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karbala’s new computer system to prevent bribery, abuse and burning of official documents

Abbas Sarhan
Authorities in the religious centre of Karbala are planning to computerize their records and start a database of all citizens’ information. They hope it will cut out bribery, long delays, staff abuse and…
6.02.2014  |  Karbala
Karbala draws millions of visitors every year.
Karbala draws millions of visitors every year.

The most crowded offices in the Iraqi city of Karbala are those occupied by bureaucrats working for the federal and local government: every day, hundreds of locals come here to register land sales, report births and deaths, register marriages and undertake many other similar tasks.

But it’s never easy. The Iraqi ID card, also known as the Civil Status Identification Card, is one of the most important documents an Iraqi can have. It contains a person’s date of birth, family members’ names and marital status. The card is re-issued at various times of a person’s life and every time it is, locals must re-apply.

There are usually delays: for example, a new born child may have to wait three months before it receives such a card and officially becomes an Iraqi. This is important because that is also how long it will take to get the baby’s name entered onto the family’s ration card; a form of social welfare, the ration card system started in the early 1990s after sanctions were imposed on Iraq and it allows card holders to claim a variety of household staples.

Every time a local has to go to a government department they will need to carry an array of documentation with them – things like a certificate of nationality, the ID card, a housing card and the ration card. Often photographs will also be required as are photocopies of the various aforementioned documents.

Interestingly enough – and perhaps somewhat ironically – once a local has applied for whatever they need, the papers are stored for a short time in the department’s offices. However, if they are no longer required, they are burnt.

“Tens of thousands of documents are burned every year,” Nafea Jiyad, a government employee, said. “Once the applicant has received the service, then the documents are no longer needed. So they become garbage and the departments get rid of them,” Jiyad explained to NIQASH.

To avoid this, and to try and make procedures easier and quicker for locals, the local authorities in Karbala have taken a new approach: they’ve been consulting with experts at the University of Karbala and at the University of Kufa in nearby Najaf, on how to improve things.

First on the list is computer technology which will eventually allow a database of every citizen’s details to be completed.

The system will also see every citizen get a distinctive number, explains Hussein al-Mankoushi, the mayor of Markaz, one of Karbala’s districts. The database will hold all of their details in one place, under that one number, which will mean they don’t need to carry so much paperwork around and which will also mean records are not just burned.

“The mayors of each neighbourhood will be responsible for updating deaths and births,” al-Mankoushi explained.

It is hoped that a new computerised system will also see fewer mistakes made by government employees. Sometimes bureaucrats write down the wrong information and then citizens must spend time and money trying to correct the mistake.

Of course, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the new plan. Some locals were opposed because, they said, a lot of the state employees were not computer literate.

“Government departments really need to develop their staff computer skills before they can implement this new system,” one local man told NIQASH.

Another local asked what would happen to the computers with all the frequent power cuts in Iraq. “If the power is off for several hours, then nothing will be able to be done and we’ll be standing around for hours,” he complained.

A representative of the Adam Centre for Rights and Freedoms in Karbala felt that the new computerized system could be a good idea.

“The Iraqi people have the right to public services without being subjected to harm and abuse,” Ahmed Jawid said. “Some people have to pay bribes so they can get their documents signed and a lot of the local bureaucrats act as if they are doing the applicants a favour, when in fact they are meant to serve them.”

A new database could help with all of these issues, Jawid suggested. “But it will only be useful if it doesn’t create a whole new range of problems,” he cautioned.