Week of Milestones Fails to Reassure Frustrated Iraqis

By John Ward Anderson and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 22, 2005

BAGHDAD -- Thaer Abbas Shammari smiled contentedly and leaned on a table crammed with merchandise outside his Baghdad convenience store on constitution referendum day last weekend, bantering with neighbors, customers and passersby. But when the talk turned to voting, he stood bolt upright.

"Look!" he bellowed, lifting his shirt and one pant leg to display neck, stomach and ankle scars that he said were inflicted during 14 years as a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein. When he pointed to a picture of his brother taped to the front door -- a "hero and martyr" executed by the former government for supposedly belonging to an outlawed political party -- it seemed natural to assume that Shammari would march to the polling center 100 yards away and cast his ballot.

Not so. "I did not vote or encourage anyone to vote because the government has given us nothing," the 47-year-old shop owner said, grimacing and waving his arms in disgust. "Where are the results?"

It's easy to find people like Shammari in today's Iraq. The electricity and water systems are still in shambles 30 months after Hussein was toppled, unemployment has soared, and gasoline lines stretch for miles in a country with the world's fourth-largest oil reserves. There are kidnappings, assassinations, suicide bombings and sectarian strife. Even many people who did vote in last Saturday's referendum have indicated they are running out of patience.

The week also brought the opening of Hussein's trial on war crimes charges. While many Iraqis welcomed it as the beginning of a national catharsis, they criticized the government's focus on the trial as a milestone in the country's march to democracy. What matters most, they said, is improvement in the conditions of daily life.

"If I'm able to get fuel . . . it's more useful for us than this theater called the Saddam trial," said Salim Hussein, a taxi driver waiting in a long line for gasoline in Dujail, the scene of a 1982 assassination attempt against Hussein that was followed by 143 executions. Hussein is being tried in those killings.

"The Americans and the Iraqi government are trying to divert people's attention, first with the constitution and second with this fake trial," said Mohammed Yousif, 31, the owner of a downtown Baghdad parking garage. "Explosions increased, enemies of Iraq increased, and the current situation is terrible. I wish we still lived under Saddam."

In interviews across Iraq during and after the Oct. 15 referendum, people expressed relief that Hussein was gone but anger about the path the country is on. "These frustrations have only gotten worse even as the rhetoric that 'democracy is coming' has increased," said Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Belgium-based organization.

Subhi Nazim Tawfic, a professor at Baghdad University's Center for International Studies, said that "the deterioration in security" was "in large part related to the absence, or deterioration, of municipal, health and educational services."

Citizens "are asked to persevere and defy terrorism, violence and all threats," he said, "but when a man goes home and finds that there is no electricity, no gasoline for his car, no water to wash with, no garbage collection, what is he to say? How should he react?"

On Dec. 15, Iraqis will go to the polls again to select a new parliament -- the third time this year that the country will have mobilized for a national vote -- and some Iraqis are questioning why. The time, effort and money would better be spent fixing the water and electricity systems, in their view.

"There is no need to hold elections in Iraq -- we tried elections before and got nothing," said Rauof Abdullah Ouji, 35, a doctor from Kirkuk. "People lost hope in their government and political powers and the Americans."

Others said their participation in last Saturday's referendum should not be read as an endorsement of the government. "Despite the obvious failure of the government, it asks people to risk their lives and expose themselves to car bombs and assassinations to go vote," said Muhannde Walid Esa, 28, a university student from the northern city of Mosul. He said he cast a ballot only because "we have to find a ray of hope."

"We have done our part -- we did everything the government asked us to do -- but it seems the government only asks, it never gives, and that's why people are frustrated," said Sameer Nouri Faisal, 45, a lawyer from Mosul. "We always pay, but we never get what we pay for."

Compounding the anger, Iraqis and political analysts said, is the widespread view that senior Iraqi government officials are carpetbaggers who came home principally to enrich themselves and who now spend most of their time outside the country or in secure compounds equipped with private utilities. Those notions were fueled by arrest warrants issued this month for Iraq's former defense minister and 22 others who are accused of embezzling more than $1 billion from the ministry's accounts.

"This government is making the same mistake of the former government, which is being far from the people," said Tawfic, the Baghdad university professor. In the provinces, he said, "the governor, the police commander, high political officers, and so on, live inside secure compounds with continuous electric power, and clean water, surrounded by high concrete blast walls. So the simple people ask: What have we gotten out of all that?"

"The government is asleep -- there is a big administrative corruption everywhere in its institutions," said Sattar Ibrahim Ali, 45, a Baghdad dentist who was spending hours waiting in a gasoline line Friday morning.

"The Americans say they brought democracy -- yes, we have democracy, but on paper," he said. "There is no development, improvement, peace or construction because of this democracy." After the Persian Gulf War, Ali said, "Saddam rebuilt Iraq in 1991 within months, but now, 2 1/2 years have passed and nothing has been rebuilt."

Special correspondents Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Dijail, K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad, Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and Salih Saif Aldin in Kirkuk contributed to this report.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company