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20 years after the U.S. invasion, many young Iraqis say their lives were shaped by it


As we approach 20 years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a look at what life is like there - country's seen two decades of conflict, the anti-U.S. insurgency, sectarian warfare, an ISIS surge and defeat. Some estimates say at least 200,000 Iraqis have died in violence over that time. Some 4,600 U.S. troops were killed. Iraq has also had several elected governments though plagued by corruption and dysfunction. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is in Baghdad. Ruth, thanks so much for being with us.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What's the city like today, 20 years after?

SHERLOCK: It looks a lot better than in recent years. There are fewer of those high concrete blast walls, and some checkpoints have been taken down. I'm in Firdos Square at the moment. That's where the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously torn down. Here now, there's a series of palm trees and fountains. But the reality, Scott, is that life is still very tough for Iraqis. There are security issues like roadside bombs and ISIS and militia violence. There's also just problems with the basics. Like, for example, there are constant power cuts and a terrible health care system. This is an oil-rich nation. It shouldn't be like this. Iraq has the money, but it's struggling under corruption that is seeing many of those funds squandered.

SIMON: Ruth, I gather you've been talking especially to young Iraqis, who have grown up since Saddam Hussein. How do they see things now?

SHERLOCK: Yeah, so this is a generation whose whole lives have really been shaped by the U.S. invasion. For many, their earliest memories are of war. One man I spoke to remembers U.S. soldiers raiding the home he was in. And they kicked and beat his uncle when he tried to stop them from searching the women of the family, which is a violation in this conservative culture. And then I spoke with Hajar Hadi. She's an assistant lecturer in science at Baghdad University. She told me about living through the brutal years of sectarian violence that followed the invasion.

HAJAR HADI: Most of our teenage years were more scary, like, because you would see a lot of dead bodies lying on the street, or you would fear for your family being taken by a bombing or being kidnapped. We would fear our closest neighbors.

SHERLOCK: Most of the young people I spoke with felt that the U.S. has destroyed their country. They said, yes, Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but that doesn't make the state that Iraq has been reduced to today OK. Many in this young generation are trying to build a better Iraq. There have been huge protests against corruption and calling for better governance.

SIMON: Even Americans who don't remember the war much remember the name Fallujah. That's the scene of two huge battles between U.S. troops and insurgents. You went to Fallujah this week and, I gather, found something that might surprise a lot of people.

SHERLOCK: Right. Well, it's a completely different city to how you might imagine these days. I found lovely cafes and ice cream parlors and restaurants, and there's lots of different construction projects. I spoke to one investor who said he's put almost $30 million of his own money into a luxury housing project. I asked him if he didn't think this was a little risky considering the recent history of the city. But he said, you know, now that neither the U.S. or ISIS control the city, there's a high level of optimism. In fact, he sold more than 75% of the apartments he's building. The city is so calm now that in one neighborhood, I found kids walking home alone from school, you know, just with their friends unaccompanied. Even just a few years ago, just going to school would have been too dangerous.

SIMON: How do you think a lot of Iraqis may mark the 20-year anniversary?

SHERLOCK: Well, some politicians here might use it to make political speeches, but most people I've spoken to say they might just use the day to quietly remember the loved ones that they lost in the war.

SIMON: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Baghdad. Thanks so much, Ruth.

SHERLOCK: Thanks a lot, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF WASHED OUT'S "MILES' LULLABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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.