Where Things Stand

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Sabri Nama, a foreman at the Amarah Paper Mill

On the dock of Abu Fulus port, 20 miles south of Basra, Bassem Saghair deftly works the controls of a crane as he unloads air-conditioning units from the hold of the Hussaini. The ship is one of a dozen crowding the waterfront that have sailed from Dubai up the Shatt al-Arab River laden with consumer goods. Saghair, 15, quit school for this job, which pays $360 a month, double the highest salary any Iraqi official earns from U.S.-occupation authorities.

"Life is not bad," says Saghair, with a shy smile spreading under the beginnings of a mustache. Abu Fulus, which means "father of money," was little used during Saddam Hussein's regime, but with U.N. sanctions against Iraq lifted and all import and customs controls unenforced, the port has become an unofficial entry point for used cars, electronics, clothes and food. There are no government officials here and no British soldiers from the garrison in Basra. Merchants walk up and down the dock, shouting purchase orders into satellite phones as young men in jeans with AK-47s guard against pirates who prowl the river in motorboats. As in the American frontier a century ago, fortunes are being made almost overnight in Iraq, and with the same lack of control. As Saghair hoists a load of fruit from the bottom of the hold, a coconut falls out of the lifting net, narrowly missing a docker's head. What safety procedures are in place at the port? he is asked. He smiles again: "There is no law here."

The Road to Reconstruction in Northern Iraq

Is Life in Iraq Better or Worse Without Saddam?

A Look at Post-War Life in Three Different Iraqi Cities

  Iraq: Where Things Stand
  Photos: Iraq's New Dynamism
  The Wounded Come Home
  Can the Iraquis Police Iraq?

Iraq is a country where lawlessness comes in many forms. At its most lethal it is the car bombs in Baghdad, the ambushes of U.S. troops around Fallujah, the shootings in Tikrit. But outside the deadly Sunni triangle, the absence of law has produced a chaotic sense of freedom that leaves Iraqis both exhilarated and terrified. To get a clearer picture of conditions in the entirety of Iraq—particularly in the north and south, which have received less media attention—TIME teamed up with ABC News to travel the length of the country, visiting more than 30 towns and conducting more than 600 interviews with Iraqis from all levels of society. We found dramatic contrasts between Greater Baghdad and the rest of the country.

Security, which almost all Iraqis say is their major concern, is far better in both the north and south than it is in the capital. Electricity is much more reliable outside Baghdad. There are almost no power cuts in the south, a region that often had six or less hours of electricity a day before the war.

Schools are mostly back to normal, and commerce is booming as goods flood in across the Turkish and Kuwaiti borders. The military presence of the U.S. in the north and the British in the south is far less visible than are the U.S. forces in and around Baghdad. Despite sporadic ambushes, the foreign troops are largely tolerated by locals, who tend to view them as a necessary evil until a viable Iraqi administration is in place.

There are many complaints—about the increase in banditry on the roads, the slow pace of reconstruction, the rise in prices, the shortage of jobs caused in part by the U.S. dissolution of the Iraqi government and army. But when people in the north and the south were asked whether life has improved since the war, the answer, in Arabic, often came automatically: "Tab'an ahsan" ("Of course, better"). In the village of Duluiyah, in central Iraq, Abdel Fattah al-Juburi, a longtime opponent of the Saddam regime, says of the occupation, "It's clear we got the better of two evils."

Way up in the northern hills of Iraq sits the Christian village of Alqosh. After the U.S. toppled Saddam, improvements were felt there almost immediately. For 12 years, Alqosh existed in a restricted area between Saddam's army and the Kurdish resistance. An army roadblock outside the village severely constrained travel and the movement of goods. After Saddam's fall, the roadblock vanished. Now village stores are crowded with customers lining up to buy refrigerators and televisions. "There is lots of construction now," says Salam Nissan Shamoun, the postmaster. "Before, we couldn't even bring in a single bag of cement." About 25 miles to the south lies Mosul, which is similarly revived. The markets are full of new goods, restaurants are open late and a brightly lit Ferris wheel dominates the amusement park beside the Tigris River.

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