patient, I think life in Iraq will improve dramatically.”

Most Iraqis are not so optimistic. The conversations begin with bitterness about how the US left Iraq in tatters. But talking to young Iraqis, you sense a generation ready to turn the page.

Safaa Rashid, 26, a writer, talks politics with friends at a coffee shop in Baghdad’s Qarad neighborhood.

After the invasion, Iraq was broken, violent, he said. Today, things are different; he and like-minded people talk freely about solutions. “I think the youth will try to correct this situation.”

Noor Alhuda Saad, 26, Ph.D. candidate and political activist, says her generation is leading protests decrying corruption, demanding services and pushing for inclusive elections — and they won’t stop until they build a better Iraq.


The walls gave way to billboards, restaurants, cafes, and shopping centers. With 7 million inhabitants, Baghdad is the second largest city in the Middle East; the streets are bustling with commerce.

Clashes with remnants of the Islamic State group periodically occur in the north and west of Iraq. This is just one of Iraq’s perennial problems. Another is corruption; a 2022 audit found that a network of former officials and businessmen had stolen $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 agreed to electoral changes to allow more factions to share power.


The sun is scorching over Fallujah, the main city of the Anbar region, once a hotbed of activity for Al-Qaeda in Iraq and later for the Islamic State group. Under the beams of the city’s bridge over the Euphrates, three 18-year-old boys return home from school for lunch.

In 2004, this bridge was the site of a gruesome painting. Four Americans from the Blackwater military company were ambushed, their bodies dragged through the street and hanged. For 18-year-olds, it’s a story they’ve heard from their families – irrelevant to their lives.

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

Fallujah shines with apartments, hospitals, amusement parks, waterfront. But officials have been wary of allowing Western reporters to roam unescorted, a sign of lingering uncertainty.

“We lost a lot – entire families,” said Dr. Hutifa Alisawi, the head of the mosque, recalling the war years.

These days, he enjoys security: “If things stay the way they are now, that’s perfect.”


Sadr City, a working-class suburb in eastern Baghdad, is home to more than 1.5 million people. On a polluted avenue, two friends have shops next to each other. Haider al-Saadi, 28, repairs tires. Ali al-Mumadwi, 22, sells lumber.

They laugh when they talk about the president’s promises to Iraq that life will be better.

“It’s all talk,” al-Saadi said.

His companion agrees: “Saddam was a dictator, but people lived better, peacefully.”


Khalifa OG raps about the hardships of life and satirizes authority without being overtly political. The song he performed next to the Tigris mocks the “sheikhs” who wield power in the new Iraq through wealth or connections.

24-year-old Abdullah Rubai could barely contain his excitement. “Peace certainly facilitates” such parties, he said. His half-brother, Ahmed Rubai, 30, agreed.

“We were in a lot of pain … it had to stop,” Ahmed Rubai said. These young people say that sectarian hatred is a thing of the past. They are not afraid to make their voice heard.


Mohammed Zuad Hamman, 18, works in his family’s coffee shop in a poor neighborhood of Baghdad. He resents the fact that the militias have power as an obstacle to his sports career. Haman is a soccer player, but says he can’t play in Baghdad’s amateur clubs because he doesn’t associate with militia-related gangs.

“If I could only get to London, I would have a different life.”

The new Iraq offers more prospects for educated young Iraqis like 38-year-old Muamel Sharba.

A lecturer at the Secondary Technical University in the once violence-ridden Baquba, Sharba left Iraq for Hungary to pursue a Ph.D. on an Iraqi scholarship. He returned last year, planning to fulfill his university commitments and then return to Hungary.

Sharba became a biker in Hungary, but never thought he would be able to pursue his passion at home. Now he has founded a cycling community. He also notices better technology and less bureaucracy.

So he plans to stay.

“I don’t think European countries have always been like they are now,” he said. “I believe that we also need to go through these steps.”


John Daniszewski is AP’s vice president of standards and managing editor. Jerome Delay is a principal photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. AP reporter Kasim Abdul-Zahra and Abby Sewell, AP news director for Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, contributed from Baghdad.

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