Five years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, officials say the situation in the country has vastly improved - if only in the last year. But human rights organizations say abuses are widespread, and most Iraqis still lack access to basic services. Moreover, there are concerns about how permanent recent security gains will be. Daniel Schearf reports for VOA from the northern Iraqi city of Irbil.
The U.S. military says a surge in U.S. and Iraqi troops, cooperation with Sunni militias, and a cease-fire by a large Shi'ite militia have brought security improvements to broad areas of Iraq.
Thirty thousand U.S. troops and over 100,000 Iraqi police and soldiers were added to security forces last year. Over the last nine months, according to the U.S. military, violence has dropped 60 percent and there are plans to withdraw most of the added U.S. troops by July.
The biggest success story has been in western Anbar province where al-Qaida in Iraq has been driven from what it once considered its home base.
Colonel John Charlton is a commander of U.S. forces in Anbar. He says the U.S. military engaged with local Sunni Sheiks who were fed up with Al Qaida.
"Central Anbar province was a devastated war zone when we arrived in early 2007," he said. "Ramadi was the most violent city per capita in the world, averaging about 30-35 attacks a day. That number is now less than one per week. It's very very rare that we get an attack in our area."
But, Iraq has already seen signs that hard-earned security gains may be slipping away. Gunfire and suicide bombings this year have left hundreds dead, reversing six months of declining casualties.
Iraqi and U.S. officials say the spike in violence is not yet a trend. But they warn the government must quickly improve social services and make progress in political reconciliation so Iraqis are not motivated to join insurgents.
Ali Al-Dabbagh is the Iraqi government spokesman:
"Unless we strengthen the security by having the proper political reform steps, which back up the security, there will be problem[s]," he said.
Iraq's parliament has passed several laws this year seen as key to reconciling Iraq's rival Sunnis, Shi'ites and ethnic Kurds. After much bickering, politicians passed a general amnesty and a law that allows former members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party to reclaim government jobs.
But, politicians are still arguing over long-delayed legislation on sharing revenues from Iraq's oil industry.
U.S. officials have expressed disappointment with the slow pace of reform. Merembe Nantongo is the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Baghdad.
"We're voicing our strong support for positive movement forward but also the sense that American patience and resources are not without limits. Progress needs to be seen. Progress needs to be made," she said.
On the human side, electricity, water, and gasoline remain in short supply, even though Iraq has the third largest oil reserves in the world.
Early on, insurgent sabotage damaged the country's oil installations. Improved security has allowed the industry to pick up. But the government has been slow to spend the revenue, and there are allegations that politicians are siphoning off oil revenues for personal gain.
And the humanitarian situation remains grim.
Two million Iraqis have fled the country since 2003 and another two million are internally displaced, having left their towns and neighborhoods to escape sectarian fighting.
"In 2007 already we founded 37 big camps for those people who have been displaced from their area, said Majim Salum, Secretary General of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society." And, we distribute more than two million food baskets for them and more than 300,000 relief parcels for those people."
Education and health care are lacking; teachers and doctors have fled the violence. And Iraq continues to be dangerous.
In a report released Monday, the human rights group Amnesty International says arbitrary detentions, unfair trials, and even torture and killings are common in Iraq.
Said Boumedouha is a Middle East researcher for Amnesty.
"There have been people who have actually been held, tortured, and then, when released, they were murdered immediately following the release, which shows that there is some kind of cooperation, collaboration between members of the security forces and some of the militia groups. And, I think it is practiced on a large scale," he said.
The report quotes a joint World Health Organization and Iraqi government survey saying over 150,000 Iraqis were killed in fighting by June of 2006.
It says most Iraqis question whether they are better off since the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Sherko Aziz assignments.neb-wire is a 43-year-old Iraqi Christian who fled the violence in Baghdad for northern Iraq.
Aziz says in the beginning most Iraqis welcomed American troops. But, after they saw the horrible situation, most Iraqis would prefer Saddam to be alive.
Despite the violence, most Iraqis welcomed the freedom to vote and, despite a Sunni boycott, voters in large numbers turned out for the 2005 elections.
But, sectarian divisions have threatened to stymie the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
New elections are scheduled for October and, unlike the last election, most Sunnis are expected to participate. If they do, it could help boost the legitimacy of the government and perhaps the security of Iraq.