Floods highlight hard times in Iraq

By Patrick Cockburn

A drive around Baghdad after heavy rains reveal a society struggling after years of conflict.

Baghdad's ageing sewers are failing to cope with the heavy rain, stopping traffic and inundating streets with filthy water. Photo / AP
Baghdad's ageing sewers are failing to cope with the heavy rain, stopping traffic and inundating streets with filthy water. Photo / AP

Torrential rain caused floods all over Baghdad last week. It was not a pleasant sight: as the city's ageing sewerage system failed to cope, streets filled with murky grey water that smelled and looked as if it was heavily polluted with raw sewage.

Upriver, the Tigris rose 5m in five hours, the highest it had been for 50 years, and dozens of villages were inundated.

The disaster is not great by Baghdad standards, given the Iraqi capital's experience of car bombs, assassination, occupation and sectarian slaughter. I decided to take a drive to see how people were affected by the floods, what the Government was doing to help them and, more generally, what the city looks like 10 years after the United States-led invasion.

Driving in these conditions is easier said than done, since the flooding makes even worse the city's horrendous traffic jams. People were in a bad mood and, without exception, blamed government incompetence and corruption for failing to repair the old concrete sewers which often date from the 1960s.

Baghdad has a population of 7.6 million, or a quarter of the total Iraqi population. It is a dangerous but fascinating city where every neighbourhood has a different sectarian or political complexion. Though political murder is frequent _ 178 people were killed in January and there were deadly blasts around the country this week _ there is far less violence than in the recent past. In the worst of times, in 2006 and 2007, up to 3000 Sunni and Shia Iraqis were killed every month.

Explosions and gunfire were constant at that time, but in the past week I have not heard the sound of a single shot or bomb explosion. Improved security is the most positive development, but in most ways Baghdad has not changed. It still looks dirty and poor, its people weary and on edge. For all Iraq's immense oil income _ US$100 billion last year _ there are beggars on every street corner.

"We produce over three million barrels of oil a day, so where is the money?" said a friend. This is the endlessly repeated refrain of Iraqis trying to understand why they have to live with only six hours of electricity a day, and why half the population are unemployed or underemployed.

As I drove from central Baghdad east towards the Shia working-class bastion of Sadr City last week, it was clear the floods were worst in the poorer districts. In addition, the water was so filthy and mixed with garbage that it was impossible to judge if it was a few centimetres deep or one was about to plunge into a deep pool. Traffic was all the heavier because there had been severe flooding on December 25 and, knowing what had happened then, people were rushing home to do what they could to protect their homes.

We drove into New Baghdad, a district which the Sunni fled in 2006. Now it is Shia with a minority of Christians. Shia-dominated districts are easy to identify because of the green flags and posters of Imam Hussein or the al-Sadr family. The Shia working class may be better off than they were under Saddam Hussein since more jobs are open to them, but the improvement is relative.

Despite the rain there were beggars and peddlers everywhere, one of them standing in the middle of the road trying to sell large inflatable white ducks that appeared to have been designed for somebody's swimming pool.

Many Iraqi Christians have fled persecution, but in New Baghdad a substantial Chaldean Christian community has stayed on. The dome of their church rises above the houses. The Sunni may have been driven out but there are signs of their past presence. An old security headquarters from Saddam Hussein's time has been converted into a prison, its gatehouse surmounted by Shia flags. A few metres further is a former Sunni mosque, taken over by the Shia and renamed the Imam al Hussein mosque.

There are signs that Government security forces share power with tribes and militias. The Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr may have been dissolved but militias are only young men with guns, easily obtainable in Baghdad. On the edge of Sadr City, we drove nervously through an area dominated by the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (League of Righteousness) of Qais al-Ghazali, who leads this violent splinter group from the Sadrist movement. This group kidnapped British computer expert Peter Moore in 2008 and killed four of his bodyguards.

A little further on we waited a long time at the heavily guarded entrance to Sadr City, almost a twin city to the rest of Baghdad and home to three million people. But the flooding was getting worse, the traffic impossible, and we returned to central Baghdad.

A day later I visited the bird market in the Shurja area of central Baghdad, a place I used to come to in the 1990s because it was full of enthusiasts for doves, pigeons, falcons and eagles. After 2003, the market was targeted by al-Qaeda bombers but stayed open despite horrific casualties. "Not even 100 bombs will close us down," said one shop owner last week.

He complained of country people coming to the market with birds they had reared and undercutting prices. It is a general complaint of long-established Baghdadis that they are being swamped by people from the rest of Iraq, political leaders from the Shia south and former farmers impoverished by the collapse of Iraqi agriculture.

The bird-shop owner said he sold other animals as well and asked if I would be interested in buying a tiger or lion cub. He showed me a picture of the cubs frolicking at his farm on the outskirts of Baghdad. I asked him who had the money to buy them, and he said: "Mostly tribal sheikhs. Just at the moment there is a fashion for cubs like these." Some people in Iraq have a great deal of money, though they keep quiet about it.

One does not see the new rich elite on the streets, or even in restaurants. Instead they roar past in armed convoys, like so many medieval dukes and their retainers, contemptuously brushing aside the peasantry.

We has crossed the Tigris on our way to Mansur district when we were gestured by soldiers at a checkpoint to the side of the road. A procession of armoured cars and civilian vehicles with smoked-glass windows screamed past. "That is why I want to leave this country," said my friend. "I don't know who that was, but he must be one of our new rulers who care nothing for ordinary Iraqis."


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