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A new article for openDemocracy by Dr Ali Ali

2018tragedy2019 and responsibility in the mediterranean mariagiulia giuffre and cathryn costello

This article was originally published on Open Democracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Read the original article>> 


After a series of horrific bombings, the worst of which was in the shopping district of Karrada, people from all over Baghdad lit candles in remembrance of the victims. A heavy sadness consumed the city, but also an intense anger at the political elites.

When Prime Minister Abadi visited the site, people on the streets shouted insults and threw shoes at him. Checkpoints across the city were still using the fake bomb detectors sold to the Iraqi government by a British businessman now jailed for fraud.

The explosive-laden truck passed through several checkpoints before reaching Karrada. But it was only after the bombing that the prime minister announced that the fake detectors would be replaced with reliable technology. However, inside the Green Zone, where the political class live and work, K-9 sniffer-dog units prevent such attacks from happening. 

In a video circulating on social media, people were insulting Abadi and those in power, but not the police men guarding the prime minister’s motorcade as they know that they are not the real problem.

It isn’t just that people are angry that their politicians are corrupt and not keeping them safe, they are also angry about how exhausting and expensive daily life has become. The corrupt political class are largely to blame, and they themselves are another part of the legacy of the military occupation.

I got a sense of this grind in February this year when I went to visit relatives and explored the pockets of beauty that remain in the city. It has changed enormously since my last visit in 2001. Last time I travelled by land, taking a taxi from Damascus. This time I flew from London. The officers at Baghdad International Airport were actually more welcoming than the border guards were in 2001.

Rows of majestic date palms greet arrivals along the airport highway, one of the few roads in the city that is well maintained. Just a few years ago it was a highway of death, with frequent clashes between American soldiers and the forces resisting their occupation. The city is greener than I expected, Iraqis still cherish their trees and green spaces. There was a long queue of cars waiting to enter Zawraa park, a popular place to relax in Baghdad.

The signs of the ongoing war against Daesh were visible across the city; posters commemorating the martyred soldiers and the brigades of Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi, the Popular Mobilisation Units fighting Daesh, dotted the city. The body of a martyr was carried to Al-Kadhimiya shrine as I wondered around the nearby market. And there was a sense that the war was being fought outside of Baghdad.

People were enjoying the evenings; spaces in popular restaurants were hard to find on weekends. Nightlife options are not wide ranging, but it is pleasant to dine on delicious Iraqi grills and stews in one of the park restaurants on the banks of the Tigris. Concerts are also still running in the national theatre.

The booksellers were busy on Mutanabbi Street, an old street in Baghdad which was restored after being hit by a car bomb in 2007. It was pedestrianized for security measures, which isn’t such a bad thing. On Fridays, booksellers arrange books on protective sheets and the street comes to life from the colours of the book covers. 

Mutanabbi Street is where the Shabandar Café is - a place where writers, artists, and intellectuals meet; more like a cultural club than a café. Old photographs of Baghdadi life and personalities adorn the walls, and thick smoke from fruit flavoured water pipes obscure the view.

Around the corner is Al Qishla, built by the Ottomans to house the government of Iraq. Its spacious garden by the Tigris is where artists display and sell their creations, and poets recite words of love and loss on Fridays.

Al Mustansiriya University is nearby; a beautifully preserved thirteenth century building that is among the oldest learning hubs in the world. Constructed from dense and ornately engraved mud walls, its rooms provide a cool refuge from the scorching sun without the need for air-conditioning.

Baghdad’s streets are filled with new and old cars. Korean cars outnumber the rest, but some Japanese and American cars share the roads with the poorly made Iranian Sabas that seem to emit more pollution than the rest combined. I’m told they are cheap to run.

Iraqis have the latest smartphones and laptops. Shopping malls have grown in number. But the consumer boom is not matched by progress in restoring public infrastructure or Baghdad’s functionality as a city.

Certain neighbourhoods, like al Amiriyah by the airport, remain enclosed by large concrete walls. Checkpoints in Baghdad are many. They appear to be run by state forces, not militias, although the lines between them are blurred.

Life goes on in Baghdad. In February Baghdad felt calm, but at the same time, as if it were stuck on a path leading it from one war to the next.

Tens of thousands of protestors were camped outside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone in February and March, home to government ministries, the parliament, and foreign embassies. They blocked the main entrance and demanded an end to the corruption and sectarianism in Iraqi politics, a legacy of the Anglo-American invasion and occupation thirteen years ago.

Secular protestors were already making these demands in Tahrir Square, a few hundred metres away from Iraq's parliament, across the Jumhuriya bridge. They were joined, and outnumbered, by the Sadrists, led by Muqtada Al-Sadr. 

Muqtada gave a speech in Tahrir Square in late February, denouncing corruption and sectarianism. He called for a new technocratic government composed of ministers unaffiliated to any political party. Terrorists' bombs killed dozens in a Sadr City market a few days later.

