Life in Baghdad: Better and worse

Polls show Iraqis optimistic for longer term, worried now.

Like many Baghdadis, Maithan Maki finds that his world since the war has been turned upside down. That's why on a hot summer night he takes family out for ice cream, seeking a sense of familiarity and stability.

"Friday is just for the family, and coming here for ice cream is something we've always done," says Mr. Maki, accompanied by his wife and two small daughters. "We aren't going to give it up because of dangers or the economic situation."

Life in Baghdad today is a picture of better and worse, of richer and poorer - with a sense of insecurity seeming to unite everyone. Before the war, fears for one's life were for the politically repressed. Now, that fear, like the political system, is being democratized. The latest studies of economic, political, and social development show Iraq teetering between halting progress and disaster. "On a good day, I think Iraq is on the verge of takeoff," says Hussain Kubba, a successful Baghdadi business consultant who now also works with the new economy ministry. "But on bad days I think we're only headed for more chaos."

The mix of enduring optimism and uncertainty manifests itself in subtle ways. For example, rich and poor families in Iraq's capital that once held wedding parties in hotels now hold them at home. New births are soaring. The school year does not start until October, yet already families are discussing how to safely transport children to school.

"We used to start school in September, but now it's October, and we are told it's because they aren't ready to ensure the children's safety," says Bushra Mohammed, who also sits outside Faqma's ice cream shop with a fast-melting scoop of vanilla. Giving her nieces a treat her unemployed brother cannot afford, Miss Mohammed says some families are even debating whether to send the kids to school at all, at least at the beginning.

"We are living in a huge chaos, like an earthquake that leaves everything upside-down," says Sadoun al-Dulame, whose Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies regularly surveys Iraqi public opinion. "We are formulating a new society, rebuilding Iraq politically, socially, economically, even psychologically. No wonder so many people are bewildered and reactions are so hard to predict."

Mr. Dulame's own surveys show that if you ask Iraqis about security they will tell you they are worse off today - but that if you ask them about the economy, most say things are better than before the war. Many salaries are higher, though there are more unemployed.

One consequence of what many here simply call the "confusion" of the postwar era is that Iraqis, while holding to an optimism about the long-term future, aren't sure what to think about the present.

In five crucial areas - security, economic opportunity, political participation, services, and social well-being - Iraq has not yet reached a "tipping point" either towards full engagement in or outright rejection of the country's direction, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

While perceptions of security are clearly in a danger zone, the other key areas are in a gray zone tending towards improvement but which could still go either way, say CSIS researchers Bathsheba Crocker and Frederick Barton.

"If you know Iraq is going to disintegrate into chaos, you'll leave with your family now," says Mr. Kubba, who's not to that point. But he says many families that can afford it have taken apartments in Amman, Jordan, where children attend school while fathers work in Iraq.

Commercial streets here are piled high at curbside with imported washers, air conditioners, and electrical generators - a must to keep those appliances running when still-frequent power cuts strike. More families than ever have taken long driving vacations this summer, particularly to the relatively peaceful north.

Still, the CSIS report finds that the failure to quickly employ large numbers of idle young Iraqis during the 16-month postwar period provided a well of recruits for insurgents and Islamic extremists.

"For these young men it's a new way of life - the easy skill of the RPG [rocket- propelled grenade]," says Muhammed al-Dami, a University of Baghdad professor. "Spending your time targeting Iraqi police cars and American tanks can earn you $500 a month - which suddenly changes the situation of your family from nothing to something."

Last month, attacks on US forces reached an average of 87 per day, the highest to date. And this week in Baghdad, youths fired on and disabled a US Bradley fighting vehicle. Within minutes, children arrived cheering and celebrating in ways reminiscent of last April's gruesome killing of four American contractors in Fallujah. A US helicopter arrived and fired on the scene - killing some of the celebrating children.

The result of such scenes - but even more of the kidnappings and other crimes that haunt Baghdadis every day - is that every Iraqi seems to have security on the tip of his tongue. Except, perhaps, for the newborns at Al Hayaat Maternity Hospital, who, anecdotal evidence would suggest, are part of an Iraqi population boom.

Last Saturday alone, the small clinic run by Dominican sisters in Baghdad's Hayy al Wahdaa neighborhood delivered 20 babies - an almost unprecedented flurry for Al Hayaat's sisters.

Why are Iraqis having more babies? "People have more money than before, so they think they can afford more children," says Sister Bushra Farach, Al Hayaat's manager. She adds that her clinic's clientele has changed in the postwar period.

"We are private and have to charge, so we used to have only the wealthy. But now I notice men of very different social classes bringing their wives here. I even suspect some of them of making their new money from thievery," she adds, "but we are happy to deliver their little ones."

Asked if the Baghdad baby boom suggests a latent optimism about Iraq's future, Sister Bushra says she doesn't think so. "I think Iraqis are saying, 'Even if we can't have happiness in our time, maybe we create more chances for happiness the more children we have."

Plying Baghdad's streets, one notices some new commercial and residential construction, particularly of shops in the tonier sections of town and high-end residences, often in barricaded and barb-wired compounds. But most striking is how dozens of government buildings, still the most prominent structures, remain bombed-out and looted hulks.

Still, in the topsy-turvy postwar Baghdad, even some of these icons of the bygone regime have offered unimagined opportunities to the dispossessed. Take the 600 poor squatter families that now occupy in relative grandeur what were once the stables, swimming club, and brothel of Saddam's son Uday.

"This home is a gift from God. We have made it a haven from all the terrible things happening in Iraq now," says Jawdat Majeed, who with his two wives and 17 children occupies spare but spacious quarters once inhabited by one of Uday's horse trainers.

Outside Mr. Majeed's abode, a small town of Shiite families inhabits the barns, pool house, movie theater, and even a former military command post once part of Uday's domain. "If this government tries to push us out then it is no better than what we lived with under Saddam," says camp leader Rassoul Al-Hussainy.

Despite such complaints, some Baghdadis do express hope that the new government can reverse the security crisis and make the streets safe again. In the busy Karada neighborhood, hardware store owner Hassan Mufeed says his business is better than before the war. But what gives him confidence in the future was a small incident that took place across from his shop. "A few days ago some garbage collectors reported a bomb right there," he says, pointing to the sidewalk outside a bank across the street. "Before long the ICDC [Iraqi Civil Defense Corps] arrived, and with the help of the Americans they took it out."

To Mr. Mufeed, that one incident told him that, despite the dangers, democracy has a chance in Iraq.

It's a sentiment found in various surveys of public opinion, from a CSIS "Iraqi Voices" survey done in July toa recent national poll conducted by the Iraq office of the International Republican Institute.

Indeed, back at the Uday stables squatters' camp, residents say they don't plan to bow to government pressures without a fight. Suggesting he's already learned something about living in a democracy, camp leader Mr. Al-Hussainy says he's planning an anti-eviction demonstration. "Our only weapons are our voices," he says. "Isn't that how a democracy is supposed to work?"

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