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Saturday 17 December 2011

Brave new Baghdad

Brave new Baghdad  
The US pulls out of Iraq, leaving the country with a shaky economy and security. But the Iraqis are hopeful
Road to change: Iraq National Army soldiers on duty in Basra / Photos by Bharakash

On Baghdad's streets, army boards announce: Use of deadly force is authorised. You really do not need the boards to tell you that. Just look around—soldiers with fingers on the trigger, thundering choppers overhead, Humvees in every nook and corner, barbed wire fences, aerostats with cameras and blast-proof walls. Baghdad is still a city under siege.
An ordinary Iraqi walks a tightrope here, between bomb blasts and firefights. According to, an independent agency, 1,03,158 to 1,12,724 civilians have died in Iraq since 2003. Having been subject to wars and sanctions for over 30 years, Iraqis are taking each day as it comes.
On the streets, security checks are de rigueur. Makeshift checkpoints have an armoured vehicle mounted with a machine gun. Soldiers toting automatics stop every car, peer inside suspiciously, use a hand-held spectrum analyser to check for explosives, and then wave the car off. Drivers politely thank the soldiers and move on, until the next checkpoint, maybe 500m away.  Predictably, the traffic jams are huge, but everyone seems resigned.
Senior photographer Bhanu Prakash Chandra and I forget the number of times a gun were pointed at us. At every checkpoint it was the same drill—show passport, show identity cards, explain who we were and why we were in Iraq. At most places we were mistaken for Bangladeshis. Bangladesh supplies most of the blue-collar workers in Iraq. In a way, it was good to be mistaken so. No one kidnaps Bangladeshis in Iraq, because they bring little or no ransom.
The checkpoints are meant to search for arms and bombs. The terrorists in Iraq have a favourite style—attaching an explosive to a car with a magnet. And, it is not difficult to acquire weapons here. When the Iraq army was disbanded after the US invasion, many army depots were looted. Today, if you know the right people, you can buy a Kalashnikov for as little as $100. Many Iraqis we met accused the US of arming their loyalists during the initial days of the conflict. On December 31, the US will pull out after eight years of occupation. Who, then, will monitor the arms and the armed?
To an Iraqi, a bomb blast has become something as common as a Diwali cracker. “There was a major bomb blast in front of our library three years ago,” said Himad Hasnavi, who works there. “I was injured. Now, the situation is okay, but not safe as yet.” In the fortnight that we were in Iraq, there were bomb blasts countrywide. More than 30 people died in a twin explosion in the last week of October; 10 were killed in three blasts in the first week of November. From my hotel room in Karada, I heard the November 3 blast.
Foreigners are at high risk in Iraq, but that does not prevent them from coming in. “I knew about the situation in Iraq, but I had never imagined it to be so bad,” said Shirish Shukla, a contractor from Raipur, Chhattisgarh. “I am tired of seeing guns all around me.”
Shukla was on a 10-day pilgrimage to Najaf and Karbala, the two Shia shrines revered by Hindus. And, brown skin poses a significantly lower risk than white. I did not see even one white person on Baghdad's streets. “The city is not safe for foreigners. You can be kidnapped very easily and people can harm you. Foreigners need to take extreme precaution while going out,” advised Abu Mariyam, a taxi driver at Al-Wathiq Square.
We were amazed by the security protocol at an international news agency's bureau. At the gate was a checkpoint manned by armed guards, while private security personnel took care of the security inside the premises. Security personnel accompany the staff on reporting assignments.      
Diplomats and government officials use bullet-proof cars with two security vehicles escorting them. Iraq is unofficially a ‘non-family posting'. Most expats leave their families back home. “We go out only once in a while and avoid frequent visits to one particular place, so that we are not traceable,” said Ingo Sahimann, CEO, GSI Business Services. He also owns the DoJo restaurant inside the Green Zone, the high-security area in Baghdad. “We know people are watching us. We do not feel comfortable on the streets. You just look around and consciously move around and be prepared to face any situation.” A German, Sahimann and his American wife live in Baghdad.
Many here feel that security will further deteriorate after the US troops leave. “The situation in Iraq is complex and the country is on the edge,” said political analyst Hamid Fadhel. “Complete withdrawal of US troops will create a vacuum in terms of security. Neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey can interfere and try to influence Iraq's internal affairs.”      
The US will be leaving behind a country with a deeply divided social, political and security situation. Not to mention a weak economy and a government that has not won the trust of the people. The division begins here: must the US leave Iraq now?
While the total pullout of the US troops is in accordance with the security agreement between the countries, some say they should stay back to fully train and equip Iraqi forces. Iraq Deputy Prime Minister Dr Rowsch N. Shaways (see interview) and army chief Babaker Zebari are of this view. Zebari recently said they were not yet prepared to defend their air space. His statements came under fire from hardliners, who accused him of wanting to prolong American occupation.
Iraq today lacks a well-equipped air defence system and it is still in the process of building its air force. It also depends heavily on intelligence provided by US forces. While the US has begun handing over military bases to Iraq, the fighter jets from Ali Air Base in Nasiriyah—US Air Force's biggest foreign base—are likely to be stationed somewhere in the Gulf. A close facility is Al Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar. The base is home to the USAF's 379th Air Expeditionary Wing and the RAF's No. 901 Expeditionary Air Wing.
