Monday, May 22, 2006

News From Iraq: Middle Class Leaving Iraq

. . . . and without a middle class, there can be no democracy.
Sewage filled the streets where the Bahjat family found a temporary home after fleeing their previous home.
Since destruction of Samarra shrine, many Iraqis are desperate to leave the country:
A few months after reports indicated that Iraqi university professors and academics were fleeing the country because of violence and kidnappings, new media reports say that the middle class in Iraq also wants to leave.
The New York Times reported last week that more and more middle class Iraqis seem to be "doing everything they can to leave the country":
In the last 10 months, the state has issued new passports to 1.85 million Iraqis, 7 percent of the population and a quarter of the country's estimated middle class. The school system offers another clue: Since 2004, the Ministry of Education has issued 39,554 letters permitting parents to take their children's academic records abroad. The number of such letters issued in 2005 was double that in 2004, according to the director of the ministry's examination department. Iraqi officials and international organizations put the number of Iraqis in Jordan at close to a million. Syrian cities also have growing Iraqi populations.

The reason for the exodus, the Times writes, is the wave of sectarian violence that has engulfed Iraq since the Feb. 22 bombing of the revered Shiite Askariya Shrine in Samarra. Most frightening for most Iraqis was the sense that their government was doing almost nothing to stop the fighting, and in fact may have helped, as soldiers from Shiite-dominated ministries have been accused of participated in the sectarian killings.
Deaths run like water through the life of the Bahjat family. Four neighbors. A barber. Three grocers. Two men who ran a currency exchange shop:
“The main thing now is to just get out of Iraq,” said Assad Bahjat, with his wife, Eileen, and their two children, Elvis, left, and Andres.

But when six armed men stormed into their sons' primary school this month, shot a guard dead, and left fliers ordering it to close, Assad Bahjat knew it was time to leave.

"The main thing now is to just get out of Iraq," said Mr. Bahjat, standing in a room heaped with suitcases and bedroom furniture in eastern Baghdad.

In the latest indication of the crushing hardships weighing on the lives of Iraqis, increasing portions of the middle class seem to be doing everything they can to leave the country. In the last 10 months, the state has issued new passports to 1.85 million Iraqis, 7 percent of the population and a quarter of the country's estimated middle class.

The school system offers another clue: Since 2004, the Ministry of Education has issued 39,554 letters permitting parents to take their children's academic records abroad. The number of such letters issued in 2005 was double that in 2004, according to the director of the ministry's examination department. Iraqi officials and international organizations put the number of Iraqis in Jordan at close to a million. Syrian cities also have growing Iraqi populations.

Since the bombing of a shrine in Samarra in February touched off a sectarian rampage, crime and killing have spread further through Iraqi society, paralyzing neighborhoods and smashing families. Now, on the brink of a new, permanent government, Iraqis are expressing the darkest view of their future in three years. "We're like sheep at a slaughter farm," said a businessman, who is arranging a move to Jordan. "We are just waiting for our time." The Samarra bombing produced a new kind of sectarian violence. Gangs of Shiites in Baghdad pulled Sunni Arabs out of houses and mosques and killed them in a spree that prompted retaliatory attacks and displaced 14,500 families in three months, according to the Ministry for Migration.

Most frightening, many middle-class Iraqis say, was how little the government did to stop the violence. That failure boded ominously for the future, leaving them feeling that the government was incapable of protecting them and more darkly, that perhaps it helped in the killing. Shiite-dominated government forces have been accused of carrying out sectarian killings.

"Now I am isolated," said Monkath Abdul Razzaq, a middle-class Sunni Arab, who decided to leave after the bombing. "I have no government. I have no protection from the government. Anyone can come to my house, take me, kill me and throw me in the trash."

Traces of the leaving are sprinkled throughout daily life. Mr. Abdul Razzaq, who will move his family to Syria next month, where he has already rented an apartment, said a fistfight broke out while he waited for five hours in a packed passport office to fill out applications for his two young sons. In Salheyah, a commercial district in central Baghdad, bus companies that specialize in Syria and Jordan say ticket sales have surged.

