Abdul Habib al-Khafaji and his family of seven had come from Basra to visit the religious shrines in Karbala. They're driving the route between the two cities and they could afford to stay in a nice hotel. But instead the al-Khafaji family decide to spend some time in one of what are known as the “visitors' cities” before they head on into Karbala, about 17 kilometres away. Amenities at the visitors' cities are free of charge, as services are provided by the religious authorities.
This particular visitors' city, on the road between Karbala and Najaf is called The City of Imam Hussein al-Mujtaba and was opened in 2013. The city is sited on 22 acres, surrounded by agricultural areas, and boasts a restaurant that seats a thousand diners, 16 reception halls for visitors during festivals or cultural events, apartments for overnight stays, a medical clinic, water purification plant, a large mosque and 32 gardens crowded with multi-coloured fountains and large outdoor viewing screens. In fact, it's so pleasant here it also draws locals from Karbala.
With the city's clean streets, glazed facades and well organised, well lit gardens, the miniature metropolis looks nothing like the developments the Iraqi government builds. And that is because it's not. This “city” was built with funds from the Shiite Muslim Endowment, which operates similarly to a Western nation’s trust, tasked with running Shiite property like mosques and shrines and also undertaking other philanthropic projects, such as education and social welfare. Money comes from donors but is also given to both Sunni and Shiite endowments by the federal government. In Karbala there is a special committee that supervises how money is spent on building projects like this one.
“This city is not the only one,” says Mohammed Hassan Kathem, who heads the engineering department at the Husayniyah Shrine. “There are three other cities built on roads linking Karbala and Baghdad, Babel and Najaf. Some of the cities are still housing displaced Sunni people from Anbar, who have been living there for two years. The next visitor city will be opening in a couple of months.”
The speed at which these kinds of complexes have been built, and the efficiency with which they are run, has called into question government-run building projects, which seem to be exactly the opposite: inefficient and extremely slow to completion. Locals also believe that the level of corruption within the supervising committees is very low.
The Imam Hussein al-Mujtaba city took three years to complete at the cost of US$35 million – the plans were drawn up by a local firm and parts of it were built by the religious endowment's own engineers. The whole project comes at a low cost when compared to government building projects where the contracted price is always much higher than the actual cost.
“Government projects don't fail. They never exist in the first place,” argues Dia Tumah, an engineer who works for a local contractor called the Modern Contracting Co. “And the reason for the big difference between the costs of government projects and those carried out by private bodies - such as the religious endowments - can be attributed to the exaggerated costs of government projects, in favour of corrupt people,” he says.
And by fake projects, Tumah is talking about the kinds of building projects that only exist on paper. Contractors and officials collude to steal public money by agreeing to plan a building project but never finishing it. Sometimes construction companies are set up by officials in the names of relatives or others close to them. This way, the project money goes straight into the pockets of the deal makers and nobody ever knows about the dodgy deal but those involved.
Early in the morning, the al-Khafaji family from Basra are packing up their Kia SUV to head into Karbala. “I wish huge amounts of Iraq's money were not wasted on paper projects,” al-Khafaji says, as he's putting things into the boot. “If Iraq's money was invested properly, there would have been some important projects finished by now. If the country's money was spent solving problems like waste removal and water pollution – Basra has these problems too – this would be a better place,” he told NIQASH before driving away into the dawn.