The Baghdad embassy is also America's biggest. Many in Iraq believe that the country may come to a last-minute agreement to hold some US forces back. If that does not happen, the US is likely to station personnel in other bases in the Gulf, including Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Again, Al Udeid might be a hot choice as it is the forward headquarters of the United States Central Command.
All Iraqis want the US to leave, the only disagreement is over time. “US forces need to stay back for maybe five more years to train our forces,” said Ali Wannas Lafi, head, department of English, Basra University. “Now the Central Intelligence Agency works with the Iraqi army to defeat al Qaeda. The government here needs to stabilise, too.”
But taxi-driver Diaa Assad is adamant: “They have destroyed our nation, they must leave our country.” He is neither a follower of the executed president Saddam Hussein nor a fundamentalist. His grouse is that the US bombed many historic places into rubble. Hatem Abdulla Al-Bachary, a businessman from Basra, is polite. “The US has done a great job,” he said. “They freed our country. But now the time has come to say goodbye. We have to build our own nation, with their help in many sectors.”
In fact, the US was keen to retain some of its forces here, but the Iraq government refused to give immunity to US soldiers beyond December 31. Mahamud Othaman, member of parliament, said: “I do not want any American fighting forces to stay back in Iraq. They should leave the country as per the security agreement. If not now, they have to go next year. It is better they leave now and Iraqi forces shoulder their responsibility.”
Experts feel two things can happen after December 31: those ultras who regard America as their enemy may stop violence or they may find a new enemy within the country. Anyway, 2012 will be a crucial indicator of Iraq's future security situation.
The average Iraqi has a persecution complex, or so we felt. Every aspect of life here shows the impact of prolonged wars, sanctions and internal conflicts. The Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) was the first wave. It destroyed families. The sanctions and later wars aggravated the situation.      
“Imagine living in a country that was at war for eight years,” said a translator in a foreign office in Baghdad. “When the father and brothers in a family go to war, what happens to their children? This is how our enemies started to weaken the system of life and family. During the initial days of the Iran war, everyone cried when they heard of someone's death. After a few months, we started discussing it over tea. When this happened for eight long years, we became accustomed to violence and misery.”      
Iraqis blame neighbouring countries for the instability. They feel Kuwait is taking revenge for the 1991 invasion, Iran is supporting Shias and Saudi Arabia Sunnis. Al Qaeda is accused of being in cahoots with the military wing of Saddam's Ba'ath Party. Hundreds of former military officers and members of the Ba'ath Party were arrested recently.
Current Prime Minister Nouri Mohammed Hassan Al-Maliki came to power with tacit foreign support. In the 2010 polls, political parties failed to arrive at a consensus. The logjam continued for nearly 10 months, and ended when Al-Maliki became prime minister with the support of the US and Iran. However, differences among various political blocs continue. Al-Maliki is general secretary of Islamic Dawa Party.
Iraq under Saddam was largely a secular society, with women enjoying a strong sense of security. Saddam's intolerance was against Shias and Kurds. Iraqis fear that democracy might push the country into the hands of the Islamists. As democracy is new here, political parties will need some time to create vote-banks across communities and to evolve as the true representatives of the people.
Saddam's ouster put many basic facilities within the reach of the public, but it also sparked off ethnic strife. The fight between Shias and Sunnis claimed many lives and deeply divided the nation. Under Saddam, the minority Sunnis ruled the nation; Shias gained power in the first elections. Almost all government posts are now held by Shias, who are being accused of ruling the nation with a vengeance. Sunnis are slowly coming to terms with democracy. In Iraq, Sunnis form around 35 per cent, Shias 55 per cent and the rest are Christians and others.
Apart from security, the immediate challenge is to rebuild the economy and improve quality of life. There is only three hours of power a day; people run generators through the rest of the day. A maze of wires running from the generator to the switchboard is a common sight at Iraqi houses.
While living conditions have deteriorated, the cost of living has gone up drastically. Most products are imported from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Jordan. As in many parts of the world, the Iraqi market is also flooded with cheap Chinese goods.
The Iraqi dinar was once more powerful than US dollar; today a dollar trades at 1,200 dinars. People rarely use denominations below 500 dinars. A cup of Iraqi black tea in a decent hotel costs 1,000 dinars. Sometimes one can get confused, as shopkeepers might say one dinar for 1,000 dinars, and 10 for 10,000.
“Life has become very expensive compared with the Saddam era. Rents have gone up and costs of all products have also increased by many times,” said A.M. Subhani, director of Subhani GT Company, an import-export firm. A Lucknowi, Subhani did his graduation and postgraduation in Arabic at Baghdad University, and has been living in Baghdad since 2000. “I know the cost of living has increased all over the world,” he said. “But here it has risen too much and people getting a decent salary of around $800 are not able to lead a happy life.”
Iraq is still a cash-based economy, and the concept of banking is not very popular here. “Even now most firms here pay salaries in cash. The concept of banking is being slowly inculcated,” said Indrajit Roy Chowdary, who works with the Trade Bank of Iraq.
