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Violence surges even as conditions improve

18 months after the war's end, NBC's Richard Engel provides a reality check on everything from the surge in violence to the improving infrastructure. 

Iraqis watching Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's speech on a television at a Baghdad cafe were skeptical.

"In Samarra, the Iraqi government has tackled the insurgents who once controlled the city," Allawi told members of the U.S. Congress.

"What he's saying isn't true. I can't even name an Iraqi city where there aren't clashes," said one Iraqi citizen.

Thursday, there were more clashes between U.S. troops and insurgents in Samarra and Sadr City — two of the eight strongholds guerrillas control. The others? Fallujah, Ramadi, Baqubah, Tall Afar, Mahmudiya and Beiji.

"What we have now, ironically, is a situation where Iraq is now more of a terror state safe haven today, than it was when Saddam was in power," says terrorism expert and NBC News analyst Roger Cressey.

It seems to be getting worse. In September alone, there were 990 attacks on American troops — up 100 percent since last January. But increasingly, Iraqis themselves are targeted — 706 police have been killed in the past 18 months along with between 3,000-6,000 civilians. The instability forced the U.S. to divert $3 billion from reconstruction to security.

So where does the reconstruction stand?

  • Electricity: There is more than under Saddam but demand is up 80 percent, so it's still rationed — four hours on, two hours off.
  • Water: U.S. officials say there's no clean drinking water in all of Iraq because of sewage contamination.
  • Oil: The biggest problem is sabotage, keeping overall production short of the three million target, at 2.6 million barrels a day.
  • Jobs: A major improvement — one year ago, 60 percent of Iraqis were unemployed. Today, it's almost half that — 30-40 percent.

Iraqis no longer live under the oppressive scrutiny of Saddam's government. The giant busts that once adorned Saddam's palaces have been torn down like his regime — giving Iraqis something unquantifiable — their freedom.

Another freedom — the press. There are now about 200 independent newspapers; under Saddam there wasn't a single one.

"Iraqis are glad for their freedom, their personal and political freedom, and they're trying to make good use of both," says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

Nothing symbolizes freedom as much as an election, and with voting scheduled for January, many wonder: will the insurgents allow Iraqis to exercise their most basic of freedoms?