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Torrential rain caused floods all over Baghdad last week. It was not a pleasant sight: as the city’s ageing sewage system failed to cope, streets filled with murky grey water that smelled and looked as if it was heavily polluted with raw sewage. Upriver, the Tigris rose 15 feet in five hours, the highest it had been for 50 years, and dozens of villages were inundated.
The disaster is not great by Baghdad standards, given the Iraqi capital’s recent experience of car bombs, assassination, occupation and mass sectarian slaughter. I decided to take a drive to see how people were affected by the floods, what the government was doing to help them and, more generally, what the city looks like 10 years after the US-led invasion.
Driving in these conditions is easier said than done, since the flooding makes even worse the horrendous traffic jams that are normal in the city. People were in a bad mood and, without exception, blamed government incompetence and corruption for failing to clean and repair the old concrete sewers which often date from the 1960s. A few road tankers trying to suck up the water from giant pools were not having much impact.
Baghdad has a population of 7.6 million, or a quarter of the total Iraqi population, living in it. It is a dangerous but fascinating city where every neighbourhood has a different sectarian or political complexion. Though political murder is frequent by the standard of any country – 178 people were killed in January – there is far less violence than in the recent past. In the worst of times, in 2006 and 2007, up to 3,000 Sunni and Shia Iraqis were being killed every month, mostly in Baghdad. Explosions and gunfire were constant at that time, but in the past week I have not heard the sound of a single shot or bomb explosion.
Improved security is the most positive development, but in most other ways Baghdad has not changed. It still looks dirty, battered and poor, its people weary and on edge. For all Iraq’s immense oil income – $100bn last year – there are beggars on every street corner. “We produce over three million barrels of oil a day, so where is the money?” said a friend. This is the endlessly repeated refrain of Iraqis trying to understand why they have to live with only six hours of electricity a day and why half the population are unemployed or underemployed.
As I drove from central Baghdad east towards the Shia working-class bastion of Sadr City last week, it was clear that the floods were worst in the poorer districts. In addition, the water was so filthy and mixed with floating garbage that it was impossible to judge if it was a few inches deep or one was about to plunge into a deep pool. Traffic was all the heavier because there had been severe flooding on 25 December and, knowing what had happened then, people were rushing home to do what they could to protect their homes.
We drove into New Baghdad, a district that was once mixed but which the Sunni fled in 2006. Now it is Shia with a minority of Christians. Shia-dominated districts are easy to identify because of the green flags and posters of Imam Hussein or the al-Sadr family. The Shia working class may be better off than they were under Saddam Hussein since more jobs are open to them, but the improvement is relative. Despite the rain there were beggars and peddlers everywhere, one of them standing in the middle of the road trying to sell large inflatable white ducks with blue wings and orange beaks that appeared to have been designed for somebody’s swimming pool.
Many Iraqi Christians have fled persecution and crime, but in New Baghdad a substantial Chaldean Christian community stayed on. The dome of their church rises above the houses. The Sunni may have been driven out, but there are physical signs of their past presence. An old security headquarters from Saddam Hussein’s time has been converted into a prison, its gatehouse surmounted by Shia flags and pictures of Imam Hussein and his brother warrior Abbas. A few yards further, surrounded by a lake of water, is a former Sunni mosque taken over by the Shia and renamed the Imam al Hussein mosque.
There are signs that the government security forces share power with tribes and militias. The Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr may have been dissolved, but militias are only young men with guns, easily obtainable in Baghdad. On the edge of Sadr City, we drove nervously through an area dominated by the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of Righteousness) of Qais al-Ghazali, who leads this violent splinter group from the main Sadrist movement. This was the group that kidnapped the British computer expert Peter Moore in 2008 and killed four of his bodyguards.
A little further on we waited a long time at the heavily guarded entrance to Sadr City, almost a twin city to the rest of Baghdad and home to three million people. But the flooding was getting worse, the traffic impossible, and we returned to central Baghdad. A day later I visited the bird market in the Shurja area of central Baghdad, a place I used to come to on Fridays in the 1990s because it was full of enthusiasts for doves, pigeons, falcons and eagles. Their single-minded love for birds was an antidote to the otherwise depressing prospect of Baghdad under sanctions.
After 2003, the market was repeatedly targeted by al-Qa’ida bombers, but stayed open despite horrific casualties. “Not even 100 bombs will close us down,” said one shop owner to me last week. He complained of country people coming to the market with birds they had reared and undercutting prices. It is a general complaint of long-established Baghdadis that they are being swamped by people from the rest of Iraq, political leaders from the Shia south and former farmers impoverished by the collapse of Iraqi agriculture.
The bird shop owner said he sold animals as well as birds and asked if I would be interested in buying a tiger or lion cub. He showed me picture of the cubs frolicking at his farm on the outskirts of Baghdad. I asked him who had the money to buy them, and he said: “Mostly tribal sheikhs. Just at the moment there is a fashion for cubs like these.” Some people in Iraq have a great deal of money though they keep quiet about it.
One does not see the new rich elite walking on the streets or even in restaurants. Instead, they roar past in heavily armed convoys, like so many medieval dukes and their retainers contemptuously brushing aside the peasantry.
We has crossed the Tigris on our way to Mansur district when we were gestured by soldiers at a checkpoint to the side of the road along with other drivers. A procession of armoured cars and civilian vehicles with smoked-glass windows screamed past. “That is why I want to leave this country,” said my friend who was driving. “I don’t know who that was but he must be one of our new rulers who care nothing for ordinary Iraqis.”
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.