The healthcare system, too, has derailed after doctors fled the country during the wars. The unstable security situation also discourages expatriate medical staff. In Anbar province, two doctors manage 11 hospitals. On one hand, Iraq is short of qualified hands, and on the other, unemployment stands at 21 per cent.      
The Iraqi youth are aspiring for a better future, but very few have faith in political remedies. “I want to continue my studies and do an MA and even PhD,” said Mohammed Samir, an undergraduate student of English at Basra University. “But not in Iraq. I want to go to India or Egypt as I do not see any future in Iraq for that level of education. Maybe, I will come back after a few years.”
Samir is not interested in politics and he enjoys a game of football or surfs the internet after college hours. Football in Iraq enjoys cricket's status in India.      
Unlike Samir, Yasmin Kadhim Lili, an undergraduate student, follows political developments. “I am not happy with what is happening in the country,” she said. “I do not see much of a future for students.” Yasmin is studying translation and wants to travel around the world.      
Some youngsters feel the security scenario has improved since 2007. Said Ahmed Bashar, a student at Baghdad University: “We youth do not like violence and that is why we do not like what is happening in the country. The situation is improving now, compared with what it was in 2007.” After graduation Bashar wants to teach English in an Iraqi high school. “I do not like politics. We do not know what they say and what they do. We do not know what the truth is.”
Old-timers, however, want the glorious old days back. “We long for the good old days and traditions. We hope we will get it,” said Lafi. “Thirty years ago, the quality of our education was very good. Many teachers were from India, the US, the UK and Egypt. Iraqis teaching here had studied outside. Eighty per cent of the current Iraqi teachers graduated during the Saddam regime. They are giving back whatever they have. So it is not that good at the moment.”      
Saddam stopped scholarships and education cooperation with many countries. The system is being renewed again now. “In the next 10 years, this generation will be replaced by those who have studied abroad,” said Lafi. “They will come back with a fresh outlook and change the system.” Lafi had left Iraq in 1994 and returned in 2004.
Hadeel Al-Ulaimy, a lawyer in Baghdad, said Iraqi education system was good. But she is not happy with other changes. “One cannot compare the good times of the 1970s or 1980s with the present times,” she said. “Iraq was a very nice and modern country at that time. After 2003, everything changed. Agriculture, trade, industry... everything has been affected. We do not have a country now. The government is full of people looking after personal interests.     
“In the 1950s and 1960s women used to wear sleeveless dresses and go out without covering their head. But now I do not wear modern dresses in Baghdad. Everything is moving in the wrong direction. Because of religious parties dominating the country, women have to wear hijab, whether they like it or not. It is also not possible for women to move around freely, like in the 1990s.”
Compared with Baghdad, the business capital, Basra, was much better and the business community was buoyant. “When I close my eyes, I can see the good future coming to Basra,” said Al-Bachary. “I have no doubt about it. Basra has 10 per cent of total oil deposits in the country. It exports about 1.8 to 2 million barrels of oil now and by 2015, it will exceed 5 million barrels. It will go up to 10-12 million in future.” Basra is also Iraq's only port.
Basravis, as the people there are called, want to forget the past and move on. “There will be a big revolution in the economy. There will be employment and more money,” Adan Abu Hyder, a businessman, is hopeful. Indian companies like Mokul Group of Companies have operations in Basra. Many Indian companies see Iraq as a `high risk, high returns' market. A delegation of the Confederation of Indian Industry visited Basra looking for opportunities.
“Iraq is an emerging market in the region. We are thinking of starting operations in food, commodities and construction. The market is open and vast,” said Yasmin Sultan P. of Chennai-based Mohan Mutha Exports, which is into commodities, shipping and construction.
Harrisons Malayalam Ltd, south India's largest producer of tea, has a presence in Basra. Suresh Menon, general manager (tea marketing), said: “The risk [in Iraq] might have been overplayed to a large extent because of instability. If anyone is serious about doing business here, now is the time to come. If they are late, they will be too late.” A tea-loving nation, Iraq imported 15,000 metric tonnes last year.
Oil, natural gas and power also offer vast opportunities. “We are looking for oil and gas sector and we may also expand into infrastructure and power,” said Pratik Desai, joint general manager, Larsen and Toubro. “The current power production is 7,000MW and it has to go up to 16,000MW.”      
Though Indian business leaders were overwhelmed by the interest shown by the Iraq government, many of them want to wait and watch. Security and corruption are major issues, and policies are not yet clear. Even local businessmen face these difficulties. “Some of the rules that have been continued from the old regime are not good. That makes investment difficult,” said Al-Bachary.
The National Investment Commission of Iraq is aware of the shortcomings and is working on putting a system in place to attract investments. “Whatever we have lost in the last so many years cannot be recaptured very fast,” said Dr Sami Al-Araje, chairman, NIC. “If we want to move fast and realise our hopes and dreams in 10 years, we have to bridge the gap of 50 years.” Building bridges is exactly what Iraq has to do. And, it must start with a bridge between the government and the people.

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