Iraq [as too Afghanistan]: Mega-litres of blood & $Bs later, plus ça change .... Print E-mail
 25 - 31 May 2006 Issue No. 796

Plus ça change

Iraq's cosseted politicians finally announce who among them gets what in the new government, while ordinary Iraqis turn up dead and tortured, writes Nermeen El-Mufti

Last Saturday, as the representatives of the people met under the dome of the parliament -- or shall we say behind the ramparts of the Green Zone -- I was watching hundreds of people standing, faces filled with grief and eyes with tears, in front of the gate of the Forensic Medicine Department in Baghdad. That same day, 15 unidentified bodies were found bearing the marks of torture, and bombings claimed the lives of 56 people in Baghdad. Every five minutes or so you'd hear the sound of wailing, as a father emerges from the door along with a body of a son, one of the butchered no longer unknown. In front of that gate, shock and grief reigned supreme. Everyone was consoling everyone. Everyone was hoping not to find their loved ones, though such hopes were often dashed.

Saadiya Hasan, a teacher, is in black. She lost her son, Omar, two months ago when unidentified gunmen dragged him from her house along with his father. The body of her son was found at the forensic medicine morgue. His father is still missing. "My eyes are dry but my heart is filled with tears. Omar was only 19, a college student ... When they came into the house they said straight away that they wanted Omar. When his father resisted, they took them both." Om Omar described the time she spent looking for her son at the morgue, among dozens of bodies. She'd been looking for over two weeks. Now that she found her son, she'd keep looking for her husband.

Abbas Mohamed has found the body of his son in the same morgue, but was still looking for his brother. "The hand that kills an Iraqi Sunni is the same that kills an Iraqi Shia. One of my acquaintances was looking for the body of his son when he saw that of mine. Here I am. I don't dare to go in. I don't know what to tell my elderly mother and my pregnant daughter-in-law." Hassan, his son, was a builder. Someone hired him along with six other men and took them in his car. None of the men returned home. Their bodies were later found in the morgue.

Between one bout of wailing and another, as bodies were passing in and out of Baghdad's morgue, the leaders of Iraq got together and announced the formation of the first permanent government since the occupation began. The road from the Forensic Medicine Department to the Green Zone is not long, but it takes time because of traffic and frequent roadblocks. While in the car, I heard the names of the new ministers announced on the radio. Some of them were outside the country, and some hadn't yet been informed of their new posts, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki said.

I smiled -- bitterness, another effect of this occupation -- as I heard the news. I recalled that when the ill- fated Interim Governing Council announced the names of its members, some were outside the country and were surprised by the news. It is the same scenario all over again, with the same bloodshed in the background. No one is addressing the hardships of the country. All that matters, apparently, are the interests of various parties, the consent of the Kurds, and US approval.

In the Green Zone, journalists were waiting to hear what Saleh Al-Mutlaq, leader of the National Dialogue Front, had to say. Al-Mutlaq had walked out of the session in protest, along with Khalaf Al-Elyan of the National Dialogue Council, and Saadeddin Arkej of the Iraqi Turkoman Front. Al-Mutlaq had been promised three cabinet portfolios, those of national dialogue, environment and women. But when asked by the United Iraqi Alliance (Shia) to change his politics he refused, on principle. As Al-Mutlaq was calling on parliament to stop the vote on the new government, Deputy Mathal Al-Alusi grabbed the microphone from him, an insult that could have developed into a fight, but Al-Mutlaq let it go.

In a press conference that followed, Al-Mutlaq said: "The formation of the new government was unconstitutional because several ministries were added to the cabinet without parliamentary approval. The government was formed in a manner that was not consensual, even though we had spent three months discussing how to extract the country from its problems. The government was formed through the exclusion of several blocs. Now you know what kind of democracy we have, what kind of freedom we have, and what kind of arrogance some people have."

Taha Al-Lahibi, of the Reconciliation List, told journalists that, "The ministerial portfolios allotted to the Sunnis were disproportionate with the status, role and leverage they deserve ... The Islamic Party has nominated people without informing its partners, for it is more interested in power than sharing."

Saadeddin Arkej, who also walked out of the parliamentary session, told journalists that, "The government is not one of national unity but of quotas. This government is not going to improve security and services, but is likely to make things worse."

Refusing to endorse the Turkoman minister who had been named by the Dawa Party, Arkej said, "We wanted a Turkoman minister to be selected through Turkoman consensus, to represent Turkoman interests."

Arkej promised to join the opposition in the parliament and cooperate with those who want "to keep Iraq united and Kirkuk outside the control of the north".

Arkej claimed that Arab satellite channels, acting under pressure from certain quarters, were refraining from reporting the Turkoman point of view. Jalal Talabani, Abdel-Aziz Al-Hakim and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad received Arkey last Thursday and reassured him about Turkoman rights, but government formation apparently failed to live up to Turkoman expectations.

The next day, papers carried photographs of the new ministers, all of them smiling. President Talabani appeared on television to tell the nation that the government was "good news for the Iraqis, and a bad omen for terrorists."

As Prime Minister Al-Maliki told the nation that he would deal a harsh blow to terror and disband the militias, thousands of Iraqis were standing for hours under the burning sun, waiting for gasoline that costs 250 Iraqi pounds (about $0.2) a gallon. It may seem cheap by international standards, but many Iraqis feel the price is prohibitive. On that same day, a senior official at the Ministry of Oil claimed that Iraq was losing $1 billion a month because of oil smuggling, adding that officials and the police were involved in smuggling activities.

An oil source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that the fire that erupted three weeks ago on the third floor of the Ministry of Oil -- the floor housing the accounting department -- was not accidental. Arsonists, he claimed, were trying to destroy evidence that high-level American and Iraqi individuals were involved in the smuggling of oil through unofficial deals.

The new government is trying to reassure Iraqis about their future, and yet Baghdad has just been declared, for the third year running, the worst city in the world to live in.