Karim al-Ani, the owner of one of the firms, Tiger Company, said a busy day last year used to be three buses, but in recent months it comes close to 10. "Before it was more tourists," he said. "Now we are taking everything, even furniture."

The impact can be seen in neighborhoods here. While much of the city bustles during daytime hours, the more war-torn areas, like in the south and in Ameriya, Ghazaliya, and Khadra in the west, are eerily empty at midday. On Mr. Bahjat's block in Dawra, only about 5 houses out of 40 remain occupied. Empty houses in the area are scrawled with the words "Omar Brigade," a Sunni group that kills Shiites.

Residents have been known to protest, at least on paper. In an act of helpless fury this winter, a large banner hung across a house in Dawra that read, "Do God and Islam agree that I should leave my house to live in a camp with my five children and wife?"

"Shadows," said Eileen Bahjat, Mr. Bahjat's wife, standing with her two sons and describing what is left in the neighborhood. "Shadows and killing."

In Dawra, one of the worst areas in all of Baghdad, public life has ground to a halt. Four teachers have been killed in the past 10 days in Mr. Bahjat's area alone, and the Ahmed al-Waily primary school where the Bahjat boys, ages 12 and 8, studied, may not be able to hold final exams because of the killings. And three teachers from the Batoul secondary school were shot in late April.
Inquiry Implies Civilian Deaths in Iraq Topped Initial Report:
Trash is collected only sporadically. On April 3, insurgents shot seven garbage collectors to death near their truck, and their bodies lay in the area for eight hours before the authorities could collect them, said Naeem al-Kaabi, deputy mayor for municipal affairs in Baghdad. In all, 312 trash workers have been killed in Baghdad in the past six months.

"Sunnis, Shiites, Christians," said Mr. Bahjat, a Christian who this month moved his family to New Baghdad, an eastern suburb, to live with a relative, before leaving for Syria. "They just want to empty this place of all people."

"We must start from zero," he said. "Maybe under zero. But there is no other choice. Even with more time, the security will not improve."

It is more than just the killing that has sapped hope for the future. Iraqis have waited for five months for a permanent government, after voting in a national election in December, and though political leaders are on the brink of announcing it, some Iraqis say the amount of haggling it took to form it makes them skeptical that it will be able to solve bigger problems.

Abd al-Kareem al-Mahamedawy, a tribal sheik from Amara in southern Iraq who fought for years against Saddam Hussein, compared the process to "giving birth to a deformed child."

As if to underscore the point, a scene of sorrow unfolded just outside Mr. Mahamedawy's gate, where an extended family gathered, full of nervous movement, and absorbed the news of the strangling death of their 13-year-old boy by kidnappers. A woman brought her hands to her head in the timeworn motion of mourning.

Even with the resolve to leave, many departing Iraqis said they consider the move only temporary and hope to return if Iraq's fractious groups are united and stem the tide of the killings.

Packed suitcases and furniture filled one of the rooms of the Bahjat's temporary home. The Bahjat family was living in Baghdad's troubled Dora neighborhood but they were forced to flee because of sectarian violence. They are planning to move to Syria within the month.

Cars and furniture are sold, but those who can afford it, like the Abdul Razzaq family, hang on to their properties. In Khadra in western Baghdad, Nesma Abdul Razzaq, Mr. Abdul Razzaq's wife, has spent the past months carefully wrapping their photographs, vases and furniture in cloth and packing them in boxes. She spoke of the sadness of the empty rooms and the pain of having to build a new life in a strange place.

An Iraqi man and his extended family boarding a bus to Syria.

"I have a rage inside myself," Mrs. Abdul Razzaq said by telephone, as her area, since last autumn, has become unsafe for a Western reporter to visit. "I feel desperate."

"I don't want to leave Iraq. But I have to for the kids. They have seen enough."

Fehed Kubba, 15, right, playing his violin as his mother Samira and sister Heya look on. Most of their extended family has left Iraq and they are planning to leave as well.

