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 Notes from Iraq

April 28, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 1

jeff Mahasen

Jeff Guntzel and Mahasen Nasser-Eldin are in Iraq for National Catholic Reporter.

Their reports will be posted to as they become available. Check the Web site regularly for updates.

Since 1998, Guntzel has helped coordinate Voices in the Wilderness, a campaign to end the sanctions against Iraq. He has led seven fact-finding missions to Iraq.

Nasser-Eldin, fluent in English and Arabic, has traveled to Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness, has studied the Iraqi educational system for UNICEF and as a researcher for Human Rights Watch studied the Kurds.  

Notes from Iraq: Paperwork and UN Briefing

By Jeff Guntzel and Mahasen Nasser-Eldin


I know these entries are titled "Notes from Iraq," but the notes today actually come from Amman, Jordan, where we are making arrangements to make our way to Baghdad. The Iraqi embassy here is still issuing visas, but only to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like the United Nations, Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.

Members of the press need only obtain a Jordanian press card from the press office at Amman's opulent Intercontinental Hotel, which has been the base of operations for international journalists bound for Iraq. The press card gets you across the Jordanian border and into Iraq.

The Intercontinental is virtually empty now. It was not long ago that hundreds of journalists buzzed around the giant marble lobby and outside, armored cars - all sides emblazoned with the giant letters "TV" - filled the lot. The army of eager journalists is now stationed at whatever hotels are still operating in Central Iraq.

After getting my press card, I walked several blocks to the Iraqi embassy to have a look.

At the compound's private entrance, used only by the ambassador and his staff (who remain "on duty" but without a clear protocol), cars come and go through a giant motorized door, modeled after the famous blue and gold gates of Babylon.

Armed Jordanian guards mill about the public entrance to the compound. Activity at the embassy in many ways is just as it has always been. People saunter up to a tall, windowless gunmetal gray door and ring the buzzer. Then they wait and wait. Usually somebody comes, eventually. First an Arab woman with two small children approached. She buzzed. Nothing. Then came two young Asian men, one wearing a powder blue sweatshirt with "Don't Bomb Iraq" written across his chest in pearl white cursive. The Asian men were let in. Less than 5 minutes later they were out. Several men and a few women passed through the door over the next several minutes. The woman with the two small children had still not been invited inside. She buzzed again. Nothing.

Eventually, she just left.

I am told that the Iraqi embassy still honors the old regime's law prohibiting anybody carrying a passport with an Israeli stamp in it from entering Iraq.

The American embassy denies this, saying the Iraqis no longer have the power to make that call.

UN Briefing

The United Nations holds frequent briefings for the press at the Intercontinental. Identifying the coalition as the "occupying power" in Iraq - a characterization the United States has rejected on the grounds that the war has not been declared over - U.N. Spokesman Nejib Friji reaffirmed that "the Iraqi's most immediate needs now are public order, humanitarian relief and the return of all essential services."

Other UN representatives filled out the picture a bit. In Basra, according to the World Health Organization, looters destroyed all records at the Government's Department of Health and the Preventive Health department. The UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq reported that the price of basic commodities in Baghdad has increased by 20-50% since the war.

Meanwhile, in the southern city of Basra, the World Food Program puts the increase of some commodities at 200-300%. In Northern Iraq, most farmers were not displaced by fighting, but farmers in the 18 governorates south of Baghdad, where much of the grain is grown, were displaced by the war. They continue to face water and electricity shortages. UNICEF re-affirmed Executive Director Carol Bellamy's call for "Iraqi children to be allowed back to school without delay" to provide some sort of structure for children seen wandering the streets, "many of them with nothing to do but beg for food and water from passing vehicles."

The fact that the United Nations is operating with no mandate from the bitterly divided Security Council and with little encouragement from the "occupying powers" was lost on no one. When asked about the possibility of U.S. control of the rewriting of Iraq's curriculum, the UNICEF representative spoke carefully to the issue, "Everyone with a stake should have a chance."

Something as important as a nation's curriculum, he said, should "not be dreamed up in isolation."

This afternoon, in a briefing room where the ratio of UN representatives to members of the press was nearly one-to-one, it was the United Nations that seemed isolated.

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