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Iraq: in a state of limbo.

After two wars and with 50% male unemployment, Iraq is in a ruinous state. Increasingly desperate Iraqis are now turning to serious crime. Andrew North looks at the disintegration of Iraqi society and at the debilitating mood of fatalism and cynicism in the country. In the following article, Peter Feuilherade reports on the legacy of enmity between Iraq and Iran.

DURING THE SUDDEN outbreak of phoney war in the Gulf in January, one might have thought that the Iraqis' main concern was with the impact of the US-led attacks. Not a bit of it. Instead, attention across the country was focussed on the outcome of the latest in a series of gruesome murder trials.

Iraq is suffering an alarming increase in serious crimes such as armed robbery, rape and murder. Even the ranks of the Baath party are feeling the effects. In recent months several officials have had their limousines stolen. Armed raids are forcing cash-strapped businesses in Basra to invest in extra security. Household robberies have become a daily occurrence in Saddam City, a suburb of Baghdad.

But the horrors of the latest murder case to come before the courts had even war-hardened Iraqis shaking their heads in disbelief. Just at the time President Bush's offensive on Iraq was dominating international headlines, the so-called Ghazaliyya gang were being charged with the murder of seven members of the same family. It turned out that the three gang members knew the family, who lived in one of Baghdad's poorest districts, and had had sexual relations with the daughters.

But on a visit to the house one night in December, they attacked the family, tied them up and then hanged them one by one in separate rooms. Demonstrating the fact that voyeuristic programmes like the BBC's Crimewatch are popular in any country, Iraqis were glued to the re-enactments of the case which were broadcast on state television on successive Friday nights throughout January.

The crime rate first began to lap after the Iran-Iraq war, and it has soared to new heights since the end of the 1991 conflict. But this has been in spite of the imposition of draconian punishments for offences such as stealing. Car theft probably the most common offence, is now punishable by execution although no courts have yet enforced this maximum penalty.

Government officials blame this continuing increase in crime on the impact of the United Nations sanctions imposed on Iraq after it was expelled from Kuwait. "There is no work anymore; everything is too expensive. Some people have just become desperate and have decided they have no choice but to turn to crime," says one middle class Baghdad resident whose house was broken into twice last year.

The country is certainly in a ruinous shape. Male unemployment is now estimated at 50% and many of those in work are paid pitiful wages. Moreover, with the seemingly inexorable rise in inflation - reaching 1,000% at the annual rate in February - the purchasing power of the average wage continues to plummet. The US dollar now buys over 30 Iraqi dinars, compared to 16 in July last year.

Iraq's parlous economic health has hit lower income, unskilled groups hardest, and government officials say it is among them that most of the criminal activity is concentrated. But skilled workers such as engineers, doctors and teachers are also feeling the pinch, according to one aid worker who has recently returned from Iraq. Many of these middle class people are literally selling the family silver to support themselves. Once they have exhausted their capital, some may turn to crime to survive.

But it is too simplistic to put the upsurge in crime solely down to the economic situation. Before the oil boom of the 1970s that allowed the Baathists to modernise as well as militarise Iraq, a far larger proportion of the population than today were struggling to make ends meet. But this did not lead to a breakdown of law and order such as the country is facing today.

The explanation being put forward by some aid workers is that in Iraq the shared values and beliefs that are necessary for any society to function - even in a rigorous police state - are disintegrating. Confidence that people had in the institutional framework that governs their lives has evaporated. Partly because foreign journalists visiting Iraq are tightly controlled, reports over the last year have not really picked up on any signs of such changes. They have tended to emphasise the government's success in rebuilding the infrastructure. Finding out what people really think has often been a fruitless task, limited to snatched anecdotes.

Admittedly, the conclusions being drawn by these aid workers are also based on limited evidence. But put together through talking to a larger number of people over a longer period of time, they make sense.

In practice, says one British aid worker who has completed several long postings in Iraq, this sea-change in Iraqi society means that "they are thinking more and more as individuals, rather than as members of a community" - a particularly significant change for an Arab country. No longer do people have any hope in the future.

They may not be starving, he says, but people are living from day to day. "Inshallah" is longer just a conversational platitude. In private, many Iraqis have told him they want to leave the country at the first opportunity. No longer do they believe they can improve their lives through effort and industry, while they remain in the country.

Unless they are very well connected, businessmen stifle any entrepreneurial instincts they may have. This is not simply because they fear attracting the attention of the mukhabarat, but also because they do not believe it is worth it. They have no faith in their efforts being rewarded.

Talking to students, you will find few who believe it is worth planning a career. In short, the mood that is descending on Iraq is one of debilitating fatalism and cynicism. And it is finding its most shocking expression in the increasing frequency of seemingly motiveless crimes such as the Ghazaliyya murder.

If the current crime wave and the cynical disillusioned mood that underpins it is not just a product of the economic situation, then it certainly helps to feed it. But this mood among the Iraqi people is a cumulative phenomenon, rooted in the psychological impact of two gruelling and utterly unproductive wars, followed by the total failure of their attempt to overthrow the regime which had forced them into these disasters.

The latter is probably the most important. The uprising was totally and violently crushed; but they had only moved against Saddam because it seemed as though they held all the cards. When all the cards turned out to be mirages in the shifting sands of international realpolitik, it was a devastating blow not just to those Iraqis who had actively participated in the rebellion, but to the country as a whole.

It has left Iraqi society in a state of limbo, and has removed any hope that the near future will improve. One piece of evidence is cruelly ironic - the almost total lack of interest that is now shown by people in the external opposition. Recovering from this shock to their morale will require drastic change. The British aid worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes that: "not only does Saddam have to be overthrown, but the whole Baath party structure has to be destroyed."
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs
Author:Norton, Andre
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Words:1243
Previous Article:Provoking the peace.
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