Unseen Iraq

The Last Stop Before Leaving Iraq

(Andrea Bruce - Twp)
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By Andrea Bruce
Washington Post Staff Photographer
Monday, June 2, 2008

The looped and dotted script of Abdul Ghani's signature is etched in rubber and slicked with ink. His signature is the final stamp of approval for many foreign matters involving Iraqi citizens.

"Every embassy in the world has a record of my signature," says Abdul, 28, leaning forward on his thick arms.

Here in a stark, fluorescent-lighted Foreign Ministry office in Baghdad, Abdul and two other officials sit at bare desks. No computers are in sight, no personal mementos -- perfect for shifting lots of paper quickly.

A metal-framed window provides the only view beyond the office's barren walls and piles of paper, into another fluorescent-lighted room filled with rows of Iraqi citizens waiting for the three "authorizers" to stamp their documents, the final step of a tedious process.

Iraqis come here to have bits of their lives validated before relocating or working abroad. Many intend to head to Syria or Jordan.

The office processes about 600 documents a day, and it gets busier every year. "Most people decide to get everything approved, just in case," Abdul says.

On the other side of a segregating glass counter, away from the off-beat thump of rubber stamps, men sit with briefcases and water bottles. Some slouch with resigned patience. Others stand or pace until their number is called, then walk to the counter, nose to the glass, to pick up their documents.

It is almost lunchtime, and Abdul and his co-workers speed through a stack of high school diplomas, now made official for students hoping to attend college outside Iraq.

Visiting neighboring countries is no longer easy for anyone here, Abdul says. Now, even diplomats are questioned for hours and often humiliated at the border.

Family and friends living outside the country call Abdul when they come across his name on Iraqi medical or school records. He would like to visit them in Syria but has no idea when that will be possible.

It may be difficult for him to leave Iraq, Abdul says, his smile turning sarcastic. But his signature always can.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company