Iraq

Three generations of women at a juice bar at Karradeh.

Hadani Ditmars

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’.

Flag of Iraq

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.

Canada and Israel

Boy Scouts and Commandos

The two men sat across from each other in identical black suits – very Brooks Brothers, very corporate machismo. Their feet firmly apart, they leaned forward on their chairs with purpose, as if they were discussing sales figures at an AGM.

The two shared similarly thinning hairlines and a certain pudgy middle-aged smugness. They occasionally smiled and guffawed good naturedly, called each other by their first names and one mentioned that ‘we go back a long way, don’t we?’ One almost expected them to reminisce about a long lost golf tournament.

But these chummy cohorts were in fact Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Peter Mansbridge, the long time host of CBC’s television’s flagship nightly news program The National. One was supposed to be interviewing the other, but it played more like an advertorial for the Likud party.

The timing couldn’t have been better. As Netanyahu did his best to present himself – and his country – as reasonable, civilized and even ‘peace-loving’  (‘Let’s meet in a “peace tent”,’ he said smilingly, of a proposed face-to-face meeting with Abbas, reaching for a kind of earnest boy scout demeanour) and the beleaguered Palestinians as troublesome terrorists or mere Iranian pawns, terrible images of Israeli commandos boarding a Gaza-bound aid convoy and killing some of its apparently unarmed occupants (amongst the group were two Canadians), flashed on television screens worldwide.

Perception vs Reality

The pre-taped interview and the time difference conspired to create a bizarre contrast. Channel flipping to BBC World, there was correspondent Jon Donnison talking about the suffering of Gazan civilians under the Israeli siege, the lack of basic foodstuffs, medicines and building materials (not to mention the shortage of artificial limbs) that make life a daily struggle for survival. Then there was that chilling footage of commandos beating peace activists, their bloodied comrades lying on stretchers in the hold.

It was pure televisual gestalt. The two faces of Israel exposed simultaneously. The slightly smarmy, PR-concocted apologies for an ongoing brutal occupation and an open defiance of international law, and the naked, violent reality of that.

In fairness to veteran correspondent Peter Mansbridge, (who did ask Netanyahu why, in the light of enthusiastic criticism of Israel by its own media, other media’s challenging of Israeli positions was deemed ‘anti-Semitic’?) one sensed that he wanted to take his questions a bit further, but something was stopping him from going too far. Might it have been his producers?

Pride not Apartheid

Might the corporate bosses at CBC have feared an attack from the likes of B’nai Brith, who just the other week conspired with like-minded pro-Likud organizations to prevent a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid from participating in Toronto’s Pride Parade? (Apparently B’nai Brith has very recently had a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion on the issue of gay rights, having come out rather poorly in the whole same-sex marriage debate, and aligning themselves with rightwing Christian Zionist groups who think gay people should burn in hell.)

Or was Mansbridge’s timidity part and parcel of the general chill factor that has descended of late on any person or organization that dares to criticize Israeli policy in the occupied territories?

While Canada and Israel, a recent book by Yves Engler, puts paid to our national mythology that we ever were an ‘honest broker’ when it came to Israel/Palestine (the book documents the history of Canadian Christian Zionism, Lester Pearson’s important role in UN negotiations to create a Jewish state on Palestinian land, the millions of dollars in tax-deductible donations used to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service ties to the Mossad), there have been some disturbing developments, even in the last year.

Funding cuts to Israel critics

In December 2009, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) cut funding to KAIROS, a faith-based human rights organization it had funded for the previous 35 years. Their crime? A vigorous defence of Palestinian human rights. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), who provide assistance to 5 million Palestinian refugees, and the Al Haq and Al Mezan human rights organizations have all been victims of Canadian funding cuts. The Canadian Arab Foundation (CAF) also had its funding cut following its outspoken criticism of the failure of the Canadian government to speak out against Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, described in the UN Goldstone report as ‘war crimes’.

Also troubling are the ongoing campaigns of harassment and intimidation of student groups on Canadian university campuses who dare to criticize Israeli policies. Not to mention the Koffler Centre of the Arts decision to renege on a commission from artist Reena Katz, when they discovered that she was critical of Israeli policies, or the pressure exerted on the Toronto District School Board from rightwing Jewish groups to remove from school reading lists The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, a book told from the perspective of a Palestinian girl whose family land is destroyed by Israeli settlers.

In a further Orwellian development, the self-appointed Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti Semitism (CPCCA), which deceptively conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, has set out to eliminate all criticism of Israel in Canada. The group has no official mandate from the Canadian parliament – although its members include Conservative MP Jason Kenney, the current Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, as well as prominent members of the Liberal Party of Canada – but held a series of hearings in late 2009 and early 2010.

An end to colonial denial

There are of course many courageous and progressive Jewish groups in Canada who actively condemn human rights abuses in the occupied territories – among them Independent Jewish Voices. And there are new media sites like rabble.ca and The Daily Nuisance that tread where mainstream press dare not.

And Sunday night’s benign broadcast of Likud propaganda on the National, while images of Israeli commando violence played worldwide, may well mark a turning point in Canada’s national consciousness about Israel. We too are a settler nation who displaced and ethnically cleansed local indigenous peoples to build the Canadian dream.

Isn’t it time we were a little more honest about the brutality that accompanies colonialism? Maybe the National should hire a Gazan to report on RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) violence on rural Canadian reservations?

Until then, let’s at least take our heads out of the sand and stop Disney-fying Israel. Can’t we be as bold as the Israeli press is when it comes to calling a spade a spade?

Increasingly, cosy, uncritical interviews with the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu are about as far away from the reality of Canadian public opinion as Bibi’s feel-good charm offensive is from the brutal tactics of his state.

Free Ameer Makhoul!

Long-time activist Jeff Halper of the ICAHD (Israeli Committee Against House Demolition), who was interviewed for New Internationalist in January 2009, has sent out an appeal to free Ameer Makhoul, President of the Popular Committee for the Defense of Political Freedoms. Mr Makhoul was abducted by the Israeli security service during a midnight raid in early May, held incommunicado for days, and has yet to be released.

As Jeff points out, ‘The repression, night-time raids on private homes, arrests, arbitrary charges, long periods of “administrative detention”, travel bans, visa denials, torture and unexplained deaths that have been the lot of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories these long past decades have come into Israel with a vengeance.’

It seems that Palestinian citizens of Israel now enjoy the same violation of their civil and human rights so long endured by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

Please join Jeff Halper and ICHAD in condemning this ongoing repression by writing to the diplomatic mission or embassy of Israel in your respective country as well as to the EU diplomatic missions or embassies in Israel. (Names and contacts are listed at the end of Jeff’s appeal.)

