“Iraq is a good country, Iraqis are good people,” Othman, a 35-year-old Iraqi restaurant owner, told me in Baghdad this week. “But the problem is Iraq has very bad management, very bad.”
The view that the Iraqi government is inept and dysfunctional appears to be shared by the majority of Iraqis I’ve spoken to this week as the country faces the prospect of a new wave of violence. A series of 35 attacks in seven provinces on Monday causing 115 deaths made it the bloodiest day here in two years.
Many Iraqis blame foreign groups for the violence, but also the troubled government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki for not being strong enough to control it. Al-Maliki’s office has made no official comment since Monday’s attacks.
While no group has yet accepted responsibility, al-Qaeda in Iraq, calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq, announced last week an escalation in attacks and intentions to retake lost ground.
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A senior Iraqi government official, who did not want to be named, said he believed Iraq has become the “playing field” for regional conflicts between the regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran. With a Sunni-led insurgency in Syria thrown in, he said he expects the violence in Iraq to worsen dramatically in coming months and predicts a regional “Islamic War”, with Iraq in the middle.
Iraqis often complain of foreign interference in its politics; the official I spoke to said the influence of the US is still strong in Baghdad, but most Iraqis believe fellow Shiite neighbour Iran has the strongest say on Iraq’s Islamic regime. This is openly resented and challenged by Iraqis who want to see a secular government, without religious influence and parties not defined by ethnicity or sect.
While Iraqis are exhausted by a constant sense of chaos and unpredictable violence, they are as equally disturbed by poor living conditions and ailing infrastructure nine years after the US invasion when the expectation was that, with billions of dollars of Western aid flowing in, basic living conditions would improve.
Baghdad still receives only four to five hours of electricity per day from the government supply, the same level as postwar 2003. With summer temperatures averaging 45 to 50 degrees, households are forced to pay for private generators. One family I visited, sharing a small generator with others, had their children take shifts to fan the face of the baby with a piece of cardboard so it could survive the searing heat. Poor quality water and bad sanitation continue to present health challenges.
Iraqis blame the low power supply on government corruption, a “mafia” as one woman put it, and also complain of a deepening divide between rich and poor — or those who benefited from the US occupation and those who didn’t. On one side of Baghdad is a shiny new shopping mall, and new car showrooms. A few blocks away apartment buildings are crumbling and rotting rubbish is piled high.
“Saddam was not good, but life was better then,” Othman the young restaurateur says. “At least we had electricity. And we were a lot safer than now. Before 2003 we only had one source of violence, one Saddam, now we have hundreds.”
As well as matters of security and living conditions, the issue of government transparency, corruption and human rights is particularly sensitive and dominates Iraqi conversation. Iraqis on the street are scathing of the government’s performance, one taxi driver calling the Parliament a “den of Ali Baba’s, focusing only on jobs, power and money for themselves”.
Dr Saleem Al-Jabouri, chairman of the Iraqi Parliament Human Rights Committee and member of the opposition Al-Iraqiya party, told me the committee is focusing on five human rights issues of concern in Iraq: freedom of expression, torture, issues of women and children, rights of minorities and disabled people. That torture and freedom of expression are urgent issues in a post-Saddam Iraq is somewhat awkward for pro-war commentators who used these issues to justify the US-led invasion in 2003.
Trying his best to be diplomatic, Dr Al-Jabouri suggested Al-Maliki’s fragile coalition, installed by the US after a controversial election in 2010, has developed into an authoritarian regime saying: “Freedom of speech is troubled in Iraq, and not completely understood by the government …
“We are supposed to have more democracy now. But there’s a doubt as to whether democracy in Iraq is real or not. The government needs to be more democratic, to believe in the constitution. This will not happen soon.”
Dr Al-Jabouri says he holds concerns about the plight of minority groups who once flourished in Iraq such as Christians and Mandeans. He suggests it was the US military policy of “divide and conquer” that sowed the seeds for crippling sectarian violence and persecution of minorities between 2005 and 2008.
“The violence was about politics and power and whose militias controlled what areas,” he said. Now Iraqis insist they have rejected sectarianism on a personal level, and resent the government using it for political gain.
“But America has introduced terrorists,” Dr Al-Jabouri said. “And these extremists are causing the problems.
“Iraq has been open for its neighbours to interfere in issues. Before 2003 there was law and people were afraid to break the law, but not now. They do as they please.”
Iraqis seem resigned to a fate of instability, but are defiant. On Monday evening, after the attacks, hundreds of families poured onto the streets of Baghdad after breaking the Ramadan fast to stroll, sit in parks, eat out and enjoy ice-cream.
“You’re not afraid to come out after the bombings?” I asked Othman. “What can we do? We can’t be locked inside all our lives. We want to live the same as everyone else.”
*Donna Mulhearn is an Australian advocacy journalist currently in Iraq to document the impact of toxic weapons used in 2003-4 on the Iraqi community. This is her fourth visit to Iraq.