curse of the arab league summit: baghdad is ‘a city of ghosts’

While Arab League delegates discuss affairs of state, Baghdadis wonder how to get out of town. The security lockdown is causing so many problems that even security personnel are sleeping in their cars. And it’s back firing on the Iraqi government’s propaganda.  


The sign on the closed door of a hardware store in the Hurriya neighbourhood of Baghdad perfectly reflected the mood in the city. “Sorry, we’re closed,” the sign said, “we’ll be back after the summit!”


This closure is just one of most likely thousands in Iraq’s capital, in which an estimated 7.5 million people live and work. Since March 20, many of the inhabitants of the city have basically been forced to stay at home as security measures ramped up ahead of the Arab League summit, being held in Baghdad this week.


The city has been turned into “a ghost town”, Ziad al-Ujaili, head of the Media Freedom Monitor organization in Baghdad, told NIQASH. “Social networking sites are full of comments condemning these security procedures and also making fun of the Arab summit. The whole city is in a comma and all the people in Baghdad feel disgruntled,” he said.


So how much is Sheikh Eggplant costing me today? While 'lion catchers' roam their streets, locals have started making 'Arab League summit jokes'. 

Thousands of security personnel have been deployed around the city and almost all public activities have been cancelled. According to Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, the security plan has required 100,000 troops, including police, army and special forces, in Baghdad.

 And now special anti-terrorism forces – the locals call them the “lion hunters” – roam the city streets, dressed all in eye catching black and carrying heavy artillery. They watch everyone suspiciously and search anyone they even vaguely think could be up to no good.


Iraqi air space is also under strict control and air travel to Baghdad has been restricted to Arab League summit delegations. “Commercial flights have stopped and they will not resume until after the summit,” Captain Nasser Hussein Bandar, head of Iraq's civil aviation authority, told NIQASH. “The international airport will be completely booked for the use of the Arab delegations.”


There are hundreds of checkpoints on city streets and cars queue for hours to get through. Businesspeople, craftspeople and anyone else who still wants to work are resorting to walking, sometimes for hours, to get to their jobs. 


“I’ve lost a lot of money because I just couldn’t deliver on time,” Salam Daoud, a Baghdad rice merchant, complains. Daoud actually stopped going to work three days before the summit; there was no point, he said.


Market traders and their customers seemed to feel the same. A few days ago there was a rumour that the state was about to impose a curfew and stop people and vehicles from moving around the city. There was a mad rush to supermarkets and markets, as Baghdadis tried to stock up on basic necessities.


The price of fruits, vegetables and canned goods went up outrageously, with a kilo of tomatoes, for example, going from IQD1,000 (about US$0.85) to IQD4,000 (about US$3.40). A kilo of bananas went from IQD1,500 (about US$1.30) to IQD3,000 (about US$2.50). And people started making “Arab League summit jokes” about it, asking the traders facetious questions like: “So, how much is Sheikh Eggplant costing me today?”


That rush has since dissipated and now most local families are just buying the basics until after the summit finishes. Trade at markets has slowed to a trickle and a lot of local bakeries have also closed in frustration, meaning that Baghdadis often have to walk miles to find some fresh bread.


Local press have also found the security measures problematic. Despite the fact that local media desperately want to cover the summit, some of the printing presses they use have shut down for the duration because employees simply cannot reach them.


As a result, some local newspapers opted to close during the summit and they may well not be published for ten days. However others found a way round this. “We’ve been forced to halt our print version,” Amer Hamid, a journalist for local paper, al-Mada, told NIQASH. “But we’re updating our website. And eventually we’ll try and print a special issue covering the summit. Anyway,” Hamid explained, “even if the printers could get to work, we still couldn’t sell the newspapers because people can’t leave their houses to buy them.”


As for international and Iraqi media who have come to Baghdad to cover the summit, rumour has it that they will be over nighting somewhere very near their desks – otherwise they’d be unable to get to summit events.


Unsurprisingly Baghdad’s cultural life has also ground to a halt. Almost all of Baghdad’s theatres have closed and club meetings and social activities postponed. The Iraq Football Association postponed any league games that were supposed to be played between March 24 and April 3, with new games to be announced after the summit.


The stock market was also forced to close down, with financial trading to resume after April 1. The government also halted all financial transactions for a week, starting March 25.


So it’s hardly surprising that locals have been complaining so loudly about what is going on. As media freedoms observer, al-Ujaili, said, “the government is trying to enhance its image with this summit. But these tough security measures mean that it’s lost popular support and it’s also lost the opportunity to have local media cover this event fully!”


However the state officials responsible for locking Baghdad down so tightly made no excuses. “Terrorists are a clear and present danger to the Arab leaders and delegations coming to the summit,” Adnan al-Asadi, Deputy Minister of the Interior, told NIQASH. “We need to face that threat head on.” 


“Iraq is responsible for protecting the visiting delegations, providing them with armoured cars and other transportation to the summit venue,” official Iraqi government spokesperson, Ali al-Dabbagh, told NIQASH. Iraq was not allowing the visitors to bring a huge security detail, all carrying their own weapons, he added.


“Each official participating in the summit is only allowed to bring two members of his personal security detail with him,” al-Dabbagh explained.


Interestingly enough, even the local security personnel were complaining about the security lock down. A memo was issued to staff by headquarters telling the personnel they were not to return home during the summit – this has meant that many of them have been forced to sleep in their cars or on the street. 


There is also some confusion around which areas needed to be secured – although it seems this may be a deliberate measure and part of the security plan.


For most of the run-up to the summit, it was expected that properties inside the heavily fortified Green Zone would host summit activities. However sources at a local independent television channel, Al Sumaria, let slip that summit events might actually take place at another venue, the rather glamorous Faw Palace, which is only a few kilometres from the international airport. 


If this rumour proves true, then the tough security around the Green Zone that’s currently affecting around 1 million locals in the surrounding neighbourhoods, may just have been a distraction.


And finally, just to add to the rancour, the Iraqi government’s pride about the fact that Baghdad is hosting the first Arab League summit for over two decades, has taken something of a blow this week. Optimistic announcements about which high ranking delegates would be attending the summit have proven somewhat premature.


A couple of weeks ago, state spokesperson al-Dabbagh was hopeful that at least 12 out of 21 high level Arab leaders would be coming to Baghdad. But now many have announced they will be staying away. And of course, the most prominent absentee from the Arab League summit is still Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose country is in turmoil as well as currently suspended from the Arab League.


Meanwhile bored Baghdad locals, stranded at home, low on vegetables and short of fresh bread, will doubtless by asking whether it was all worth it. A few more days are needed before that question can be answered.