FREE AMEER MAKHOUL! STOP REPRESSION IN ISRAEL!

A Call From The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD)

May 11, 2010 

ICAHD adds its voice to the calls of Palestinian, Israeli and international civil society organizations demanding the immediate release of Ameer Makhoul, the General Director of Ittijah and President of the Popular Committee for the Defense of Political Freedoms, who was abducted from his home in a midnight raid of the security service and held incommunicado for days after.

Makhoul’s arrest is but the latest in a string of arrests on vague charges, all of them accompanied by severe violations of the fundamental rights of habeas corpus and due process, and of gag order imposed upon (and unfortunately respected by) the press. The repression, night-time raids on private homes, arrests, arbitrary charges, long periods of “administrative detention”, travel bans, visa denials, torture and unexplained deaths that have been the lot of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories these long past decades have come into Israel with a vengeance. The disappearance of Dr. Omar Saeed at the hands of the security services is not less alarming. “I met with a thin and feeble man,” said his lawyer, who was only able to meet him after two weeks of interrogation. “He told me that he is sometimes questioned for 18 hours straight by five interrogation teams.”

Indeed, initial reports of the charges being brought against the two should raise alarms for anyone concerned with preserving civil rights in Israel. Makhoul and Saeed are not being charged with espionage but with something called “political espionage,” centering around “meetings” with “an agent of Hizbollah.” Makhoul’s lawyer, Hussein Abu Husein, notes that espionage laws in Israel are so wide-ranging that an internet chat or telephone conversation with anyone in an “enemy state” could lead to prosecution. ICAHD, like Ittijah, comes into contact with many people in its international activities, most of whom are by definition “enemy agents” since they all seek, as do we, a total end to Israel’s Occupation. Such vagueness in charging activists – and then not allowing them or their lawyers to even see the evidence against them – must inexorably lead to civil rights abuses.

But “political espionage” does not even have to go that far. Laws being drafted by the Knesset call for the cancelling of legal status of Israeli NGOs ‘if there is a reasonable basis to conclude that the organization is providing information to foreign bodies or is involved in lawsuits abroad against senior officials in the government in Israel and/or officers in the Israeli army regarding war crimes.’" In other words, merely producing critical reports or analyses that might “aid the enemy” could turn an organization into an enemy of the state – as happened already to the New Israeli Fund, accused by the Right in Israel of providing 90% of the material that went into the Goldstone report. Activists meeting with their colleagues abroad could be accused of “coordinating political positions” with enemy agents, suffering the same fate as Makhoul, Saeed and others.

While Palestinians on both sides of the “Green Line” are obviously easy targets, every organization and individual in Israel concerned about peace, human rights, international law and justice is a target. (A recent poll found that 57.6 percent of Israelis agreed that human rights organizations that expose immoral conduct by Israel should not be allowed to operate freely.)

We condemn the arrest of Ameer Makhoul and Omar Saeed and demand their immediate release. Letters of protest to Israeli officials may be sent to:

• Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister, Office of the Prime Minister, E-mail: [email protected], [email protected] 

• Mr. Ehud Barak, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, Fax: +972 3 691 6940, Email: [email protected] 

• Mr. Eli Yishai, Minister of the Interior, Tel: +972 (0)2 670 1411 

• Mr. Yehuda Weinstein, Attorney General, Fax: +972 (0)2 6467001 

• Mr. Yuval Diskin, Head of Israel’s General Security Services : Email via the website.

• Mr. Yitzhak Aharonovitch , the Minister of Internal Security 

• Mr. Yaakov Ne’eman, Minister of Justice, Email: [email protected] / [email protected] 

• Ambassador Aharon Leshno-Yaar, Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations in Geneva, E-mail: [email protected], Fax: +41 22 716 05 55 

• Embassy of Israel in Brussels: Email: [email protected]

Please also write to the diplomatic mission or embassy of Israel in your respective country as well as to the EU diplomatic missions or embassies in Israel.

In solidarity,

Jeff Halper and the ICAHD Staff

The boy from Mutanabe Street

Boy in Iraq

I write this as Iraq’s fortunes hang in a delicate, dangerous balance.

While the UK has resolved its hung parliament in a matter of days, and without the threat of, say, rival militias backed by Iran and Saudi duking it out or bombs in public markets, the Iraqi saga goes on.

Some two months since Iyad Allawi’s nominally secular, Sunni-friendly Iraqyia party won a slim majority over Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, there is still no clear winner. With the exception of, perhaps, Iran, whose hefty funding of sectarian Shi’a parties will ensure a divided and weak Iraq, especially in the wake of the imminent US withdrawal (now delayed again by a month due to continuing instability).

And so the power struggle between Allawi – the former CIA asset, ‘butcher of Falluja’ turned rehabilitated good cop – and Maliki – the Dawa party (a hard line Shi’a movement with ties to Iran) head honcho who cracked down on militias (most notably those loyal to Moqtada al Sadr, hence the Sadrist snub of any coalition offer) while maintaining his own private army –  plays on.

It will likely end badly, with Iraq’s beleaguered Sunnis sidelined yet again, and the triumph of sectarian cronyism over national unity. But what will the political upheaval mean for Iraq’s growing numbers of displaced and dispossessed, for its army of widows and orphans? How will Iraq’s new leadership address the humanitarian disaster so often overlooked by Western media in the frenzy of violence and political horsetrading? 

While 53 billion dollars in ‘aid’ – mainly benefiting corrupt officials and foreign military contractors – has been spent since the invasion, almost half the population remains in abject poverty. Seventy per cent of Iraqis don’t have clean drinking water and an equal percentage are unemployed. Almost a fifth of the population live as refugees or are internally displaced, due to the wave of post-invasion sectarian cleansing. 

Until the basic needs of the population are addressed, there will be no peace, no matter who is at the helm of what many Iraqis still believe to be a puppet regime (although these days the puppet masters are just as likely to be Iranians as Americans).

As the May issue of New Internationalist – that took me back to Baghdad for the first time since 2003 – hits the stands, I remain haunted by the cover photo.

I took this a few days before Iraqi elections began in early March.

This young boy with adult eyes, a map of his homeland pinned close to his heart, and such a serious, troubled yet ultimately proud and defiant look, was photographed off historic Mutanabe Street, the centre of Baghdad’s literary and intellectual scene. He was attending the opening of a photography exhibit in a newly renovated Ottoman villa, where Communist candidates – including the daughter of the famous poet Muhammad al-Jawahiri (who quoted her father’s line Shout at the poor and the hungry, but only if you first insult their tormentors whose bellies are full) – were out campaigning. 