In a quiet block in Mansour, a wealthy neighborhood in central Baghdad, where stately, gated homes are lined with pruned hedges, the Kubba family spends most of its time indoors. They have hung onto their lifestyle: three of their children study violin, flute, and ballet in an arts school outside the neighborhood despite encroaching violence.

Last fall, a foul smell led neighbors to the bodies of seven family members in a house several doors down from the Kubbas. They had been robbed. Fehed Kubba, 15, went to buy bread last year and saw a crowd near the bakery that he assumed was watching a backgammon game. When he pushed in to look, he saw a man who had just been shot to death.

But it was the increasingly sectarian nature of the violence, deeply painful to Iraqis who are proud of their intermarried heritage, that tipped the scales as Falah Kubba and his wife, Samira, considered leaving with Fehed, Roula, 13, and Heya, 12.

"The past few months convinced us," said Mr. Kubba, a businessman whose wife is Sunni. "Now they are killing by ID's. The killing around Americans was something different, but the ID's, you can't move around on the streets."

"At the beginning we said, 'Let's wait, maybe it will be better tomorrow,' " Mr. Kubba said.

"Now I know it is time to go."

Those Who Remain Are Suffering From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

From USA Today:
Life after the temple bombing has become more dangerous for almost every Iraqi. According to US military figures, Iraqi casualties have jumped from 55 killed per day, to almost 80 per day since the Samarra incident. And while many still manage to go about their daily lives, for others the stress has become a burden.

An estimated one-fourth of Baghdad's adults are suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, though only one-fifth of those seek treatment, says Aamir Hussein, a physician and deputy manager of Baghdad's Ibn Rushd Psychiatric Hospital. After the Samarra bombing, the number of psychiatric cases the hospital increased, Hussein says. At the Al-Jannan — "The Paradise" — clinic in central Baghdad, Baher Butti and a team of five therapists offer free counseling to poor patients and organize workshops and seminars.

Iraqis tend to be "psychologically withdrawn," retreating further into their families or leaving the country altogether when feeling pressure, Butti says. Butti himself plans to leave Iraq at the end of the month because he learned that his name appeared on a target list held by militias, he says. "The last few months have been increasingly traumatizing for Iraqis," he says. "It's out of the realm of human capability sometimes to adapt to this."

US and Iraqi forces have been trying to quell the sectarian violence. Last week, The Associated Press reported that US and Iraqi soldiers rescued seven Sunni men who had been kidnapped by members of a Shiite militia. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the spokesman for the US military in Baghdad, noted that attacks against civilians are up by 80 percent over the last six months.

"We acknowledge that the primary targets of the insurgency are the innocent men, women and children of Iraq," Lynch told reporters. He said attacks against civilians were aimed at enflaming sectarian hatred "and then folks like the militias, either Shiite militias or Sunni militias, are carrying out retaliatory attacks and killing innocent men, women and children."

Writing for The Independent of London, Patrick Cockburn reported Saturday that the sectarian fighting in Iraq now resembles what was happening in Bosnia in the '90s, when "each community fled to places where its members were a majority and were able to defend themselves."

Since the destruction of the mosque in Samarra sectarian warfare has broken out in every Iraqi city where there is a mixed population. In many cases the minority is too small to stand and fight. Sunnis have been fleeing Basra after a series of killings. Christians are being eliminated in Mosul in the north. Shias are being killed or driven out of cities and towns north of Baghdad such as Baquba or Samarra itself.

Fox News reported last week that humanitarian groups say hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled their homes since the invasion of 2003, and with a large spike in the past year. This had led some security experts to worry about the implications for the creation of a national Iraqi state in the long run. But Fox News also says US officials disputed Iraqi figures showing massive displacement, saying that people should not exaggerate the magnitude of the crisis, and that while there is an indication of some displaced persons inside Iraq, many people are moving for personal reasons.

Regardless of the reasons for the movement, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Sunni Arabs now fear the idea of a withdrawal of US troops that would leave a largely Shiite police force in its place, an idea that would have seemed "unthinkable" a year ago. The key factor in this change of attitude, writes the Chronicle, is the sectarian violence after the bombing of the shrine in Samarra.

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