Driving through the tangled mess of police roadblocks and concrete barriers that wall off neighbourhoods in Baghdad, it’s hard to believe this place was once known as the city of peace, and was, until recently, a model of cosmopolitan urbanism.
More than eight years have passed since the 2003 US-UK invasion, and the fragmentation of Iraq’s capital mirrors the soul of the nation, still struggling to survive after years of war and occupation. A decade ago, most of the city’s neighbourhoods were mixed. Today, the majority are Shi’a enclaves and a fifth of the Iraqi population remain displaced or refugees.
Iraq’s once exemplary public health and education systems have been ravaged and the status of women has declined dramatically; religious and sexual minorities are under attack and over 400 academics have been murdered by death squads since the invasion. Despite $53 billion in ‘foreign aid’, basic infrastructure is still in dire need of repair, unemployment is over 50 per cent and the Iraqi government barely pays lip service to the concepts of human rights or democracy.
And yet, even with ongoing car bombs and militia violence, Iraq has faded into the international background, barely a blip on the screen of Western media. Ongoing countrywide anti-government protests that began last February have often been violently suppressed but have been virtually ignored in Western coverage of the ‘Arab spring’.
All the horror melts away when you arrive at an old villa on the Tigris that has been converted into a makeshift theatre. Here a mixed-sex group in their late teens – Sunni, Shi’a and Christians, many from working-class backgrounds – rehearse for a play, practising dance moves that combine a little Martha Graham with breakdancing and traditional Iraqi chobi.
These young people embody a new choreography of hope and speak to the future of their long-suffering nation. Everywhere young people are tired of war, fed up with sectarianism, and many refuse to identify themselves along religious lines, stating boldly ‘we are human beings’.
But Iraq’s dance between the old secular and the new sectarian ways is delicate and dangerous. With the educated classes mainly in exile, there is a certain Alice in Wonderland quality to the new Iraq. The Sadrists – followers of the firebrand Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – now control the Ministry of Tourism, and talk of democracy is mainly confined to applications for funding within the new industry of Western-backed NGOs that have sprung up in the wake of the invasion.
Meanwhile, in the south, Basra is enjoying a mini oil boom, while socially Islamist militias still set the tone. Kurdistan, in the north, continues to go through growing pains on the road to a truly democratic state, with its population protesting rampant cronyism and corruption – the same ills that plague the entire nation. Kirkuk remains an uncertain crucible for the future Iraq, as Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs duke it out for control of vast oil resources.
Car bombs and IEDS are still common, but the security situation has improved somewhat. Now killings are more likely to be targeted political assassinations than the random violence that swept through the country after the 2003 ‘regime change’. But the wounds inflicted, not only by invasion and occupation, but also by eight years of war with Iran and 12 years of draconian UN sanctions, will take decades to heal.
Still, the young actors at the villa on the Tigris dance; a reminder that this former cradle of civilization is more than the sum of its miserabilist parts. It is a nation with a soul, albeit a fractured one, whose people long for a return to normality.
|Leader||Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.|
|Economy||GNI per capita $2,210 (Syria $2,410, UK $41,520). Oil completely dominates the Iraqi economy. Its proven oil reserves of 143 billion barrels are eclipsed only by those of Saudi Arabia and earnings from the sector account for 90% of government revenue. Oil export earnings have, since 2009, returned to pre-war levels but are not being distributed to the nation as a whole. The economy remains blighted by corruption and widespread unemployment.|
|Main exports||Crude oil 84%, materials derived from crude, food, live animals.|
|People||People: 30.7 million. Annual population growth rate: 2.8%. People per square kilometre 70 (UK 253).|
|Health||Infant mortality 35 per 1,000 live births (Syria 14, UK 5). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 300 (UK 1 in 4,700). Poor communities and displaced families in Iraq must resort to rivers, dirty taps and other unsafe sources to find drinking water. As a result, water-borne disease outbreaks threaten thousands of lives each year. In 2010, hundreds of Iraqi children suffered from a highly contagious strain of measles that caused blindness, pneumonia and even deadly brain infections.|
|Environment||Depleted uranium from three decades of bombing continues to contaminate water and food supplies and contributes to high rates of cancer and birth defects. A five-year drought, exacerbated by the damming of the Euphrates in Turkey and Syria, has contributed to a dramatic decline in agricultural production.|
|Culture||Arabs make up 75% and Kurds 20% (in the north).|
|Religion||Almost entirely Muslim, with 62% Shi’a and 35% Sunni.|
|Language||Arabic – and Kurdish in Kurdistan.|
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||The middle class was effectively destroyed by 8 years of war with Iran followed by 12 years of draconian UN sanctions. Attempts to legislate for a more equitable way of sharing oil revenues have foundered.|
|Literacy||78% – well below pre-conflict levels, when Iraq was educational centre for the Arab world.|
|Life expectancy||68 years (Syria 74, UK 80). Has now climbed above its 1990s peak of 66, having sunk to 60 in the war years.|
|Freedom||Government opponents continue to face repression and targeted killings. Academics and journalists have been harassed, arrested and murdered for speaking out against the regime.|
|Position of women||Iraqi women once enjoyed the highest status in the Arab world. The post-invasion power vacuum was filled by fundamentalists who rewrote the constitution along regressive lines. Sexual violence has increased.|
|Sexual minorities||Long gone are the gay nightclubs in Baghdad popular in Saddam’s secular police state. After post-invasion fatwas and with alleged government complicity, over 700 LGBT people have been killed since 2004 and dozens arrested and imprisoned.|
|New Internationalist assessment||Second-term prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has solidified his reputation as an iron-fisted autocrat, by siding with the Syrian regime in its violent repression of a popular uprising. The March 2010 elections were flawed by serious breaches of democratic principles, significant fraud and an eight-month stalemate broken by al-Maliki’s deal with the extremist, Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Corruption continues to be as serious an issue as human rights violations.|