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

Mar 16, 2023, 7:22 PM
Women stand on the "martyrs' bridge" spanning the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Feb. 24, 2...
Women stand on the "martyrs' bridge" spanning the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Along the Tigris River, young Iraqi men and women in jeans and sneakers danced with joyous abandon on a recent evening to a local rapper as the sun set behind them. It’s a world away from the terror that followed the U.S. invasion 20 years ago.

Iraq’s capital is full of life, its residents enjoying a rare peaceful interlude in a painful modern history. The city’s open-air book market is crammed with shoppers. Affluent young men cruise muscle cars. A few glitzy buildings sparkle where bombs once fell.

President George W. Bush called the U.S.-led invasion launched March 20, 2003, a mission to free the Iraqi people. It threw out a dictator whose rule kept 20 million people in fear for a quarter-century. But it also broke a unified state in the heart of the Arab world. About 300,000 Iraqis were killed between 2003 and 2019, along with more than 8,000 U.S. military, contractors and civilians.

Half of today’s population isn’t old enough to remember life under Saddam Hussein. In interviews from Baghdad to Fallujah, young Iraqis deplored the chaos that followed Saddam’s ouster, but many were hopeful about nascent freedoms and opportunities.


Editor’s note: John Daniszewski and Jerome Delay were in Baghdad 20 years ago when the U.S. bombing began. They returned for this report on how Iraq has changed –—especially for young people.


In a chandeliered reception room, President Abdul Latif Rashid, who assumed office in October, spoke glowingly of Iraq’s prospects. 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 are “a little bit patient, I think life will improve drastically in Iraq.”

Most Iraqis aren’t nearly as bullish. Conversations start with bitterness about how the U.S. left Iraq in tatters. But speaking to younger Iraqis, one senses a generation ready to turn a page.

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

After the invasion, Iraq lay broken, violence reigning, he said. Today is different; he and like-minded peers freely 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 has been leading protests decrying corruption, demanding services and seeking inclusive elections — and they won’t stop until they’ve built a better Iraq.


Blast walls have given way to billboards, restaurants, cafes, shopping centers. With 7 million inhabitants, Baghdad is the Middle East’s second-largest city; streets teem with commerce.

In northern and western Iraq, there are occasional clashes with remnants of the Islamic State group. It’s but one of Iraq’s lingering 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 were killed by government forces and militias, parliament agreed to election changes to allow more groups to share power.


The sun bakes down on Fallujah, the main city of the Anbar region — once a hotbed of activity for al-Qaida of 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, this bridge was the site of a gruesome tableau. Four Americans from military contractor Blackwater were ambushed, their bodies dragged through the street and hung. For the 18-year-olds, it’s a story they’ve heard from families — irrelevant to their lives.

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

Fallujah gleams with apartments, hospitals, amusement parks, a promenade. But officials were wary of letting Western reporters wander unescorted, a sign of lingering uncertainty.

“We lost a lot — whole families,” said Dr. Huthifa Alissawi, a mosque leader recalling the war years.

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


Sadr City, a working-class suburb in eastern Baghdad, is home to more than 1.5 million people. On a pollution-choked avenue, two friends have side-by-side shops. Haider al-Saady, 28, fixes tires. Ali al-Mummadwi, 22, sells lumber.

They scoff when told of the Iraqi president’s promises that life will be better.

“It is all talk,” al-Saady said.

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


Khalifa OG raps about difficulties of life and satirizes authority, but isn’t blatantly political. A song he performed next to the Tigris mocks “sheikhs” wielding power in the new Iraq through wealth or connections.

Abdullah Rubaie, 24, could barely contain his excitement. “Peace for sure makes it easier” for parties like this, he said. His stepbrother Ahmed Rubaie, 30, agreed.

“We had a lot of pain … it had to stop,” Ahmed Rubaie said. These young people say sectarian hatred is a thing of the past. They’re unafraid to make their voices heard.


Mohammed Zuad Khaman, 18, toils in his family’s café in a poor Baghdad neighborhood. He resents the militias’ hold on power as an obstacle to his sports career. Khaman’s a footballer, but says he can’t play in Baghdad’s amateur clubs — he has no “in” with militia-related gangs.

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

The new Iraq offers more promise for educated young Iraqis like Muammel Sharba, 38.

A lecturer at Middle Technical University in once violence-torn Baquba, Sharba left Iraq for Hungary to earn a Ph.D. on an Iraqi scholarship. He returned last year, planning to fulfil obligations to his university and then move back to Hungary.

Sharba became an biker in Hungary but never imagined he could pursue his passion at home. Now, he’s found a cycling community. He notices better technology and less bureaucracy, too.

So he plans to remain.

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


John Daniszewski is AP’s vice president for standards and editor at large. Jerome Delay is chief photographer in Johannesburg, South Africa. AP reporter Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Abby Sewell, AP’s Syria, Lebanon and Iraq news director, contributed from Baghdad.


Associated Press

US Mideast envoy hopeful Saudi-Iran détente will help region

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — The Biden administration is hopeful that warming ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia will help deescalate conflicts and crises across the Middle East, a senior U.S. diplomat said Thursday. The détente between the two regional heavyweights could help bring Yemen’s nine-year civil war to an end, Barbara Leaf said. Earlier this […]
16 hours ago
FILE - Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik speaks during a news conference after claiming victory in ...
Associated Press

Blinken compares Bosnia Serb leader to Putin

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has compared the policies of the Bosnia Serb separatist leader to those of Russian President Vladimir Putin following his moves to curb dissent and LGBTQ rights. Blinken tweeted late Wednesday that “Milorad Dodik’s attacks on basic rights and freedoms in Republika Srpska show he is […]
16 hours ago
FILE - Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov attends a meeting in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday,...
Associated Press

Russia to keep missile test notices under Cold War-era deal

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia will continue to give the U.S. advance notice about its missile tests despite suspending the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between the two countries, a top Russian diplomat said Thursday. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov’s statement reversed one he made Wednesday, when he said Moscow had halted all information exchanges with […]
16 hours ago
A worker is silhouetted against spectators seats at Gelora Bung Tomo Stadium, one of the venues pre...
Associated Press

Tears, anger as Indonesian soccer fears FIFA sanctions

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesian soccer players and fans reacted with tears and outrage after the country was stripped of hosting rights for the Under-20 World Cup only eight weeks before the start of the tournament amid political turmoil over Israel’s participation, leaving Indonesian soccer at risk of further sanctions. The youth soccer event was […]
16 hours ago
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen leaves a hotel in New York, Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Yu...
Associated Press

China renews warnings as Taiwan’s Tsai stops over in US

BEIJING (AP) — As Taiwan’s president began a stopover in the United States on her way to Central America, China said it was closely watching developments and would “resolutely safeguard our sovereignty and territorial integrity.” China claims Taiwan as its own territory to be brought under its control by force if necessary, and portrays the […]
16 hours ago
Pope Francis waves to faithful during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, at the Vat...
Associated Press

Responding to Indigenous, Vatican rejects Discovery Doctrine

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican on Thursday responded to Indigenous demands and formally repudiated the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the theories backed by 15th-century “papal bulls” that legitimized the colonial-era seizure of Native lands and form the basis of some property law today. A Vatican statement said the papal bulls, or decrees, “did not adequately […]
16 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.
Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.
SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!
safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
20 years after U.S. invasion, young Iraqis see signs of hope