Violence and insecurity are no longer the most pressing concerns for most Iraqis since the invasion in 2003, a poll released yesterday has found.
Figures from a survey conducted in February for the BBC and others show a marked increase in the optimism of many people and a change to more conventional preoccupations, such as unemployment and the economy.
Perceptions of national security have shown a marked improvement, with 85 per cent of all respondents agreeing that the current situation was very good or quite good, up 23 per cent on a year ago. More than half say that security has improved in the last year, up 16 per cent on figures from March 2008 and nearly three in five say they feel safe in their neighbourhoods, up 22 per cent.
There was a 14 per cent increase, to 60 per cent, of those who think things will be better in Iraq as a whole in a year from now.
Speaking at a press conference at the Foreign Press Association, Haider al Abbadi, a member of the Iraqi Parliament and Chair of its Economic and Reconstruction Committee, confirmed this feeling of optimism.
In measured tones, he quoted the statistic that the number of violent and terrorist incidents had fallen by 90 per cent in the last year. He said: “There has been a marked development in the security field and, in my opinion, the improvement in security has passed the no return line.”
However, he argued that improving the economy and creating jobs were vital if security gains were to be maintained. Unemployment in Iraq is currently at 15 per cent, a figure which al Abbadi argues could provide fodder for dissident groups. He said:
“Of course there is unemployment in every country. But in Iraq, unemployment is more difficult and more complex because there are many criminal and terrorist organisations that try to recruit unemployed people.
“It is in the interest of the country to create jobs.”
The Iraqi government have long been voicing their committment to diversifying the country’s oil-dependent economy into agriculture and trade. More than 1,000 of the dispossessed “intellectuals” that left the country in the wake of the 2003 invasion have reportedly returned to the country over the last year and officials claim that there has been much interest in construction contracts from China, Jordan and Iran.
However, the planned reconstruction works face severe pressure from the financial squeeze. Despite several loans from Asian countries, including Japan and China, the proposed budget of $56bn has still not been ratified by the Iraqi parliament due to the decline in profits from oil exports, which are currently priced at under $40 per barrel after a high of $150 last summer.
This stagnancy in economic development could potentially destroy the fragile peace that has settled over Iraq. Earlier this month, Army Lt. Frank Helmick, commander of Multinational Security Transition Command, said that Iraq’s shrinking budget may force the parliament to choose between the economy and security.
“They are many, many hard decisions that they are going to have to make”, he said.