Almost Every Aspect of Iraqi Life has Gotten Worse in the Last Four Years
Iraq: Operation Deepening Nightmare
By PATRICK COCKBURN
March 19, 2007
Four years ago, in the middle of the US invasion, I drove safely from
Arbil in northern Iraq to Baghdad. There were heaps of discarded
weapons beside the road, and long lines of former Iraqi soldiers
walking home. Signs of battle were few, aside from the hulks of
burned-out tanks, but they all seemed to have been hit by US aircraft
after their crews had fled.
If I tried to make the same journey today, I would be killed or
kidnapped long before I reached Baghdad. Kurdish ministers in the
Iraqi government dare not travel by road between the capital and their
homeland. Three bodyguards of the Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari,
were ambushed and killed when they tried to do so a month ago.
Tony Blair and George Bush still occasionally imply that the picture
of Iraq as a war-torn hell is an exaggeration by the media. They
suggest, though not as forcibly as they did a couple of years ago,
that parts of the country are relatively peaceful. Nothing could be
In reality, the violence is grossly understated. The Baker-Hamilton
report by senior Republicans and Democrats, led by James Baker, took a
single day last summer, when the US army reported 93 acts of violence
in Iraq, and asked American intelligence to re-examine the evidence.
They found the real figure was 1,100--the US military had deliberately
understated the violence by factor of over 10.
Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was not going to be the main problem
when the US and Britain invaded four years ago. His army would fall
apart, as it had done in 1991 when he was expelled from Kuwait,
because Iraqis simply would not fight for him. But the outcome of the
invasion of 2003 was predictably different from the war in 1991, and
not just because there is now a large American army in the heart of
the Middle East, destabilizing the whole region. US forces had not
pressed on to Baghdad 16 years ago, partly because Washington did not
want to see Saddam replaced by Shia religious parties with possible
links to Iran. That is exactly what has happened now, because 60 per
cent of the Iraqi population is Shia.
Less predictable was the disaster facing ordinary Iraqis. Most wanted
rid of Saddam Hussein because they expected a better life after his
fall. Since they had oil reserves comparable to Saudi Arabia and
Kuwait, Iraqis felt, why could they not have an equivalent standard of
living to Saudis and Kuwaitis?
In fact almost every aspect of Iraqi day-to-day life has got worse
over the last four years. In May 2003, people in Baghdad were getting
16 to 24 hours of electricity a day. Today the official figure is just
six hours a day--and even that is on the optimistic side. In a city
with one of the hottest climates in the world, it is catastrophic when
fridges, freezers or air conditioners cannot be used.
There are 4.8 million Iraqi children under the age of five, who have
lived most of their lives since the fall of Saddam Hussein. UNICEF
figures show that 20 per cent of them are so severely malnourished
that their growth is stunted.
Under Saddam Hussein most Iraqis worked for the state. This worked
well while he had oil revenues to pay them, but after 1990, UN
sanctions meant that millions of people who had enjoyed a middle-class
standard of living became totally impoverished, and four years ago
more than half of Iraqis were unemployed. One of the worst scandals of
the occupation is that they still are--although billions of dollars
have been spent, billions were stolen.
For all the money supposedly being spent on developing the economy,
there were no cranes to be seen in Baghdad except a cluster in the
Green Zone, at work on a vast new American embassy.
But whatever the material failings of life, over the last four years
it is the lack of security that has dominated everything else for
Iraqis. By the end of 2003 I could already see mothers becoming
hysterical at a school near my Baghdad hotel, because if they could
not find their children they immediately feared that they had been
Since 2003, Iraqi life has become drenched by violence. Many Iraqis
now carry two sets of papers, to pass through Sunni and Shia areas,
but often it is not enough. The UN, using figures from Baghdad morgue
and the Health Ministry, says 3,462 civilians were killed in Iraq in
November and 2,914 in December. Many died at the hands of death
squads, picked up on the street or caught at checkpoints.
The US troop reinforcements in Baghdad, the famous "surge", should
make some difference to the casualty figures. But it is essentially a
change in tactics masquerading as a change in strategy. Baghdad has
fewer and fewer mixed Sunni and Shia districts. The Shia militias and
Sunni insurgents have not disappeared, but are awaiting their moment
People in Baghdad used to say that under Saddam Hussein, life was
fairly safe if you kept out of politics. This was true of crime:
during the war of 1991 I was once stranded in the semi-desert between
Baghdad and Mosul when my car broke down, because the petrol in the
tank had been watered down. I travelled on to Mosul, hitching lifts
from farmers without any threat to my safety. If I did that today, I
would be stopped and probably murdered at one of the official or
unofficial checkpoints on the road.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of 'The Occupation: War, resistance and
daily life in Iraq', a finalist for the National Book Critics' Circle
Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.
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