In June last year, in al-Jadriyah, a wealthy suburb of Baghdad, the
wife of a veterinary surgeon received a call that people in the city
have come to dread. It was from an unknown group claiming respon-
sibility for kidnapping her husband a few hours earlier and demanding
a ransom of $100,000. Her response was not what they expected. She
thanked them and urged them to pay her $200 in return for killing her
husband, describing him as useless, unemployed and penniless. She
desperately needed the money, she said, to buy essential medicine for
her youngest son. The gang, assuming they had nabbed the wrong person
and were not after all in possession of a professional man of means,
released the vet unharmed. His wife's unorthodox reaction had saved him.
The vet was one of the lucky few; thousands more Iraqis have been
killed by their kidnappers, many of them after large ransoms have
been paid. Even school- children are not spared: at a press briefing
this month, Abdul Falah al-Sudani, the minister for education, said
that 76 schools around the country have been attacked since April
2003, resulting in the deaths of 64 students and 310 teachers or
other school employees. This was threatening to paralyse the entire
school system, putting in jeopardy the educational rehabilitation of
the country, he said.
The story is the same at the universities. Isam al-Rawi, head of the
Teachers' Association of Iraqi Universities, says that more than 200
lecturers have been murdered since the fall of Saddam Hussein, in
what he describes as "organised killings". Just last week, four
lecturers were kidnapped from al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad
and to date no trace of them has been found. Samir, a sports teacher
from Fallujah, told me resignedly: "Threats to teachers like myself,
and their assassination, have become something normal in Iraq and we
have to live with that."
With kidnap gangs singling out the children of professional parents,
it is little wonder that families are fleeing the country in what
amounts to a severe brain drain. University professors, doctors,
engineers and businessmen and their next of kin seek refuge abroad,
many in Amman, the Jordanian capital, where tens of thousands of
Iraqis have already settled over the past three years. (There are so
many of them, in fact, that property prices in Amman are soaring.)
The shrinking of the intellectual heart of Iraq has all but
extinguished private investment and the consequences are being felt
by the entire country at the most basic levels. Unemployment is
running at 60 per cent and life for the Iraqi people is more
difficult than at any time in living memory.
The frequent bombs, of course, are terrifying, but their effect is
all the greater and all the more depressing because a lack of decent
hospital facilities has led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of
civilians admitted to the emergency wards. Late last year, Basma, a
young medical student I know, returned home in tears one evening from
her work at what used to be Iraq's finest hospital, the Medical City
in Baab al-Mouaadem, central Baghdad. That afternoon, she explained
to her family, two car bombs had exploded in separate neighbourhoods
and ambulances had ferried the victims to her hospital. Doctors were
standing by in the emergency operating theatre, but they had to make
snap decisions about treatment not on the basis of what was medically
possible, but to fit the limited equipment and medicines at their
A 23-year-old man, who had lost an eye, also had both legs and an arm
amputated, even though Basma believes these could have been saved in
earlier times. A 14-year-old boy had to have his leg amputated to
avoid gangrene poisoning, but the hospital had no prosthetic limbs
for his rehabilitation.
There is a scarcity of basic equipment that most hospitals store in
ample quantities as a matter of course. Many injuries caused by car
bombs require silk stitching thread for wounds to delicate parts of
the body such as the face. Iraqi surgeons, however, have to use nylon
thread, leaving the victims of shootings and bombings with more
prominent physical scars to compound their psychological trauma. The
situation today, the professionals insist, is even worse than in the
last years of the old regime, when essential materials were in short
supply because of UN economic sanctions.
Iraqis genuinely hoped that the quality of life in their country
would soon rise to meet international standards once Saddam was no
longer in power and sanctions had ended. Calculations based on the
value of the country's oil reserves suggested that there would be
plenty of money to spend on improving public services and
strengthening the infrastructure. That optimism has vanished, and
reconstruction has proved to be an illusion.
There has been no visible improvement to any of the services that are
basic to civil society: drinking water, electricity supply,
functioning sewage systems, schools and hospitals. Drinking water
used to be available from household taps, but that is no longer safe
to drink. Potholes in the roads, which were a com-mon cause of
complaint in Saddam's time, not only still exist but are even bigger.
There were occasional power cuts in the old days but generally the
citizens of Baghdad enjoyed a regular supply. Now they are reduced to
electricity for just one hour in every six each day.