Some 50 metres away is the Shabandar Café, an intelligentsia hang-out since 1917, recently re-opened after a 2007 bombing that killed five of the owner’s sons. The tank in the background belongs to the Iraqi MOD. Normally filming any kind of military apparatus is strictly forbidden, but this slipped in unnoticed by authorities. (I was not so lucky when I was detained by Iraqi police a few days earlier, for having snapped a photo of mazgouf – grilled fish on a stick – deemed too close to a checkpoint).

He and I have become strange co-ambassadors for a country under siege. As I organize panels and launches and give interviews on the fate of Iraq, everyone asks me about this boy, whose name, scrawled on a notebook that didn’t make it through the seven circles of security hell at Baghdad airport – escapes me. But his eyes speak volumes.
What does the future hold for him and his traumatized nation?

A big poster of the boy with the eyes and the heartland map, surveyed the scene two weeks ago at the Hellenic Centre in London, where New Internationalist held a panel discussion on the fate of his country. 

He looked on as I read from a piece in the magazine on my encounter with a troupe of young actors rehearsing for a play about communist poet Mudafer al-Nawab, an ardent Iraqi nationalist who spoke out against the tyranny of Saddam as well as the invasion and occupation. One of the actor/dancers – a 21 year old from Sadr City whose Dawa party member father had been executed before he was born – told me his brothers belonged to a Shi’a militia and he pursued a career in the performing arts at some personal risk. But he remained defiant, saying: ‘When I dance I feel like I’m flying and I forget about the difficulties of life here.’

Ali Hili, founder of Iraqi LBGT spoke in a shaky voice of the ongoing gay pogrom that has accompanied Iraq’s post-invasion slide from a nominally secular to thuggishly theocratic state, where militia rule has seen violence against the LGBT community skyrocket. Ali, who is still seeking asylum in Britain after a death fatwa was issued against him by the Ayatollah Sistani (see our October issue Islam in Power), attended despite the threatening phone calls he’d received earlier that day.

Hassan Abdul Razzak read a moving piece he’d written on ‘the price of democracy’ – and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead who, unlike the victims of 9/11, will likely never have a memorial built for them. And Haifa Zangana presented a selection of Iraqi songs of resistance, some of which combined old folkloric melodies with strident political lyrics about the fight against occupation.

In London's Hellenic Centre, Haifa Zangana talks about Iraqi songs of resistance, as Hadani Ditmars, Hassan Abdulrazzak, and the boy from Mutanabe Street look on.

At the end of the panel I played some video footage of the cast of the Mudafar al Nawab play dancing together at an impromptu party, held in the same Baghdad Fine Arts College theatre where the performance took place. There was really nowhere else to go, as the college remains a tiny oasis of secular culture, while bombs and militia violence explode nearby.

Dancing with the young actors was an uplifting experience. To find so much joy and hope in the midst of despair was inspirational, and reminded me of the defiant dancing I’d encountered in late 1990s Iraq, when despite US and UK bombings, and the twin tyrannies of sanctions and Saddam, Iraqis shimmied and chobi-ed at weddings and parties. (See my book Dancing in the No-Fly Zone.)

For many years the music – and the dancing – died in Iraq, as fundamentalist militias forbade it, even at weddings. 

The fact that there is music and dancing again is a good sign – but things could slide backwards in the flick of a wrist or the shimmy of a shoulder.

Poster for Cowley Road event

Last week in Oxford, the boy from Mutanabe Street stared out at passersby on Cowley Road, from the window of Café Nour. In the intimate souk-like space, where our Egyptian host and long-time New Internationalist subscriber Ali Mohammed served up mouthwatering mezze, I told stories from Baghdad and showed images from my March journey.

An international crowd of Lebanese, Greek, Italian, Egyptian, Nigerian, French and Oxonian (and even a filmmaker friend from Birmingham!) listened to a piece I’d written called Sacred Ground. It’s about a Baghdad neighbourhood – home to Sufi shrines and tombs of old Testament prophets – now marked by the aftermath of sectarian turf wars, where the tomb of Zubaida – an Abbasid monument that should be a world heritage site – sits opposite a garbage dump and a shanty town for the displaced.

As everyone took in the beauty and the tragedy of Iraq, in Café Nour’s very Middle Eastern surroundings, I felt briefly transported back to Baghdad. But the pang in my heart for my friends in Iraq dissolved nicely into some end-of-the-evening dancing, as Ali put on some makam and a Nigerian New Internationalist subscriber – himself from the oil-addled delta – joined me for a few songs.

Dancing at Café Nour

Dancing in an Egyptian café in East Oxford, I remembered the Tigris, and those old nights in Baghdad, when whole families would sit together in Abu Nawas, smoking narguile and eating mazgouf. But soon it all dissolved again into the damp English night air. I rolled up all the posters, and the boy from Mutanabe Street and I went home.

Sacred ground

I am standing on sacred ground. Baghdad is a sharif city, with the graves of many Sufi saints buried in its much-contested soil. Near them are the graves of the Jewish prophets Ezekiel and Joshua. South of here, in Ur, the home of Abraham shares a barren plane with the site of the now reconstructed Sumerian ziggurat. And St Thomas sojourned in Basra, en route between Jerusalem and India.

Hadani Ditmars stands in front of the tomb of Zumurrud Khatoon, an important Abassid monument in Sheikh Marouf.

New Internationalist/Hadani Ditmars


But my friend Mohammed – a young Iraqi journalist who came of age during the invasion and the worst years of sectarian fighting – tells me, ‘We don’t visit the shrines so much these days. We are too busy visiting the graves of our loved ones.’

Guns and garbage

This partly explains the state of the tomb of Zumurrud Khatoon, wife of an Abassid Caliph. This exquisite example of Seljuk-style Abbasid architecture should be a UNESCO world heritage site. Instead, it lies derelict in a neighbourhood full of guns and garbage. A few hundred metres away lies the grave of al-Haq, one of the most important Sufis of the Baghdad school.

And yet, like so many neighbourhoods in Baghdad now, the journey here is one marked by savage turf wars between Sunni and Shi’a, with some areas still literally split down the middle of main roads.

‘You have to understand the past to make sense of the present,’ Muwafaq al-Taei, a 68-year-old architect and town planner who was both lionized and terrorized by the old regime, tells me

I have been brought here by Muwafaq al-Taei, a 68-year-old architect and town planner who was both lionized and terrorized by the old regime. He was the designer of some of Saddam’s more grandiose public projects, but also an unrepentant and spied-upon communist. He walks with a limp after he was shot by US forces a few years ago whilst working on a housing project for Marsh Arabs in the South. He possesses both an irrepressible charm and an unbridled enthusiasm for his country’s heritage.

