Extract: Iraq news
The Australian
Peter Wilson, Baghdad
Monday, December 19, 2011

The problem is that Iraqi politics are a playground for sectarian and ethnic groups that are virtually free of ideas or ideology. Under the current coalition, ministries are run as sectarian or ethnic fiefdoms allowing each party to share the spoils of power by giving its own supporters top jobs and lucrative contracts. The Defence and Interior ministries, for instance, are dominated by Shia Muslims, the Finance Ministry by Sunnis and the Health Ministry by Kurds. Those stubborn sectarian divisions mean that each community has its special problems.

Sheik Sayeed Hakeem, a senior cleric in Najaf, says the Shia Muslims who make up 60 percent of the population have not yet overcome the economic legacy of their long oppression under Saddam, and have been disappointed by inept development attempts since 2003. "People do have more money now but there is no government vision of what to do with the nation's money. The main elements of building a country for everyone, like electricity, health and industry, have not advanced."

Sheik Ali Sleiman, one of the most senior figures in the country's largest tribe, the Dulemi, says people in Sunni-dominated Anbar province have paid a heavy price under the Americans for the prominent role the Sunnis played in Iraq under Saddam's regime. "They pushed our people into misery by sacking army officers, teachers, professors, anyone who was linked to the Ba'ath Party," he said. "Today, Anbar lives only on police and army salaries."

"Getting rid of Saddam was a good thing," says Firas Naeem, the 37-year-old owner of a clothing store in central Baghdad's busy Karrada Out shopping street. "We are more free and we are open to the world for business. I can bring in jackets from India and coats from Turkey." Business and ordinary life are better now than at the peak of Iraq's sectarian violence in 2008, he says, "but anyone who is honest has to admit that life for ordinary people is still harder now than it was before (the invasion in) 2003. After all this time this shop gets less electricity than it used to under Saddam, only three or four hours a day. That might sound inconvenient to people living in the West but it is worse than that — you should try going without it (electricity) when the temperature reaches 50 degrees in summer and gets freezing cold in winter. We have bad roads, bad drinking water, bad hospitals and nobody trusts anyone in power."

The same complaints came up in interviews over the past week with Shia clerics in central Iraq, housewives in Baghdad and tribal chiefs in the one-time "Triangle of Death" to the west, which is centred on the war-ravaged cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.

Iraqis pay no income tax or sales taxes, and 95 per cent of government revenue comes from oil. Despite Iraq's oil wealth, the country has failed to attract foreign investment in infrastructure or other industries, with foreigners deterred by the lack of clear laws and security problems which mean that more people are still killed, wounded or kidnapped each year in "post-war" Iraq than in Afghanistan.

The streets of Baghdad have been cleared of most of the concrete blast walls that were erected in recent years and most of the city can safely be visited by a cautious Westerner, although the US embassy has been locked down for some time because of fears of kidnap attempts. Western diplomats argue that the shoddy state of Iraq's infrastructure cannot be blamed solely on the pounding that the nation took during the US-led invasion. "Even before the war the whole country was run down by 12 years of UN sanctions and another 12 years of Saddam Hussein's bungling before that," said one senior European diplomat.

Schools and hospitals are dilapidated and the health services have been hit by a special handicap, the flight of doctors terrified by a murder campaign by Al Qaida and other militant groups, and kidnappings by criminals.

There are clear signs of improvement in some aspects of Iraqi life, most notably human rights and freedom of expression and information. The television and newspaper industries are booming, and whereas the possession of a satellite phone meant at least a prison sentence under Saddam the most common billboard on the streets of Baghdad today is one advertising Blackberry portable devices.

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