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20 March 2006

They ask, we ask: was it worse under Saddam?

Kidnappings, power cuts, sectarian hatred, medical shortages, petrol queues, intimidation of women a

By Zaki Chehab

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 disposal.

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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 the ground.

Zaki Chehab works for al-Hayat newspaper and for Lebanese broadcasting, and is the author of Iraq Ablaze (I B Tauris)