We have just been for a visit to the nearby Iraqi Museum, where the curator quite boldly refused an interview unless a $500 ‘fee’ was coughed up. But the upside was a fascinating two-hour lecture on Iraqi history delivered by Muwafaq – from Babylonian Queen Semiramis, who successfully dammed the Euphrates for both irrigation and defence purposes (she would unleash the river’s might on her enemies), through to caliphs who had to make deals with various sects and factions to stay in power. ‘You have to understand the past to make sense of the present,’ he tells me.

The interior of the tomb of Zumurrud Khatoon.

New Internationalist/Hadani Ditmars

Now we are in between Karkh and Sheikh Marouf, historically rich yet impoverished inner-city neighbourhoods where many of the museum’s looted objects (excluding the ones in the basement storage area that most agree were taken as part of an ‘inside job’) may well have been taken.

On the way here, we paused briefly at the riverside to view the exterior of the Abbasid Palace, before being stopped by Iraqi police – suspicious of my cameras – along a muddy potholed street with Shi’a flags flying in the wind. But Muwafaq treats everyone like an old friend and seems impervious to any danger. He is from a well-known Shi’a family and manages to reassure the police that all is well. Later, as we drive past a series of mud brick buildings, he says, ‘These all belong to my family – but you see what a state of disrepair they are in. Even though we are Shi’a, it’s so dangerous here, and the local officials so corrupt, we haven’t been able to collect rent here for years.’

Tombs and toughs

Within minutes we are in a Sunni area (‘there are still remnants of al-Qaeda here,’ Muwafaq notes casually) and we stop to ask directions from a man with a herd of sheep in the middle of the road. He is surprisingly friendly and even entertains my question about who he might vote for in the elections. ‘I’m not voting,’ he scoffs, ‘they are all trying to line their own pockets.’

I suppose that in a no-go zone, where your visitors are few and far between, it’s perfectly normal to assume that anyone mad enough to visit must be a Mossad agent

When we arrive at the tomb, we are met by the keeper, a local tough accompanied by two vaguely menacing looking friends. This is not a place that receives many visitors. We are taken inside the tomb to view the gorgeous light-filled interior of the conical structure, where swallows have nested in the crevices. But soon the tomb-keeper is making troubling inferences about certain ‘Mossad agents’ in the neighbourhood and nodding in my direction, and it is time to make a hasty exit. But again Muwafaq saves the day by telling the young man that he’ll put in a good word with the Director of Antiquities and try to improve his meagre stipend.

As we drive away, I notice the corrugated tin roof shacks across the road where displaced people have settled. I suppose that in a no-go zone, where your visitors are few and far between, it’s perfectly normal to assume that anyone mad enough to visit must be a Mossad agent. With little in the way of infrastructure or employment opportunities, what will this neighbourhood be like in five years from now? I wonder.

A displaced person’s home in Sheikh Marouf, across the road from the tomb of Zumurrud Khatoon.

New Internationalist/Hadani Ditmars

As we make our way back along old city streets where, in the absence of any functioning state, young men given jobs and guns by militias with deep pockets killed each other in the name of God, Muwafaq smiles at me. ‘I’m so glad that you came here with me today. This is still my city and it is still great. Things will get better soon, I’m sure.’

Post-invasion Iraq - the facts

CHILDREN

  • Iraq’s child mortality rate has increased by a staggering 150% since 1990, when draconian UN sanctions were first imposed. During the embargo, which lasted until May 2003 and prevented the rebuilding of water and sanitation infrastructure by banning chlorine and spare parts, the leading cause of death for children under five was waterborne illness. An estimated 500,000 children died in the first 5 years of the embargo.1
  • Post-invasion, Iraqi children continue to suffer. Some 122,000 under-fives died in 2005. More than half of these deaths were among newborn babies in the first month of life.2
  • In 2008 only 50% of primary school-age children were attending class, down from 80% in 2005. Approximately 1,500 children were known to be held in detention facilities.3
  • In 2007 there were 5 million Iraqi orphans, according to official Government statistics.4
  • Child malnutrition rates have risen from 19% before the US-led invasion in 2003 to 28% in 2007.5

REFUGEES/DISPLACED PERSONS

  • A recent report by the NGO Refugees International urges the US to intervene in the humanitarian crisis facing thousands of Iraqis displaced by war because it ‘bears special responsibility’ for their situation.6
  • 33% – or 500,000 people – of the 1.5 million internally displaced people forced from their homes in 2006 and 2007 ‘live as squatters in slum areas’.7
  • 50,000 Iraqi refugees have been forced into prostitution.8
  • According to Refugees International, the US accepted fewer than 800 Iraqi refugees from 2003 until 2007. By comparison, Sweden has taken in 18,000 and Australia almost 6,000. By 2006, Jordan had admitted 750,000 Iraqis, although they are denied official refugee status and instead called ‘visitors’.9
  • Displacement is largely a result of sectarian cleansing in mixed neighbourhoods. Sunnis have fled Basra, while Shi’as were driven out of areas north of Baghdad such as Samarra and Baquba. The US ‘surge’ did not create peace, but rather cemented sectarian segregation. In the majority Sunni village of Abou Jabour, south of Baghdad, where US forces dropped 45,000 kg of explosives in 10 days in January 2008 as part of the ‘surge’, survivors were left to dig through the rubble with their bare hands.10
  • In Northern Iraq, Saddam’s old policy of ‘Arabization’ has been reversed as thousands of ethnic Kurds forced out 100,000 Iraqi Arabs.11
  • Sunni Arabs have driven out at least 70,000 Kurds from Mosul’s western half and Assyrian and Turkmen villages have formed their own militias to defend themselves from both Arab Islamist and Kurdish Nationalist groups.12

Baghdad’s new sectarian divisions13

INFRASTRUCTURE14

  • 8 million Iraqis require immediate emergency aid, with nearly half of the population living in absolute poverty.
  • 4 million people lack food and are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
  • Only 60% of the 4 million people who depend on food assistance have access to rations from the public distribution system, down from 96% in 2004.
  • The number of Iraqis without access to adequate water supplies has risen from 50% to 70% since 2003.
  • 80% of people in Iraq do not have safe access to effective sanitation.
  • The most critical water shortage since Babylonian times is threatening to leave up to 2 million people in the south of Iraq without drinking water. Rampant waterborne diseases and the lack of electricity and clean drinking water have led Iraqis to take to the streets in Baghdad chanting: ‘No water, no electricity in the country of oil and the two rivers.’ A four-year drought plagues most of Iraq. In the north, lack of water has forced more than 100,000 people to abandon their homes since 2005, with 36,000 more on the verge of leaving.15

