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optimistic and afraid
ordinary iraqis talk about their hopes for 2012

Mustafa Habib
As 2011 draws to a close, Baghdad is beset by terror attacks and labouring under political gridlock. NIQASH asked ordinary Iraqis on the capital’s streets how they felt and what they thought might happen next.
28.12.2011  |  Baghdad

The political situation in Iraq, after the withdrawal of US troops, has been causing headlines in foreign media. But 43-year-old Yassin, a resident of Baghdad, has one major concern: Will his house, which is built out of empty cans, be able to withstand the coming winter, the wind and the rain?

Yassin doesn’t know much about luxury, he doesn’t know anything about mobile telephones and he is unsure who is currently running things in Baghdad. Yet, he says, “the state is the reason for my suffering”.

“The US has rid us of the late President Saddam Hussein and his regime, which was always preoccupied with fighting and war,” Yassin told NIQASH bitterly. “But the Americans, and those who ruled after Saddam Hussein, have not done anything to improve this country.”

Ask anyone on the street in Baghdad and you come to the conclusion that, in general, Iraqis are divided regarding the US troop withdrawal. There are those who believe the withdrawal is positive, a step that will finally allow Iraqis to manage their own affairs. But then there are those who believe that the withdrawal opens their country up to a number of risks, including the influence of neighbouring Iran.

For people like Yassin, those kinds of concerns translate to the every day. He works at a nearby vegetable market and fears that it may be demolished after the bomb attacks in Baghdad last week. On Dec. 22 a number of terror attacks killed over 70 people and wounded many more.

“If the municipal council decides to demolish the vegetable market where I work then I won’t be able to survive,” Yassin explains. “The latest bomb attack was so close to the market it could have killed me.” However on the day of the attack Yassin was at the doctor with his youngest son, who was ill.

The bombs, for which a Sunni Muslim extremist group appears to have taken responsibility this week, came only a few days after the withdrawal of US troops. Iraqi security forces were heavily criticised for failing to stop the attacks, which came around the same time as a serious political crisis saw a rift develop between the three main political blocs which rule the country in a precariously balanced coalition.

The rift came about after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki supported the issuing of an arrest warrant for Iraqi Vice president Tariq al-Hashimi, a senior member of the Iraqiya opposition bloc.

As Ahmed Ibrahim, 37, a state employee with the power company in the Rusafa area of Baghdad, told NIQASH: “NO one accepted being occupied by another nation. So we were very happy to see the US troops go. But our politicians have stolen our joy.”

Ibrahim is concerned – he says he worries about who will mediate between the various political groups in Iraq now and he says he can’t rule out deterioration in the local situation that’s so severe that armed groups and militias will once again roam Baghdad’s streets.

Saeed Anwar, a teacher in a secondary school in the western Baiyaa area of Baghdad, also has serious concerns about this. "The Mahdi army replaced the police in our area,” he explained to NIQASH. “I ended up carrying a weapon too, mostly for protection but also to resolve disputes between parents at the school.”

Despite the fact that the Iraqiya bloc is currently boycotting parliament, which has effectively halted government proceedings in Baghdad, not everyone is pessimistic.

Mohammed al-Alusi, the owner of several stores in Baghdad, remains cautiously optimistic. “Political differences, bombings and acts of violence are nothing new to Iraqis,” he says. “We grew accustomed to them years ago and we have sacrificed much. I think what is going on today is part of a plan to disrupt the political process and to undermine the Iraqi state. But sooner or later we will overcome and get through this ordeal.” Al-Alusi believes the situation must improve in 2012.

The conflict has also had an economic impact. The exchange rate has seen the Iraqi dinar decrease in value against the US dollar and the Iraqi stock market has also suffered. This obviously concerns many Iraqis too.

“The economic situation is not at all encouraging,” Sallam al-Khajafi, a merchant at Baghdad’s busy Shorja market, told NIQASH. “Since 2003 the country has been dependent on US support and our only source of income is oil.”

Sallam blames corruption and mismanagement for the state the Iraqi economy is currently in. “Despite the large budget surpluses of the last eight years, these factors have prevented the establishment of a solid economic base,” he says.

And so as 2011 draws to a close and a new year looms, this is what average Iraqis are worrying about: the US withdrawal, the current political deadlock, the new increase in sectarian tensions.

“What will happen next in Iraq seems unclear,” Mahmoud, a businessman who recently left Iraq for Jordan with his 13-member family, told NIQASH. “I think I will stay in Jordan for a while and watch this situation in my country from afar.”