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 Notes from Iraq

May 5, 2003
No. 4

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.  

People here founder in uncertainties

By Jeff Guntzel and Mahasen Nasser-Eldin

People here founder in uncertainties. There is no government, no credible police force -- no security. "Security is the first priority for Iraq," a schoolteacher told us today. After the iron-fisted rule of Saddam Hussein collapsed, the chaos that has visited Iraq since the invasion is unimaginable.

"We need two Saddams now!" a teacher at the al-Kazimiyah Industrial School added, desperately. "We need a government first thing to put our lives in order."

For many there is an acceptance, even appreciation of the occupation. For the forced removal of Saddam Hussein, many are grateful. But every day there are new indicators that illustrate the tentative nature of Iraqi tolerance.

  • Fuel lines stretch around corners and over bridges. Some people wait in the relentless sun for six hours to fill their tanks.
  • Families do not feel comfortable sending their children, particularly their adolescent girls, to school.
  • Unexploded ordnance from the bombing campaign sit unmarked in residential areas.
  • The streets are dangerous.
  • Power is not consistent.
  • Water is not safe.

Still, as grim as the situation is, Iraqis -- mostly men and children -- chat casually with US and British soldiers spread throughout the city.

This phenomenon must put nervous young soldiers at ease. And it must irk Iraqis for whom occupation means much more than the absence of Saddam Hussein's tyrannical regime.

So what should be done? It is not just a regime that has been destroyed but also an enormous bureaucracy that ran a country of nearly 25 million people. Looters and arsonists destroyed public documents going back decades, centuries, and in some cases millennia. The records of cancer patients drift with the ash in the parking lot of the ransacked Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Trade is nothing but a charred shell. The Ministry of Education -- also destroyed.

A notable exception to every Iraqi we have spoken with is the Ministry of Oil, which still stands. Untouched, the sprawling complex has been protected by U.S. armored vehicles and razor wire since the Americans first entered the city. Behind it, a towering white Ministry of Agriculture building is burned black.

Did this scenario present itself at the "what if" meetings in Washington? If so, what went wrong?

Most nights at the Republican Palace, officials of the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) -- set up by the US military to do just what its name suggests -- meet with organizations like Save the Children UK, Doctors Without Borders and Christian Aid to share information. ORHA representatives seem genuinely eager to help Iraq back to its feet, but the gap between what is needed -- desperately need -- and what they can provide is troubling.

With the promise of liberation came the implicit promise of security. That has not come. And patience is short. "We are still living in a state of war," a teacher told us. "If the promises are not met -- there will be big trouble for the Americans."

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