Iraqi households not connected to general water network16

INFRASTRUCTURE14

DISAPPEARANCES, ASSASSINATIONS, ILLEGAL DETENTIONS

  • At least 210 lawyers and judges have been killed since the 2003 invasion, in addition to dozens injured in attacks against them.17
  • Based on studies undertaken by local NGOs, at least 15,000 Iraqis disappeared during the first four years of US occupation.18
  • According to the Brussels Tribunal, 437 Iraqi academics have been murdered since the invasion.19
  • An estimated 30,000 untried detainees are currently being held by the Iraqi authorities. Most are housed in overcrowded and unsanitary facilities controlled by the Ministries of Justice, Interior and Defence.20
  • As of February 2010, US forces – who turned over thousands of their prisoners to Iraqi authorities – were still holding 5,800 people.21
  • As of 2007, Baghdad had earned the title ‘Kidnapping Capital of the World’.22

WOMEN

An Oxfam-designed survey23 of Iraqi women aged 21 to 65 was carried out by Iraqi NGO Al-Amal in 2008. It paints a grim picture and calls the situation for women a ‘silent emergency’. It also calls for the implementation of new methods of protecting women ‘as the security situation shifts from widespread violence to more targeted attacks, to which women are particularly vulnerable’.

  • 33% of women surveyed had received no humanitarian assistance since 2003.
  • 76% of widows said they did not receive a pension from the Government.
  • 52% of respondents were unemployed.
  • 55% had been displaced since 2003.
  • 55% had been subjected to violence since 2003: 25.4% as victims of random street violence, 22% domestic abuse, 14% violence inflicted by militias, 10% targeted abuse or abduction, 9% sexual abuse and 8% violence inflicted by the Multi-National Forces.
  • 40% reported that they could not access healthcare without the threat of insecurity.
  • 30% of those with children said they could not reach school without security threats.
  • 31% said they could not move freely in their area (to visit the market and so on) without risking their safety.

  1. UNICEF, www.unicef.org/newsline/99pr29.htm
  2. State of the World’s Mothers Report 2007, Save The Children
  3. Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN special representative of the Secretary General for children and armed conflict, 25 April 2008
  4. www.alternet.org/world/70886/?page=entire
  5. Oxfam, 29 July 2007, www.iraqslogger.com/downloads/oxfam.pdf
  6. ‘Iraq: Humanitarian Needs Persist’, a report by Refugees International, March 2010 www.refintl.org/policy/field-report/iraq-humanitarian-needs-persist
  7. Ibid
  8. Hana Ibrahim, founder of the Iraqi women’s group Women’s Will, 24 June 2007
  9. Refugees International quoted by The Australian tinyurl.com/yddo6yt
  10. www.thenation.com/doc/20080225/engelhardt
  11. New York Times, 20 June 2004 tinyurl.com/y8hn3jg
  12. New York Times, 30 May 2007.
  13. www.brusselstribunal.org/pdf/BaghdadMapsEthnicCleansing.pdf
  14. Oxfam, 2007 quoted on www.informationclearinghouse.info/article18091.htm
  15. dahrjamailiraq.com/the-new-%E2%80%98forgotten-war#more-1753
  16. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7856618.stm
  17. Iraqi Lawyers’ Association, 30 April 2007
  18. IRIN, 18 April 2007, www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=71668
  19. www.brusselstribunal.org/pdf/academicsBT151108.pdf">www.brusselstribunal.org/pdf/academicsBT151108.pdf">www.brusselstribunal.org/pdf/academicsBT151108.pdf
  20. Amnesty International, Human Rights Briefing March 2010
  21. Ibid
  22. www.counterpunch.org/cockburn09302004.html
  23. ‘In Her Own Words’, an Oxfam-designed, Iraqi Al-Amal Association-instigated survey, March 2009

The power and the glory

Whatever one thinks of Iraq’s nascent ‘democracy’, it’s hard to deny the enthusiasm of some Iraqis for elections. I am surprised to find that everyone – from a former newspaper columnist from Saddam-era Iraq, to the old conductor of the Iraqi National Orchestra, to a Sufi Sheikh – seems to be running for office. And election posters now outnumber the old images of Saddam that once greeted you from every corner.

Iraq in the last seven years has been transformed from a secular police state to an anarchistic pseudo-democracy

I recall witnessing an ‘election’ in 2000, which Saddam won by 98 per cent (they were always careful to leave a few percentage points out for appearances). Interviewing Iraqis at polling stations, I was struck by how happy everyone looked. Whole families, dressed in their best outfits, greeted friends and neighbours as they cast their votes for the only possible candidate. The national holiday was a day out for beleaguered Iraqis: ‘It’s a way to pretend that everything is normal,’ my minder from the Ministry of Information, a young Kurdish Baghdadi, had told me.

Of course, with infant mortality rates sky-rocketing, near-daily bombings from US and British warplanes and embargo-induced isolation and poverty exacerbated by the excesses of Saddam’s police state, things were far from normal then.

And they’re far from normal now. With no laws on campaign financing, incumbents can use state funds to further their own re-election, and Maliki’s troops make regular sweeps through Sunni neighbourhoods, allegedly rounding up potential opponents as ‘trouble-makers’.1

Critics of the current regime point to the lack of reliable voter records, as well as the ongoing persecution of opponents and minorities, as some of the factors delegitimizing the elections. (When three members of the Iraqi LGBT organization were recently released after being jailed and beaten for several months, they were told: ‘You’re being released because of the benevolence of the Prime Minister. You must vote for your benefactor or you’ll regret it.’)2

In many ways, Iraq in the last seven years has been transformed from a secular police state into an anarchistic pseudo-democracy, where every minister has their own militia. And the damage done to Iraq’s civil society and social programmes after years of war, sanctions and despotism has been exacerbated by occupation and fundamentalist militias.

In this context, can the signs of returning ‘normalcy’ be taken at face value?

Most average Iraqis I meet are not optimistic. And neither are insiders like Ali Allawi, who describes the current regime as a blend of ‘the most corrupt of the old regime’ (old Baathists caught with their hands in the jar under Saddam, who then pleaded persecution to escape the rampant de-Baathification process first imposed by US Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer) and the most venal and incompetent of the returning exiles. He describes the current situation in Iraq as a ‘minimalist’ democracy, built around a ‘new class’ made up of élites who have learned to play party politics, comparing them to the British-backed Egyptian and Iraqi political élites of the last century.3

Emad al-Khafaji, a former talk-show host who moved back to Iraq from the US after the invasion, is now running as a Communist candidate in Kerbala (one of the country’s most religious Shi’a cities) as a secular Shi’a. With the growing gap between rich and poor, no campaign finance laws, rampant corruption and vote-buying, he says that ‘only the strong will win’. Often, they are those backed by US or Iranian money.