Nazha al-Said, an elderly lady in her seventies from the Dora
neighbourhood in south-eastern Baghdad, didn't mince her words when
she spoke to me. She accused the new rulers of being more corrupt
than the previous regime, and pointed to the lack of progress in
helping people survive summer temperatures that can reach an
overwhelming 55 C between June and August. Although some people can
sleep on rooftops at night, there is a high risk of suffocation,
particularly in neighbour-hoods such as al-Sadr City, where more than
three million people are squashed into 25 square kilometres of slums,
with several families living together in every house. Most people
can't afford electricity generators to power air-conditioners, even
if they could find them on sale.
It is bizarre, travelling through a country that has one of the
largest oil reserves on earth, to observe the long queues of cars at
petrol stations. Drivers have become so resigned to this that they
often bring their entire families along to keep them company. It is
not unusual to see picnics being laid out along the roadside to pass
away the time, while someone guards the car for fear of losing that
precious place in the queue. People even risk their lives to fill
their tanks - bombs can explode at the rate of five or more per day.
The black market is thriving, with gangs selling petrol at hiked-up
prices to those willing and able to pay to avoid the dangerous
queues. One driver I encountered in Kirkuk was disgusted at the
length of a queue we joined. "This city sleeps on a sea of oil and
just look at us," he lamented.
Naturally, the biggest concern for Iraqis is security. The civilian
death rate is higher than ever, and not a day passes without reports
of dozens killed, whether it be from car bombs or sectarian murder.
It has become second nature to brief your loved ones as they leave
for work, school or the market, reeling off the list of streets and
neighbourhoods that have become recent targets for suicide bombers or
kidnap gangs, and reminding them to steer well clear.
Identifying particular districts with particular groups is easier
than ever. Sectarian cleansing began in Baghdad and elsewhere
immediately after the fall of the old regime, with Shias or Kurds
going to Sunnis living in predominantly Shia or Kurdish areas,
accusing them of being part of Saddam's regime and warning them to
move out. Sectarian killings often followed. Sunnis fled in terror,
leaving clearly defined Shia and Kurdish areas. Soon Sunnis adopted
the same tactics, forcing Shias out of heavily populated Sunni areas
such as al-Adhamiyah, Dora and Saidiya.
This is something new in Iraq, a break with history that many Sunnis
and Shias are reluctant to acknowledge. I have heard people pour
scorn on television news broadcasts warning of a sectarian war and
point instead to the large number of mixed marriages in Iraq, said to
account for almost 50 per cent of the popula- tion. In addition, they
say, the religious leadership of both the Sunnis and Shias are
working to calm their supporters and create harmony. Certainly many
cross-community bonds survive. A prominent Shia woman, who served as
a minister in the interim government of Iyad Alawi, told me she has
five sisters and that four of them are married to Sunnis, as is she.
She impressed on me how impossible it would be for her sisters to
turn against their husbands and children, just because they came from
a different branch of Islam. She felt this was the case for the many
others across the country who have married into a different sect.
The general sense of insecurity is aggravated by the lack of
organised and trustworthy policing. It is widely accepted that many
crimes take place right under the noses of the police force, and that
the police often fail to intervene and protect people targeted by
gangs. The police themselves have been involved in kidnapping and
murder. Many blame the increasingly powerful Shia militias that have
infiltrated the police. Militia leaders also encouraged their troops
to join the payroll of the interior ministry, and Sunni leaders
complain that death squads attached to the ministry have killed large
numbers of Sunnis.
The scale of death among Iraq's male population may even have
unbalanced the country's demographics, with disastrous consequences
for women. The number of widows is growing rapidly and the rate at
which women are being kidnapped or forced into prostitution is
increasing. On 8 March, International Women's Day, Yanar Mohammed,
leader of the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq, announced that
more than 2,000 women have been kidnapped since the fall of the regime.
Many women live isolated lives, their social contact limited to
conversations over the telephone. Those who continue going to work,
particularly in the Shia south, can find themselves harassed by
Islamic militias. "Morality police" in Basra are likely to stop them
as they enter schools and government buildings, checking they are
wearing the hijab. This Taliban-style enforcement continues despite
guarantees under the new constitution that women should be free to
choose how they dress.
Concepts of justice and law have little meaning for ordinary Iraqis.
They watch the televised trial of Saddam Hussein, but it seems
surreal - a kind of reality-TV show, but one far removed from their
own reality. When Saddam is found guilty, as inevitably he will be,
it will do little to change the grim and ever-worsening situation on
Zaki Chehab works for al-Hayat newspaper and for Lebanese
broadcasting, and is the author of Inside the Resistance (Nation Books).