Life in Baghdad : Glad You Can't Be Here

In February 2004, Baghdad was a decent place for most businesses and people were happy because the tyrant had been toppled. Many stores and clubs stayed open. The city was clean and the crime rate was low because the Iraqis had freedom. They simply were too happy to think of crime, you might call it the "honeymoon phase" of freedom. Believe it or not, there was no fear of kidnapping or car bombs. Back then, America had toppled Saddam, and the Iraqis felt secure because America was in control. It was a functioning city. The mere presence of American forces were enough, initially. Saddam may have been a tyrant, but he did improve Baghdad, making it a cosmopolitan styled city with numerous parks, a Zoo, and world-class architecture in places.

However, since those lofty moments in 2004, Baghdad along the Tigris River today is a mess at best and a sewer for mankind at worst. Even though the Iraqis elected their government various religious groups have fought one another while the Iraqi police try to learn on the job and stop the chaos. Even today, terrorists or angry militias attack using IEDs or car bombers to attack foreign embassies killing indiscriminately. Since 2011, the infrastructure, like roads, electricity generation and water purification systems are in very poor condition. Garbage is everywhere in some neighborhoods, as if collectors are on strike. Many streets are blocked with concrete walls for no apparent reason and no longer serve a purpose, remnants of 2004. Then, there is the air quality. Baghdad has some of the worse air that US soldiers and locals breath in daily. US studies today show that recent samples of air quality yield typical dust particles that are smaller than a red blood cell containing dozens of different heavy metals, bacteria and fungi. These particles may be contributors to common respiratory illnesses or worse. During dust storms, the study showed that 500 micrograms per cubic meter are commonly exceeded within 24 hrs. The WHO acceptable limit rate is 35-65 micrograms. This dust is everywhere, even on clear days. Many locals and returning soldiers suffer from respiratory problems because of Baghdad's bad air. It is that simple.

Baghdad has many checkpoints inside the city manned by poorly trained soldiers and police. They search for potential threats but seldom check cars or ask people for identification. They will accept bribes and will let you through. One news reporter who kept track, encountered more than 26 checkpoints and none of them stopped him to ask for identification. He could have been a terrorist.The loyalty of Iraqi citizens in the Iraqi military and police is gone. According to locals, since the government does not enforce the law fairly, many soldiers do not ask for identification nor detain suspects because they fear reprisals upon them and their family. This makes sense in an area that still has al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Iranian conspirators lurking among them. All with their own agendas.

Inside the Green Zone, which has always been the “safe” area where foreign embassies are located, it is no longer safe despite two Iraqi checkpoints and a U.S. Embassy checkpoint manned by Africans. Terrorists have struck inside the zone several times killing 22 people. It proves the security is as porous as a sponge.This Green Zone was the hub for years when America was present, today, it is mostly vacant.

Electricity remains the core problem for the millions living there. During the hot summer, there are fewer than 10 hours of electricity per day. Temps easily average in the high 90's and more. The Prime Minister has tried to improve services, yet, shortages of electricity and water continue, and sewage services are lacking. Many simply dump wastes into nearby drainage systems. General crime is pervasive from low level thugs to bombings, everyone wants a better life anyway they can and the Iraqi police can be bought because they seek the better life also!

The rift between the Sunnis and Shiites remains as bad as ever. The Sunni districts within Baghdad have been surrounded by concrete walls (like the Nazis tried to do with the Jews in Warsaw), and there are only one or two gates to get in and out. Why? Meanwhile, the Shiites control 90% of everything from government to most stores for shoppers. The rift is a tinderbox waiting to ignite. It only needs a match. Anbar province borders the city and now mostly controlled by IS, the Islamic State. The IS are Sunni and are trying to rally those Sunnis inside Baghdad by planting small groups within them to incite them. Should Baghdad be a battleground, the Sunni area would be the ignition point.

Corruption is Iraq's mantra. When you go to any government ministry, nothing is done for you unless you pay them, according to reports. An Iraqi passport will cost you $1500. These bribes are not conducted in open but in the men's restroom or toilet stalls according to those previously caught.

So, this is what America got for billions of dollars and thousands of US lives. A democracy that is so fragile, its life or death is always one step away. Iraq is worth saving from itself because the alternative is far worse- a terrorist state.

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