The day after the elections, Muwafaq al-Taei, a 68-year-old communist who worked as a town planner for Saddam and was wounded by US troops, will tell me:

‘The bombing4 really encouraged people to vote. Without the bombs turnout would have been much less. You know, Iraqis love a challenge. Allawi represents the bad Baathists and the religious parties are corrupt reactionaries, but still Iraqis will find their way to democracy in an anarchistic way.’

At the very least, he hopes for a ‘decent opposition’. ‘Iraqis love a good fight – something both Alexander the Great and Imam Ali observed.’

A few weeks later that fight will take the form of a stand-off: Iyad Allawi’s narrow victory against Maliki is threatened by the latter’s jailing of winning candidates from Allawi’s secular Al Iraqiya bloc and the disqualification of others by the de-Baathification commission, overseen by the infamous Ahmed Chalabi (himself a winning candidate). Later, bombs will kill over 100 people in Baghdad.

And with Muqtada al-Sadr – who could be courted by either candidate to form a government – setting up fake ‘election tents’ where he has asked his followers to decide on who will be prime minister, anarchy seems to be the order of the day.

But whatever the election’s outcome, making a difference in the lives of Iraq’s growing army of orphans and widows, the displaced and the dispossessed, will test the mettle of any politician. While the US and Britain are keen to see ‘democracy’ take root in Iraq, so as to justify their illegal invasion and occupation, average Iraqis are concerned with basic survival.

As the country’s fate hangs in delicate, chaotic balance, it’s not surprising that Iraqis are nostalgic for various golden ages.

A few days before the elections, a campaigner on Mutanabe Street – the heart of old Baghdad and its current literary centre – shouts: ‘Bring back the glories of old Baghdad! Return this city to its former greatness!’

While parts of Mutanabe Street – named after one of Iraq’s most famous poets – have been brought back to their former glory, other parts feel rather Disneyfied. It’s easy to forget that just a few hundred metres away in the old parliament building, a young Saddam Hussein fled a failed assassination attempt against Prime Minister Qassim by galloping off on horseback and seeking refuge at the US embassy in Cairo.

At the Shabandar Café, an intelligentsia hang-out since 1917, newly recovered from a 2007 car bomb, I meet a Kurdish adviser to the Deputy Minister of Culture. He’s also a photographer and part of a mixed Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish group that has been documenting old Baghdad for the past year.

He self-identifies as a Baghdadi and his sense of Kurdish identity is miles apart from the sectarianism of Erbil, or the Iraqi crucible of Kirkuk – where oil and ethnic politics duke it out in a struggle for control.

‘Baghdad has always been cosmopolitan,’ he explains. ‘This sectarianism is very recent.’

He shows me a map from 1834, compiled by an English cartographer. ‘At this time, Baghdad was mainly Kurdish and Jewish. The Arabs lived towards the outskirts of the city.’

I am encouraged by this multicultural vision of Baghdad and his faith that it will rise again. But when I ask if he can take me to parts of the old Baghdad he has been documenting, he tells me frankly that it’s too dangerous to go there.

I wander out into the dirty streets past the t-wall, careful to cover up my cameras and slip on my hijab. Kurdish/Arab poet and ardent Iraqi nationalist Maruf al-Rusafi looks on impassively as wildcats pick at the garbage in the streets that surround his statue, and the Shi’a religious banners hanging from adjacent balconies flutter gently in the wind.5

In the wake of the invasion in 2003 there was a certain amount of nostalgia for the 1950s and the monarchy. Now, however, King Faisal II’s cousin Sharif Ali Bin al-Hussein is running on the National Iraqi Alliance ticket, essentially a conservative Shi’a group whose key players include the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council and radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

So now it’s the ghost of Abdul Karim Qassim, whose Communist-friendly regime overthrew the monarchy and was in turn overthrown by the 1963 CIA-backed Baathist coup, that is dredged up when people want to think of a ‘golden age’. ‘There were jobs then,’ a man in his late sixties tells me, ‘and security.’

That doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for, but in Iraq today, both remain elusive.

The last several decades have been challenging for Iraqis, to say the least. Some have managed to survive by fleeing, some by joining militias, some by making deals with the devil. And some have survived by that very indomitable Iraqi spirit – that roh al iraqiya.

I am reminded of this when I meet my old friend Ali, whom I befriended when he was working at an Iraqi embassy abroad in the 1990s.

Ali is keen to take me to his family home for lunch, but my driver advises against it for security reasons. ‘My daughter still has your photo from last time,’ Ali says. ‘She will be disappointed.’ His suggestion of a popular restaurant is similarly nixed. Our last resort is the armed compound. Ali bristles as we go through all the security brouhaha: name tags, passes, walkie-talkies. ‘This is my country,’ he says.

And so, due to circumstances beyond our control, our reunion lunch becomes a tea and interview in two chairs outside the control room of Fox News, in an armed compound piled high with concertina wire.

Ali tells me his story in a voice so quiet, it’s almost a whisper. When he speaks Arabic it’s louder, but when he speaks English it comes across like secret code.

‘During the invasion,’ he tells me, slowly, deliberately, ‘I took my wife and children to the countryside to escape the bombing, but my mother was killed by an American rocket.’

It’s time to move forward. Myself, I have no more hope. But I still hope for my children’s future. Maybe Iraq will recover in 10 or 20 years

Ali’s brother lives in Sweden, but Ali couldn’t arrange for his entire family to emigrate, so he stayed in Baghdad and tried to make the best of it.

Then in 2006 he received a death threat from the Mahdi militia. His status as a former Baathist outweighed his status as a Shi’a and he was forced to flee to Syria. But again, he couldn’t get his family out, so he came back in 2007, staying with cousins in Kut until it was safe enough to come back home.

Now he works for a US medical NGO.

‘We have to work with the Americans,’ he tells me. ‘They have a responsibility to stay here and fix things. Besides, if they leave now the Iranians will take over.’ Ali is a staunch federalist and says he will vote for Allawi: ‘The Shi’a that took power were religious, but they didn’t know how to govern.’

‘And as for these terrorists,’ he continues, speaking of those behind the bombings of public markets and ministries, ‘there’s no political goal – the old regime is finished. They just kill innocent people.’

‘It’s time to move forward,’ he says philosophically. ‘Myself, I have no more hope. But I still hope for my children’s future. Maybe Iraq will recover in 10 or 20 years….’

I offer Ali some more tea, which he graciously accepts.

‘You see, everything is broken here. We have lost so much. Not just our country, but our dignity.’ We pause for a minute as a Fox News producer walks by with a smile and a wave.

Ali is feeling uncomfortable in the armed compound, and so am I. Night is falling, and he has to get back home. Not far from here is the impenetrable green zone, where the new US Embassy looms large.

‘I don’t know now whether I will see you again or not,’ he continues, ‘or what will happen to me on the way home. Everything now is in the moment.’

