Gallup started listening to the voices of the Iraqi people shortly after the invasion and has been back to interview them every year since 2008. On the 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, we explore how Iraqis see their lives now and how their views have evolved over time.
The question of whether life in Iraq is better or worse now than 20 years ago has no definitive answer. In some ways, the data show the fallout and instability from the war have compounded the misery of millions. But there are modest signals that suggest all is not lost.
Quick Summary: Former President George W. Bush -- supported closely by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- launched his “shock and awe” invasion in March 2003 to destroy alleged “weapons of mass destruction.” After Saddam Hussein’s Baathist rule ended -- symbolized by the famous toppling of his statue -- there was no clear plan for what or who should replace him.
In Gallup’s Poll of Iraq in 2004, we asked Iraqis about their biggest hopes and fears. Their greatest hope, by far, was for security and stability (47%). Their biggest fear for the future was sectarian conflict and civil war (28%).
Their worst fears came true. Sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis soon reignited in a brutal civil war. This contributed to broader volatility in the region and enabled the Islamic State (IS) group to occupy large parts of Iraq between 2014 and 2017.
The Iraq War resulted in an estimated 200,000 Iraqi civilian casualties. Accounting for other deaths in the violent and unstable years that followed, the death total stands at around half a million people.
Fast forward to today: Iraq has been gripped by anti-government protests since 2019. But despite these ongoing protests, after a year of deadlock following the 2021 elections, Iraq finally formed a new government in late 2022.
At least half of Iraqis experience stress, worry, anger, sadness and physical pain daily -- but hope remains.
As IS swept across Iraq between 2014 and 2016, Iraqis collectively experienced more negative emotions -- sadness, worry, anger, stress and physical pain -- on a daily basis than any other country in the world.
Since the fall of IS, the day-to-day emotional burden on Iraqis has been somewhat less, but their scores on the Negative Experience Index remain high, as do the components that make up the index. Majorities of Iraqis in 2022 reported experiencing pain (61%), worry (59%) and stress (53%) during much of the previous day, and nearly half experienced anger (46%) and sadness (45%).
Two decades after the invasion, the mental scars of war remain fresh in the minds of civilians. That said, there is still hope. The proportion of Iraqis who rate their lives positively enough to be considered “thriving” doubled between 2008 and 2022 (9% vs. 19%, respectively).
Further, the 18% who rate their lives poorly enough to be considered “suffering” is now lower than in several neighboring countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
As the security landscape has stabilized following years of conflict and civil war, the proportion of Iraqis who feel safe walking alone at night has risen steadily, hitting a record high (74%) in 2022.
Corruption remains rampant, further undermining Iraqis’ confidence in their leadership.
The sources of Iraq’s political instability are multiple and complex. The accumulation of political power in Iraq is deeply tied to the control of state and natural resources, meaning that political parties and other militias have been reluctant to form stable coalitions necessary to enact decisive change.
Saddam’s removal signaled the end of three decades of Baathist rule. The process of de-Baathification, without a clear succession plan, undermined state and military structures and fueled violent divisions between Iraqis. Law and order collapsed and hampered attempts to rebuild the Iraqi state.
Perceptions of political corruption have been resolutely high since 2018. The majority of Iraqis (88%) said government corruption was widespread in 2022, rivaling only Nigeria (94%), Lebanon (91%), Kenya (90%), Puerto Rico (90%) and Ghana (88%) for the highest in the world.
Despite some fluctuations, Iraqis’ confidence in their own government is lower than 15 years ago. In 2022, significantly more Iraqis said they did not have confidence in their national government (63%) than said they did (37%), contributing to the anti-government protests.
The economic picture remains bleak, but Iraqis see a brighter tomorrow.
Economic progress has been challenging in the aftermath of war. Iraq’s economy remains dependent on oil, which accounts for over 99% of exports. The COVID-19 pandemic and oil price shock, among other factors, meant that 2020 was the worst year for economic growth in Iraq since the fall of Saddam in 2003.
The proportion of Iraqis struggling to afford food increased rapidly in the immediate leadup to the emergence of IS in 2014 and was still resolutely high in 2022 (41%), well above the total in 2008 (25%).
The perceived state of employment in Iraq is bleak: Almost two-thirds (65%) believed 2022 was a bad time to look for a job. Frustration with unemployment was another key driver behind mass protests in 2019. These protests represented both a visible demonstration of democratic civic engagement and the start of a violent security crackdown that left hundreds dead.
Despite the difficulties of widespread poverty and high unemployment, Iraqis’ economic outlook is resilient. About two-thirds (68%) say they are satisfied with their standard of living, and their outlook is positive: More Iraqis think their living standards are getting better than getting worse (53% vs. 31%).
In short, there are some small signs that the foundations of Iraq’s economy are moving in the right direction, despite the huge structural challenges it still faces.
Economic progress remains deeply challenging in the Iraq of 2023, and material suffering has gone hand-in-hand with emotional suffering.
Iraq is also a fundamentally different country today. It is now a country of 40 million inhabitants, almost double the figure at the start of the war. The majority of Iraqis are under the age of 25. The horrors of war have defined childhood for millions of young Iraqis who have never known life in a stable state.
Yet even after years of turmoil, there are some shoots of hope. The country is at once defined by progress and deterioration. Their biggest hope from 2014 -- security and stability -- has been achieved to a degree, but there is a long way to go.
What remains clear is that two decades after the invasion, the scars of war run deep.
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