As Iraqis mark the fourth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion, many people are expressing frustration and fear about the future of their country. VOA's Margaret Besheer spoke to Iraqis in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil, where many have gone to flee the violence of Baghdad.
This 26-year-old barber we will call Georges is a Christian from the city of Mosul. He and everyone else interviewed for this story asked to use an alias, out of fear for their personal security and that of their families.
Georges says three weeks ago his father was kidnapped. The family borrowed $40,000 from relatives and friends to pay his captors. His father was released unharmed a few days later. His entire family has now left Mosul.
Unfortunately, Georges' story is not unique. Kidnapping has become a major criminal industry in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, when many people were optimistic that the situation in the country would improve.
War-weary Iraqis say they never imagined their lives would be worse than under Saddam Hussein's repressive regime, with its years of war with Iran and then U.N.-imposed sanctions. But daily kidnappings, and terrorist and sectarian attacks have killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and replaced the old horrors with new ones.
A poll conducted by USA Today newspaper, ABC News and the BBC found that six in 10 Iraqis now say their lives are going badly. Only one in three expect things to get better in the next year.
Khattab, a 26-year-old Sunni teacher from Baghdad, says the situation has gone from bad to worse.
He too knows the daily fear of sectarian killings and kidnappings.
His father was shot and killed, and, in 2005, Khatab was abducted and held for two months. After his family paid a ransom, he fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan. He returned to Iraq three months ago, settling in Iraqi Kurdistan, where there has not been a bombing in more than a year and a half.
Khattab says, "if the government officials in Baghdad have 100 guards and they still cannot protect themselves, how are they going to protect us?"
Some people, like Abu Karem, a Kurd who lived in Baghdad most of his life and moved here two years ago, are hopeful the recent surge in U.S. troops in Baghdad and the volatile western province of al-Anbar will help bring the security situation under control.
But Amir, a carpenter from the southern Shi'ite city of Karbala, is less hopeful. He says Iraq will never know lasting peace and security until the last drop of oil runs out.
In January 2005, millions of Iraqis defied terrorist threats and voted in national elections. Many are disappointed with the government they elected.
Georges, the young barber from Mosul, says the current Iraqi government only represents the country's Shi'ites. He says Iraq needs a new government, one that represents all Iraqis.
The United Nations estimates that about two million Iraqis have been displaced since the invasion. Many have gone to Syria or Jordan. Among those fleeing are Iraq's intellectual and professional elite.
Haidar is from Baghdad. He says, in the past four years, many scientists, teachers, doctors, engineers, translators and educated people have been killed. Among them, six of his friends who were engineers.
There is frustration with the slow pace of reconstruction, which has been paralyzed by the lack of security, leaving electricity, water, fuel and other basic services in short supply.
But despite hardships and danger, many Iraqis say they do not want to leave their country. They also say they do not want to see their homeland partitioned into separate Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish regions.