I insist that my driver take Ali at least part of the way home, but he politely refuses. ‘I’ll just go out now into the street – where I feel free – and catch a taxi.’

We make an appointment to go to an orphanage in Sadr City – one that was abandoned after the invasion and is now run by the orphans themselves. Later, I will have to cancel, once again, because of security concerns.

I walk Ali out into the garden, say goodbye and watch the heavy iron gate close behind him.

I recall the beautiful folk melody Che Mali Wali (‘I’m an orphaned child’) that was sung to me a few days earlier by the assistant conductor of the Iraqi National Orchestra. He is from Sadr City himself, and tells me that one of his brothers was killed by a militia. But he’s still persevering with his composition – fusing Iraqi folk songs with Western symphonic form.

Che Mali Wali could well be the theme song for this nation, which often feels orphaned by the world. But like Ali, I’m not quite ready to give up hope.

I’m heartened to learn that the next day, as I make my way through the seven circles of security hell at Baghdad airport, complete with thuggish guards and German shepherd dogs, the same day that bombs rip through Baquba6, the Iraqi National Orchestra performed a triumphant concert of Beethoven and Brahms. An excited young music student skypes me. ‘It was amazing,’ he says of the concert performed by women and men who happen to be Shi’a, Sunni, Christian and Muslim, Kurdish and Arab. ‘It made me feel proud to be Iraqi.’

  1. Iraqi daily Azzaman, 4 January 2010, quoted on http://dahrjamailiraq.com/the-new-%E2%80%98forgotten-war#more-1753
  2. For more on gay rights issues in Iraq see New Internationalist October 2009 http://www.newint.org/issues/2009/10/01/
  3. Newsweek: Rebirth of a Nation http://www.newsweek.com/id/234281/page/2
  4. Explosions ripped through several polling stations, killing 33.
  5. Maruf al-Rusafi railed against imperialism and the tyranny of the hijab in the 1940s.
  6. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8546744.stm

The waiting room

After a few days of driving round Baghdad in toxic traffic, I’m feeling a little ill.

I decide a visit to Sister Marie who runs the St Raphael Hospital might be in order. It’s been 13 years since I last saw her.

Things have changed, to say the least. The hospital – across from a church in the predominantly Shi’a neighbourhood of Karradah – has had the entire street in between blocked off. Security checks are now necessary before you can even get inside. The obligatory sweep of the car with the ‘bomb detector’ (possibly a dodgy one sold to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence by a British company, currently under investigation) is now beginning to feel normal, as is the constant sight of armed men. One doesn’t usually associate kalashnikovs with hospital entrances, but these are strange times. According to the Iraqi Medical Association, 2,000 doctors have been killed since 2003 and another 12,000 have fled.

I am ushered into the office of Dr Boutros, one of Baghdad’s few remaining oncologists. He’s cagey and won’t talk on camera. I don’t blame him, especially after he tells me about some of the threats he’d received from militias in the past. But he’s also concerned about the Government response, as he still runs a clinic at a public hospital nearby. Unlike Saddam-era Iraq, when the sick and dying were often exploited for televisual anti-embargo purposes, today public hospitals are difficult for media to access.

Even after the invasion, when I was last here, I had to sneak my way into the old Saddam Children’s Hospital, to speak with one of the chief surgeons there. He painted a grim picture indeed of the state of paediatric health, saying it was actually worse than it had been under sanctions.

They had no steady supply of electricity, all the same shortages of penicillin, morphine and basics as before, as well as an unstable security situation and no operating budget from the Ministry of Health. ‘There’s no real Government,’ he’d told me. ‘It’s as if we’ve been set adrift now, all by ourselves.’

Children under five were still dying of waterborne diseases, since sanitation and water treatment facilities, in disrepair after years of war and sanctions, now had to contend with thousands of displaced people. And paediatric cancers, he told me, had increased dramatically. He was sure it was related to depleted uranium and other toxins in bombs, but as the equipment necessary to detect radiation levels had also been banned under the embargo, he had no written documentation to prove his theory.

As I spoke to Dr Boutros now, he was careful to avoid saying anything overtly critical of the Ministry of Health. But he conceded that there were severe shortages of radiation equipment for chemotherapy and that many patients (those who could afford it) had to seek care outside of Iraq.

I got the blunt truth from my friend Haydar: ‘A cancer diagnosis is a death sentence in Iraq. You only have a few months, tops.’ His analysis of the old regime/new regime situation was even blunter. ‘Same shit, different taste,’ he said with a grin.

Later, predictably, Dr Boutros cancels the appointment he’d made for me to go to his clinic at the public hospital. When I meet with Sister Marie, she still looks hale and hearty, but lacks a certain bravura of old. This nun, who had negotiated with black marketeers for penicillin, who had said of the then embargo enforcers – and by implication certain elements of the Saddam regime – ‘Those who are responsible for this, how do they sleep at night?’, is now very careful not to speak of politics. She remains tight-lipped about the Ministry of Health as well as the situation for Christians.

But as we say goodbye, I ask if there is any way that medical charities in the West might be able to send some of the equipment Dr Boutros said the hospital so needed.

‘Yes,’ she practically whispers, ‘just don’t send it through the Ministry of Health.’

It’s hard to believe that in the 1980s Iraq had the best healthcare system in the Arab world. Or that half the doctors were women.

Later I track down a doctor who is more willing to talk. Dr Azam is a consultant surgeon at a public hospital, but also runs a private clinic near St Raphael. When I arrive for our 6pm appointment, his waiting room is full, mainly with women and children.

They seem rather surprised to see a Western journalist with a video camera, but once I start chatting, the mood is friendly and generous. A middle-aged lady tells me that her mother, a tattooed hajiya in a black abaya, is here because of a cyst in her stomach. A previous operation at another private clinic at a cost of almost $5,000 had failed to remove it.

When I ask if that price is not prohibitive, the daughter shrugs and says, ‘We can afford it.’ But later she explains: ‘All of our friends and relatives chipped in and we managed.’

‘But what about a public hospital?’ I inquire. The daughter looks at me blankly. The last time she went to a public hospital was over 20 years ago.

A 35-year-old woman named Alia has come from a northern suburb of Baghdad, known for crackdowns under Saddam, its militant Shi’a militias, and ongoing violence that reached its climax during the sectarian troubles of 2006. At that time she was imprisoned in her home by militia violence and several family members were killed at sectarian ‘checkpoints’. She says that sectarianism is not an Iraqi problem but one brought on by ‘outside forces’.

She is here with her baby daughter, who has a mysterious cyst on her right cheek. To get here took her three hours on public transit and the return journey will be in the dark of night. ‘Aren’t you worried for your safety?’ I ask.

