June 27, 2010
"Baghdad is still a great city," 68-year-old architect Muaffaq al-Taie - a new acquaintance and enthusiastic volunteer tour guide - assures me as we drive through the neighborhood of Sheikh Marouf.
We are literally on sacred ground. Nearby are the graves of Old Testament prophet Yeshua, the graves of seventh-century Christian monks and shrines to Sufi saints. We are on a rather dangerous excursion (stopped twice by Iraqi police, once by young toughs) to visit the tomb of Zubaida, an Abassid-era monument from the 12th century that by all rights should be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Instead, it lies in disrepair across the street from a shantytown of corrugated tin shacks inhabited by a few dozen of Iraq's 3 million internally displaced. This exquisite example of Seljuk-style architecture and the tomb of a great caliph's wife stands next to a garbage dump that runs along the sectarian fault lines that erupted so violently a few years ago.
Today there is an uneasy truce along these 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. But some three months after Iraqi elections resulted in a dangerously hung parliament (with Iyad Allawi's narrow victory still disputed by incumbent prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki), and less than a few months before scheduled U.S. combat troop withdrawals, things are far from normal.
Almost a fifth of Iraq's population are refugees or internally displaced, and almost half live in abject poverty - despite $53 billion in "aid" spent since the 2003 invasion (funds that lined the pockets of foreign military contractors and corrupt officials but left 70 percent of Iraqis without potable water or predictable electricity). A once secular, highly educated and cosmopolitan society has been torn apart by sectarian violence. Extremist militias, empowered by the post-invasion power vacuum, still terrorize women, gays and religious minorities. Few can afford to flee their country, which is racked by ongoing insecurity and ruled by a puppet regime (although whether Iran or America pulls the strings is a matter of some debate) from behind the walls of the green zone.
Yet the stories of the people of Iraq are virtually absent in mainstream media reports. The ongoing humanitarian disaster is ignored while invasion apologists promote a corrupt pseudo-democracy as a perverse example of "mission accomplished." I have been visiting Baghdad since 1997, and most Iraqis seem as cynical about the new regime as they were about the old one. With Iraq now ranked the fifth most corrupt country out of 180 studied by Transparency International, and with no laws on campaign financing, with incumbents who used state funds to further their own campaigns and imprisoned opponents on trumped-up charges of terrorism and with government ministers maintaining their own private militias, democracy remains as elusive as ever.
My friend Muaffaq - who was a town planner under the Baathist regime but as an unrepentant Communist was kept under careful surveillance by Saddam Hussein's secret police and later was almost killed by U.S. troops after the invasion - remains philosophical about his country's political fortunes.
"The bombing (of polling stations) really encouraged people to go out and vote - and without the bombs, voter turnout would have been much less. You know, Iraqis love a challenge. Allawi represents the bad Baathists," he says, "and the religious parties are corrupt reactionaries. But still Iraqis will find their way to democracy in an anarchistic way, so I'm hopeful because anarchy is the mother of all order." At the very least, he hopes for a "decent opposition," since "Iraqis love a good fight - something both Alexander the Great and Imam Ali both observed."
When we arrive at the tomb, we are met by the keeper, a local tough accompanied by two menacing-looking friends. This is not a place that receives many visitors.
As 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." 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 that the neighborhood has been infiltrated by "Mossad agents," and is nodding in my direction. It is time to make a hasty exit.
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 neighborhood be like five years from now?
Muaffaq 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." But until the basic needs of Iraq's beleaguered population are met, peace - let alone democracy - will remain elusive no matter who forms the next government and no matter how many U.S. troops stay or beat a hasty retreat from the land they invaded seven years ago.
The state of Iraq
Health: Iraq's child mortality rate has increased by 150 percent since 1990, when U.N. sanctions were first imposed.
Education: By 2008, only 50 percent of primary school-age children were attending class, down from 80 percent in 2005, and approximately 1,500 children were known to be held in detention facilities.
Children: In 2007, there were 5 million Iraqi orphans, according to official government statistics.
Refugees: More than 2 million Iraqis are refugees and almost 3 million internally displaced; 33 percent - 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.
Water: 70 percent of Iraqis do not have access to potable water.
Jobs: Unemployment is as high as 50 percent officially, 70 percent unofficially.
Poverty: 43 percent of Iraqis live in abject poverty.
Assistance: 8 million Iraqis require immediate emergency aid.
Food: 4 million people lack food and are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.
Sanitation: 80 percent of Iraqis do not have access to effective sanitation.
Deaths: At least 210 lawyers and judges have been assassinated since the 2003 invasion. At least 15,000 Iraqis disappeared during the first four years of U.S. occupation. According to the Brussels tribunal, 437 Iraqi academics have been murdered since the invasion. There are at least a million widows in Iraq.
Women: In a recent Oxfam-designed survey, 33 percent of women had received no humanitarian assistance since 2003; 76 percent of widows did not receive a pension; 52 percent were unemployed; 55 percent had been displaced since 2003; and 55 percent had been subjected to violence - 25.4 percent to random street violence, 22 percent to domestic abuse, 14 percent to violence inflicted by militias, 10 percent to abuse or abduction, 9 percent to sexual abuse and 8 percent to violence inflicted by multinational forces.
Compiled by Hadani Ditmars