The Sadrists, who can mobilise hundreds of thousands of men, including members of their militia, joined the protest camps outside the Green Zone. There was a thriving protest camp at the entry point to the walled-off government zone. Sadrists mixed with the secular progressives; they were sharing food and protecting them. Had the secular protestors been alone, security forces would have probably succeeded in dispersing them.

They were gradually joined by protestors from other parts of Iraq. They used their smartphones to spread footage of protest songs on social media. They proudly showed the diversity of the camp: of secular and religious Iraqis protesting together, and Sunnis alongside Shias, and of their clerics praying together. They challenged the claims that it was an exclusively Sadrist protest camp.

Popular discontent was not quelled by a cabinet shuffle. There were further protests, and the Green Zone was occupied by protestors at the end of April - some of them entered the cabinet building for several hours. Protestors were angry about delays to political reform. Later four were killed and dozens more injured by government security forces.

The Anglo-American invasion dismantled the Iraqi state but replaced it with corrupt and dysfunctional identity politics.

The Anglo-American invasion toppled the detested dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, dismantled the Iraqi state but replaced it with corrupt and dysfunctional identity politics, which benefits the corrupt diaspora elite.

Occupation forces neglected many of the legal obligations which govern occupations. Other offences included: the sledgehammer purge of the old order, institutionalising governance which allocated power and resources on the basis of ethnic and religious identity, and incredibly poor financial accountability which ushered in immense and endemic corruption.

This catastrophic combination has resulted in intense protracted violence in large parts of Iraq, but especially in Baghdad. It also resulted in the neglect of meaningful state-building and the associated regulation of the economy and society. This is what the protesters seek to change. 

Iraqis have lived with these repercussions for too long. The state is not providing adequate public services, and where private actors have stepped in, they face little formal constraints or accountability. War and corruption have deregulated daily life and routinized disorder and unaccountability.  

The national electricity grid is still inadequate. Even in winter and early spring, when the cool temperatures reduce demand, power cuts prevail. Households rely on neighbourhood generators, for which they pay a fee, and on their own generators when the neighbourhood generator falls short. This is no joke in summers with temperatures as high as 55 degrees Celsius. If there is no electricity, there is no water pumped into homes. The system sometimes works, but only if you can afford the extra expenses, and if your neighbourhood generator is well maintained and not oversubscribed.

The city pays an aesthetic price; clumps of hanging generator cables clutter and disfigure the streets. Iraqis should be entitled to reliable and affordable national power generation; underneath them are the world's fifth largest oil reserves, and above them a powerful sun –  the solar energy potential of which remains untapped. They receive neither. 

The drainage system is so poorly maintained that ordinary winter rains cause flooding in the city. A restaurant owner explained that private contractors, paid by the government, tarmacked over the drains and manholes on his street, taking no notice of his remonstrations.

Another set of private contractors, who own the drainage-trucks, and who were sent by the local government, demanded payment from residents. Instead of paying the high fees each year for what should be a free service, he decided to conduct his own repair works privately. However, the other residents did not contribute to the cost, so he set it up to only deal with his part of the road.

Corruption and lack of regulations also have implications on the health sector. There is a belief that many bogus drugs are sold. Receptionists in clinics can be bribed to slip people’s names into the top of the doctor's waiting list. In hospitals, nurses regularly demand bribes. Doctors commonly prescribe high doses of steroids for a range of conditions, without considering the long term side effects. Who will hold them to account? Rather than traversing the city to reach a hospital or a clinic, some Baghdadis visit the Mudhammid, the neighbourhood first aid man with limited medical training.

The lack of regulation means some can claim to be doctors, qualified to fix fractures and tie stitches which real doctors eventually have to correct in hospitals. Some Mudhammids sell ‘recreational’ narcotics. Understandably, when Iraqis need major surgery, those who can afford to travel to Lebanon or Turkey.

However, Turkey is losing this as well as other sources of revenue from Iraq, owing to the strict new visa regime which it imposed on Iraqis this year. It is widely believed to be another consequence of Turkey's 'dirty deal' with the EU, curtailing the movement of populations from conflict-affected countries to Europe in exchange for several billion Euros, and for reviving the issue of visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens.

A lack of regulation and inadequate public transportation has implications for mobility in Baghdad. Getting around the city is expensive and inconvenient. There are few road signs and public transport consists of mini buses - ‘Kias’ - and a new fleet of red double-deckers. Neither display signs to indicate their routes. The Kias, more numerous than the double-deckers, do not keep regular routes either. If you can't catch the Kia driver's ear, you can communicate with him using hand signals to ask if he's going (roughly) your way. 

Most women feel unsafe riding the Kias, as harassment is too common. Women who can afford to use taxis, often with a driver known to the family, but this consumes a sizeable chunk of income.

The lack of employment opportunities prompts men to use their private cars as unlicensed taxis. It is not yet socially acceptable for women to do the same. Independent mobility in Baghdad depends on private car ownership. Baghdadis say there are now more cars than people in the city. The frequent traffic jams give the impression this might be true. The basic task of moving across Baghdad is a polluted grind.