‘Khelas. What can we do? There is no clinic where I live. God will protect us.’

Alia was once a student at Baghdad University and remembers those days fondly. Now she is married to an unemployed supermarket worker and worries about the future for her three children. There are no decent schools in her area. Things are better than under sanctions, she says, but the cost of living has gone up and it’s hard to make ends meet. And running a household is difficult with only four hours a day of electricity and dodgy water.

After waiting for an hour, I am ushered into Dr Azam’s consulting room where he receives me warmly. Azam is a Shi’a and has only recently returned to Baghdad. He was targeted by militias and forced to flee to Jordan in 2006. At Medical City, the public hospital where he worked, ‘every day there was a different target. A Shi’a militia would kill a Sunni doctor and the next day a Sunni militia would kill a Shi’a doctor. It was horrible.’

Things were better then in terms of supplies – not like the mid to late 1990s during the embargo, when Azam recalls colleagues having to reuse unsterilized catheters – but too dangerous for proper functioning. ‘Militias would routinely kill patients in their beds,’ he relates.

We are 20 years behind now, but we hope things will improve as more doctors return. We need stability in this country, we need peace, before life can improve

Lured back by a slightly improved security situation and a larger salary (he tells me he now earns $25,000 a month from his private clinic alone) Azam reopened his clinic in January 2007. But the situation is far from ideal. Surgeries are often postponed because of bombs: ‘There are very long waiting lists, especially at the public hospitals. You might wait six months for your turn, but if there are wounded coming in that day after a bombing then, khelas, you have to wait another six months.’ He admits that the standards at public hospitals are so low that ‘only the desperate go there’.

Some issues affect both private and public healthcare. ‘It’s very hard to get mammograms,’ he explains. ‘We don’t have any early detection machinery and very limited ultrasounds.’ Not surprisingly, there’s also a lack of specialists left in the country.

A man interrupts our interview. I recognize him as the fellow from the waiting room who had let loose with an angry lecture on how the Americans had divided his country, which did not abate when I agreed with him, nor when I pointed out my Canadian nationality. Now he is asking about the expensive lab work the doctor has prescribed for his wife, who has an abdominal cyst. ‘Are all these tests really necessary?’ he asks.

‘Some of my colleagues are returning now,’ the doctor continues after telling the man that the tests are all required, ‘from Dubai, Syria, Libya.’ But the doctor stresses the need for outside help. Years of sanctions and post-invasion chaos mean that Iraqi doctors are often lacking medical knowledge and practical experience. ‘We are 20 years behind now,’ he says. ‘But we hope things will improve as more doctors return.’ He admits that if the security situation worsens, he would consider leaving again. ‘We need stability in this country, we need peace, before life can improve.’

And the sectarianism that almost cost him his life, says Azam – whose mother and wife are both Sunni – will fade as it did in Ireland, with the advent of economic prosperity. ‘If people have decent jobs, there will be less violence,’ he says, perhaps trying to reassure himself.

‘I am a Baghdadi and this city has always been cosmopolitan, always been a centre of learning. Things will get better.’

The doctor actually thanks me for coming, saying: ‘We need help from the outside, we can’t recover on our own.’

But when I return to the waiting room, I am met by a hostile crowd of women shouting at me, including the formerly shy Alia. My interview with the doctor has delayed her scary bus ride home in the dark by 20 minutes and she is not happy.

There is much to be angry about in Iraq. And Iraqis have been waiting for a very long time. How much longer can they hold out, I wonder, as I grab my camera and drive off into the night.

Hail Mary, full of grace

Maria, a Christian woman in Baghdad, has faced post-invasion harassment and is desperate to leave the country.

Hadani Ditmars

At the same time as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has organized a mass rally for his State of Law coalition, where bands of men carrying Shi’a religious flags chant his name in a stadium, I go to mass at the Virgin Mary Chaldean Church in Karradah, East Baghdad.

The last time I was here, in the wake of the invasion, there were more people at mass. But a few months later, extremist groups began fire-bombing churches. The priest tells me that he has since lost half his congregation to emigration. He is very concerned about the recent killings of Christians in Mosul.1 He grew up and attended seminary there. ‘I remember it well,’ he says. ‘There was no problem between Christians and Muslims then. We lived together in peace.’ But that was before post-invasion violence, mainly perpetrated by newly empowered extremist Muslim militias, drove out most of Iraq’s Christian community, many of whom can trace their ancestry back to Babylon.

When I mention that Bush and Blair both consider themselves to be men of faith, he displays an Old Testament wrath. ‘They cannot dare to call themselves Christians,’ he scoffs.

A group of women approach me after mass and are eager to speak. But the priest is wary. He lets us sit together in a room across from his office. ‘You have only 15 minutes,’ he pronounces. No-one likes to stay long after mass these days.

Two sisters in their thirties and a woman in her sixties tell me their tales in a torrent of tears and broken English. They start talking before I’ve asked any questions.

One of the sisters says that just a year and a half ago, the supermarket where she worked was robbed by a Shi’a militia. ‘I was working at the checkout when these men came in with beards and guns. They came this close,’ she says, moving within inches of my face. She chokes back tears now, remembering. ‘But thank God they didn’t hurt us, because the police came by – there had been an explosion somewhere else in the neighbourhood – and the gang got scared and left.’

I realize this is the only positive story I’ve heard about Iraqi police.

The older woman, Maria (above), wears a headscarf. ‘You see this?’ she says. ‘I only wear it now because my neighbours harass me and say I will go to hell if I don’t.’

But Maria already seems to be in hell. ‘I am all alone here,’ she relates, beginning to cry. ‘I have no-one. My family have all left the country.’ Maria tells me that her husband deserted her and simply disappeared sometime in the mid-1990s. She fled to Syria in the midst of the sectarian violence of 2007 but could not maintain herself on the small stipend she received from the UN as a refugee. When her neighbours told her that her Baghdad apartment was being broken into by displaced people, she returned home to claim it, as well as her pension from the Government ministry where she had worked for 25 years. But now she is desperate to leave Iraq again. Her neighbours call her a ‘bad woman’ and she stays inside her apartment most days. The church is her only refuge.

‘Can you help me get out of here?’ she pleads. ‘Please, help me.’

The priest interrupts us, saying it is time to leave. But the women insist that we pose for a quick photo in the courtyard in front of the shrine to the Madonna, before the priest locks the heavy iron gate.

‘Shlama ilalkh Maryam mletha na,’ says Maria in Chaldean.2 Hail Mary, full of grace.

Maria still emails me regularly from Baghdad. She is still trying to get out.

  1. http://tinyurl.com/yb3lqsj
  2. The ancient tongue close to Aramaic.

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