With Donkeys for Transport, All Is Well

FALLUJAH — A brave new attempt is under way to project that all is well now with Fallujah. Residents know better — or worse.

Former Iraqi minister of state for foreign affairs Rafi al-Issawi visited Fallujah, 60 km west of Baghdad, Aug. 22. Issawi, who resigned Aug. 1 when the Sunni Iraqi Accord Front withdrew from the government, visited the city with other members of the Sunni Accordance Bloc, al-Tawafuq.

The group toured the city and met with senior officials and community leaders in a show of conversion of the city from the most violent to the most peaceful in Iraq.

The Iraqi Islamic Party’s TV channel, al-Baghdad, accompanied Issawi on his tour and broadcast some of the scenes from inside Fallujah. The footage exposed the painful truth of the real situation here. The streets were deserted, shops were closed, and people appeared with sullen faces.

“Of course we are happy to have our city peaceful, but not this way,” lawyer Ahmed Hammad told IPS. “The local police guided and supported by the American Army have prevented car movement for nearly three months now. They should not be proud of having the city quiet in a way that kills everybody with hunger and disease.”

Hammad referred to the vehicle ban which was imposed by the U.S. military in Fallujah in May.

Some residents in Fallujah praised the police, others described policemen as savages.

“Those who are not Fallujah citizens in the force must be expelled and replaced by our own men,” Nassir al-Dulaymi, a former police officer, told IPS. “They swear at people in the street and arrest people as they please, and of course there is no real government to hold them accountable for their crimes. Probably they would be rewarded for their savage acts.”

An article titled ‘Fallujah Catches Its Breath’ in the independent Salon.com magazine Aug. 21 described the improving situation in Fallujah.

“Fallujah, once the symbol of everything gone wrong with the American mission in Iraq, seems to be breathing again,” wrote David Morris, a former Marine who works as an embedded reporter with U.S. forces in Iraq. “About half the shops are open. Groups of children wave heartily at American convoys driving by.”

A journalist who lives in Fallujah told IPS that several local journalists had been detained and warned of trouble for them if they reported anything other than “good news” about Fallujah.

“The media in the west are lying about Fallujah by saying everything is well,” said the journalist. “What is so good about a city that lives with no electricity, no water, no fuel, very expensive life necessities, and most important, with no vehicles? Moreover the unemployment is incredibly high.”

Others said members of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic party and the Sunni Accordance Bloc are weak and self-interested politicians.

“The Islamic Party and its allies convinced us that the situation would be much improved after the elections, and we fell for it,” 60-year-old shopkeeper Sulayman Mahmood told IPS. “All they did was give cover to the sectarian government as well as getting rich, and having thousands of bodyguards.”

A tour of the city on foot gives the impression of the dark ages. People are back to riding donkeys.

Everyone IPS spoke with complained of the extremely high price of basic goods, and a lack of work that could raise money to meet those needs.

“A cylinder of cooking gas costs 22 dollars, and it is less than half full,” said Um Ali from the Shurta district west of the city. “Groceries are too expensive, and we do not know what to eat, especially since the food ration is practically nothing. Our sons are either unemployed or in jail.”

A report released by Oxfam International Jul. 30 said eight million Iraqis (in a population of 24 million) are in need of emergency aid.

“Iraqis are suffering from a growing lack of food, shelter, water and sanitation, healthcare, education, and employment,” the report said. “Of the four million Iraqis who are dependent on food assistance, only 60 percent currently have access to rations through the government-run Public Distribution System (PDS), down from 96 percent in 2004.”

The report said 43 percent of Iraqis suffer from “absolute poverty”, and over half the population are unemployed.

The city has also been affected by the U.S. and Iraqi authorities’ dependence on tribes in Fallujah and throughout Iraq’s western al-Anbar province. Sheikhs are the real leaders now.

“They are taking us back to the British occupation period when the British gave power to ignorant sheikhs of tribes instead of politicians and academics,” Shakir Ahmed, a historian in Fallujah told IPS. “This is a terrible conception that will take us back to the dark ages instead of the promised progress and prosperity. These men are highly respected for being what they are, but never to lead a city, a province and a country.”

(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)