But it isn't just the number of cars on the roads which cause congestion. City planning has been neglected. Baghdad has been distorted by the occupation and the security measures in place to deal with the associated violence.

In many neighbourhoods, concrete barriers still close off streets to limit access to roads where there are security checkpoints. Some of the barriers are waist high with small gaps to allow only pedestrian access. Others, like those enclosing Al Dora, are sealed and several metres high so that even pedestrian access is controlled. 

In addition to concrete walls enclosing neighbourhoods, there are walls around all public buildings. Vehicles are kept at a safe distance from schools, universities, municipal buildings, and even hospitals. This is not entirely unwelcome, as these walls and checkpoints have kept some of the car bombers, kidnappers, and other criminals out.

Certain mosques and shrines are also walled. The Abu Hanifa Mosque as well as the Al-Kadhimiya Mosque and shrine. In addition to the pedestrianisation of the roads leading to them, there are security search points on the paths leading to the shrines and adjacent market, as terrorists had targeted millions of Shia pilgrims from southern Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan.

While the measures provide protection, they are also a reminder that the dysfunctional political system has normalised insecurity, not public safety. 

Baghdadis still find barriers appearing in unexpected places, roads which may have been open just a month ago may be closed off today. It can be infuriating. Even during the course of a journey, the contours of the city can change in obstructive ways.

The night before Muqtada Al-Sadr's sermon in Tahrir Square, certain roads were closed off as part of a security arrangement. The closures happened unannounced on a busy Thursday night, which is the start of the weekend. As we made adjustments to our route, another road was blocked off. We, like so many other Baghdadis, were expecting these closures the next morning. It is exhausting and another cause for discontent. 

Endemic corruption is a major source of popular resentment at the political class. Political connections to a religious party are needed to access salaried public sector jobs as well as government scholarships for study abroad.

This corruption has also produced a major fiscal crisis. The cumulative total budget since 2003 is close to $950 billion, averaging $67 billion per year, and based almost entirely on oil and gas revenues. The 2016 budget is $99.6 billion, optimistically based on a $45 per barrel oil price, with a $25.6 billion deficit. Plunging oil prices and corruption threaten to put the country in dire fiscal crisis.

Mishan Jabouri, a senior parliament anti-corruption official, admitted his own corruption to a Guardian journalist. Jabouri threatened a corrupt official with investigation if he did not pay him $5 million. He took the bribe and prosecuted him anyway. 

Corrupt practices mean that there are still ghost employees and ghost soldiers, these are individuals who may not exist or do not show up to work, but to whom salaries are being paid. Billions of dollars of public funds are paid for projects which are not built. Despite this cash sloshing around, official unemployment is still above 16 percent, possibly even higher in reality.

People across Iraq are fed up. They are angry at the grand larceny committed over the years as they and their children struggle. The cost of living in Iraq has increased enormously since 2003 but economic prospects for most people have not. Many government employees have had their salaries cut. 

Even in northern Iraq - where two Kurdish parties effectively run their own ‘statelettes’ - there are similar problems. Infrastructure is in much better shape in areas of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), dominated by the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. But without membership or a connection to one of these parties, it is extremely difficult to acquire a salaried public sector position. They are not as desirable as they used to be, as many government employees have not received their salaries for months. 

Iraq's Kurdistan was supposed to be the successful poster-story of the occupation but its residents, who experienced severe persecution under Saddam’s regime, are still struggling. To its credit, the KRG has kept its doors open to the hundreds of thousands displaced by the war with ISIS in Iraq, and to refugees from Syria.

Thirteen years later, the country has not recovered from the legacy of the occupation. Iraq is paralysed from corruption and protracted wars which continue to displace and dispossess. The war with Daesh is another phenomenon whose numerous causes include the invasion of Iraq and the resulting communal politics of exclusion.

Ordinary Iraqis across the country are paying the price while their politicians, and global arms manufacturers, accumulate vast profits. Those in the protest camp outside the Green Zone attempt to make the most out of an arduous situation. They continue to protest on Fridays. If they are successful, then there is some hope of ending Iraq's political paralysis and state of perpetual warfare. But this prospect is far from being imminent.

Many young Iraqis, especially men, have decided it is not worth waiting around for the positive outcomes of potential changes, and have decided to leave. Protests in Iraq have been under way since the Arab Spring began in 2011. In some areas protestors were killed by government forces, such as in Hawija where twenty people were killed by ‘gunmen’, according to the government. Life is leaving so many young Iraqis behind.

As of 31 December 2015, over three million Iraqis are estimated to have been displaced internally. It is no wonder that Iraqis remain highly represented in global refugee statistics. 

The war with Daesh will continue, resulting in more displacement. If there is no political solution and people’s calls for political reforms are ignored, violent expressions of discontent will continue. 

As life goes on in Baghdad, plans need to be put in place to make people’s lives a little more bearable. Planning should not wait until the war ends, because in Baghdad, as in much of Iraq, war is now the new normal.

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