Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 December 2003
Issue No. 668
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The streets of Baghdad

Ibrahim Nawwar* describes the mood on the streets of the Iraqi capital

Baghdad was hot and dusty, even though autumn had begun. Under the palm trees children happily collect fallen dates. The adults, however, are less happy. Many sit in coffee shops, or just walk the streets, talking aloud to no one in particular. A man sits at a bench in a café in Saadoun Street, in downtown Baghdad, mumbling as he goes through the contents of several plastic bags. From the first he takes out ballpoint pens, five of them tied together with a rubber band. From the second he produces three batteries, similarly tied, followed by a selection of plastic cigarette lighters. Each time he produces one of these packages, he mumbles a few words.

Across from him sits another man nursing a glass of lumi basra, a drink made of dried lemons and sugar. The two men gaze at each other. "Since the morning," announces the man with the bags, "I hardly earned anything worth the trouble but what can I do? I was a recruit with the bodyguards service and was disbanded before the war. Now they don't want me back. I swear, and God is my witness, I know the officer in charge of the appointments, a Ba'athist officer who was my commander when I was with the service. He would not appoint me, but he appointed more than 100 people on paper only. He collects their salaries. This dog refused to appoint me. And I have a wife and children in school and bills to pay. What shall I do? I began selling damaged toys in the market but could not make any money. Now I sell ballpoint pens, batteries, and lighters. They are better than toys, but the earnings are low and my family's expenses are many."

The man doesn't expect a reply, but this does not stop him. He knows that his listeners have problems of their own and that there is nothing he can do beyond venting his anger. He is sweating and his clothes are dirty and torn. He drinks a cup of tea, for 100 dinars, and sits silently for a while. Then he puts back the packages in their bags, gathers the bags in a bigger one and leaves.

There are thousands like him. Some say there are 12 million Iraqis unemployed. The occupation -- officially, the alliance -- authorities put the figure at six million. No reliable statistics are available, however. Unemployment, a terrible curse in today's Iraq, is due to several factors.

Under Saddam Hussein half of Iraq's oil revenues were spent on the military. The neglect of agriculture, industry and basic services led to widespread unemployment, particularly during sanctions. To blame the United States for the death and hunger associated with the sanctions Saddam made a point of depriving Iraqis of the food and medicine the UN allowed. In the midst of sanctions per capita income in Iraq was around $1,000, close to that of Egyptians, though the average Iraqi's access to food and medicine was a fraction of that of the average Egyptian.

Despite the blockade Saddam remained obsessed with establishing a reputation as a great Muslim commander, an obsession that started with the war on Iran. He added the name of Allah to the Iraqi flag alongside the three stars occupying the flag's midsection. He also inaugurated a massive programme of mosque building across Iraq, many of which bore his name, at a time when millions of Iraqis lacked decent housing. The construction of what was promised to be the largest mosque in the world began on a large plot of land within the Al-Muthanna section of Baghdad. The site, piled high with tons of iron and cement, remains an unintended memorial to Saddam's ill-conceived policies.

The Iraqi private sector, effectively monopolised by Saddam's cronies, particularly his two sons, Qusay and Uday, created few job opportunities. Saddam's relatives monopolised government contracts, the money exchange market, the cigarette and liquor trade, and the smuggling of oil from the country. The former president's family, tribes loyal to Saddam and their friends abroad monopolised the oil-for-food contracts, depriving the rest of the population the only available trade link with the outside world. As the government printed more dinars, the value of the Iraqi currency diminished from one third of a dinar to the US dollar to 2,000 dinars to the dollar, and inflation spiralled.

The disintegration of government and the disbanding of army, bureaucracy and media institutions following the invasion compounded the situation. Overnight the ministries of defence, military industry and information were disbanded, alongside the security services, including the intelligence and special security. As a result over one million Iraqis lost their livelihoods. The protests and security disturbances that followed persuaded the occupation -- after months of chaos -- to start paying salaries to laid-off personnel until their status is decided. A grade-4 former employee at the Information Ministry now gets $100 a month. Former officers now make anywhere between $50 and $200 a month, according to their rank. The payments started in August 2003 and are being applied retroactively.

The worsening security situation discourages people from seeking work or starting small businesses. Lawlessness has boosted unemployment, particularly among women, and the deteriorating security situation represents a major threat to future economic development. Because the oil sector is a target of sabotage the Iraqi Oil Ministry has reduced production. It is hard to imagine local, let alone foreign investment, growing without the security situation improving.

Unemployment represents a massive threat to the stability, reconstruction, and democratisation of Iraq. While the payment of salaries to former employees and servicemen has alleviated some of the problems facing Iraqi families it is clear that Iraqis cannot live forever under current conditions. They need to rebuild their and take charge of their country. The political pragmatism of the population helped secure tangible progress in August and September 2003, despite the bombings that claimed the lives of UN envoy Sergio De Milo, Mohamed Baqir Al-Hakim, head of the Higher Islamic Revolution Council, and Aqila Al-Hashemi, member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

"We did not bring the Americans and the British here," a member of the Iraqi Governing Council told me. "It is not us who did so. We did not want them. Saddam brought them here. Many Arab and other countries tried to prevent the war but they all failed to stop the United States. Saddam's forces, which he used to oppress the Iraqis, failed to prevent the occupation... We find it odd that some people, for their own reasons, want the Iraqis to live in a state of constant war for Saddam -- to go to war against Iran, then against Kuwait, then against the United States. Everyone who has accounts to settle with the United States wants the Iraqis to settle these accounts. Where were all these people when Saddam and his henchmen were burying the Iraqis alive? Who is to avenge the Iraqi people, who is to avenge the crimes the ousted regime committed against millions of innocent people? We do not want Iraqi society to be militarised again. We will not allow the henchmen of Saddam, who are regrouping, to tyrannise Iraqis once more."

In the streets of Baghdad fear of Saddam and his henchmen is still palpable. The threat of bombings, however, has not dissuaded Iraqis from frequenting potentially dangerous areas such as Saadoun Street, which houses some of the capital's main hotels including the Palestine (Meridien) and Ashtar (Sheraton). Yet the prospect in Saadoun Street is a sad one. Hastily constructed walls protect possible targets.

"Those who carry out the sabotage operations are not Iraqis. They are foreigners who come from outside Iraq," a taxi driver told me. It is a common assumption among Baghdad residents that the attacks are mounted by Iranians and by Arabs from beyond Iraq. "They come from across the borders to sabotage Iraq. It is not in the culture of Iraqis to blow themselves up. It is not in our culture to kill our compatriots. The man who did such things was Saddam Hussein, and the people who do this now are his accomplices and supporters."

The cement blocks that protect the Baghdad Hotel on Saadoun Street are covered by black-rimmed notices eulogising the innocent "martyrs" killed in a car bombing. The bombing was claimed by Abu-Hafs Al-Masri Brigades, which has links with Al-Qa'eda. The posters, and the cement barriers on which they are placed, send a simple message -- the Iraqis are still paying for the barbarism of Saddam and his henchmen. The war is not over.

* The writer is chairman of the London-based Arab Organisation for Press Freedom.

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