Across Baghdad, a moment of respite and guarded hope

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A chickpeas vendor serves customers in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, Iraq. (File/AP/Khalid Mohammed)
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Shops and restaurants are open late at night in Baghdad, Iraq. (File/AP/Khalid Mohammed)
Updated 11 March 2019

Across Baghdad, a moment of respite and guarded hope

  • For the first time in 15 years there is no major war or insurgency in Iraq
  • Car bomb explosions that became the norm after the US-led invasion in 2003, making the Iraqi capital’s name synonymous with war, have ceased

BAGHDAD: Baghdad’s main commercial district has seen more bombings than its residents can count. Death visited almost daily during times of war — most horrifically, a 2015 suicide bombing that ripped through two shopping malls, killing over 300 people.
But over the past year or so, the residents of Karrada have felt more normal than they have in decades. Streets lined with food stalls are crowded with shoppers, coffee shops and restaurants are packed until late, and the grey cement blast walls that protected against bombings are being removed.
“I used to go to school and come back home, nothing more,” said Rusul Mohsen, a 33-year-old middle school teacher, seated recently at a store front sipping coffee. “If I went to a restaurant, I would ask to sit in a corner the farthest away from any windows, fearing a car bomb explosion might shatter the glass.”
For the first time in 15 years there is no major war or insurgency in Iraq, and the defeat of the Daesh group in late 2017 after a ruinous four-year war has given the population a moment of respite. Despite the enormous challenges ahead, there is a guarded sense of hope across the capital.
Car bomb explosions that became the norm after the US-led invasion in 2003, making the Iraqi capital’s name synonymous with war, have ceased — at least for now. Thousands of concrete barriers that snaked through the city as protection from suicide car bombers have been towed away in trucks, easing traffic.
Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool said thousands of barriers have been towed away to a plot of land on the outskirts of the city, saying they may be used in the future around Baghdad to protect against infiltration.
Parts of the heavily fortified Green Zone on the west bank of the Tigris River have reopened to the public, including public access to the landmark “Victory Arch” — a 40-meter (131-feet) tall arch of two swords held by bronze casts of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s hands to commemorate the Iran-Iraq war.
The US established the Green Zone in 2003 to secure its embassy and Iraqi government institutions. But the zone became a symbol of the country’s inequality, fueling the perception among Iraqis that their government is out of touch.
On the other side of the river, Baghdad’s famous Rasheed Street, the capital’s oldest street and cultural center known for its crumbling, old Iraqi houses, has also reopened for cars and pedestrians after a 15-year closure due to security risks.
A new Central Bank headquarters, a towering waterfront building on the banks of the Tigris designed by the late Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid, is currently under construction, expected to be completed next year.
“Baghdad feels better than it has since 2003,” remarked a veteran Western diplomat in Baghdad.
Even so, the country faces massive challenges.
The Daesh group, which is about to lose its last shred of territory in neighboring Syria, is creeping back in Iraq, stepping up insurgent-style attacks in areas outside Baghdad and the country’s north. Tens of thousands of people remain displaced and much of the country is in ruins. The country is plagued by corruption, and in the oil-rich but parched south, violent riots have repeatedly broken out against living conditions.
Baghdad, an ancient metropolis of 8 million people that was once the Arab world’s cultural center, is barely functional, its infrastructure crumbling. Armed militias who fought Daesh alongside the Iraqi armed forces roam the streets in what many see as the country’s latest menace, amid reports of kidnappings for ransom and general lawlessness. Unemployment, poverty and disenfranchised youth are widespread.
“There is a big gap between people’s aspirations and the government ability to deliver,” the Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity so he could speak freely.
Still, many hope that after years of bloodshed, Iraq is starting to turn a corner.
In Karrada, the Hadi Center where a 2015 suicide bombing trapped people in a burning inferno for hours, killing around 300 people, is full of shoppers and youngsters fill the food court. The adjacent Laith Center had to be razed and rebuilt from scratch. It’s now almost completed.
Assem Gharib, owner of a pastries and ice cream shop, said for years he used to pay someone to supervise the street outside his shop and keep cars from parking in front.
“I used to be frightened whenever a car approached, imagining it to be a suicide bomber or a car bomb. Now it’s the opposite, we are happy when a car parks in front of the shop,” he said.
That kind of confidence eluded most Iraqis for the past 15 years. The country has been at war, one way or another, for more than a generation, starting with the eight-year Iraq-Iran war that ended in 1988, followed by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent military intervention by the United States.
The worst bloodletting came with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which triggered an Al-Qaeda driven insurgency and sectarian violence that washed over the country, killing tens of thousands of Iraqis. Bombings reached up to 10 a day.
The violence culminated with the Daesh group, an Al-Qaeda offshoot, seizing Iraqi cities and declaring a self-styled Islamic caliphate over large parts of Iraq and Syria. That triggered a displacement crisis unprecedented in Iraq’s history. Millions fled their homes in the face of the militants’ rapid advance. Others fled as Iraqi forces, backed by the US and Iran, battled back, ultimately reclaiming the last town in late 2017.
Few dare to hope the current lull in fighting will last and many worry fear the growing power of the Shiite militias, known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
Bashar Ali, a 33-year-old shop owner on Karrada street, said he fears the return of Daesh fighters from Syria and the lawlessness outside the city, including kidnappings and killings.
“Baghdad is like my home, I feel safe in my own home, but when I go outside I don’t feel this way,” he said.


Turkey picks up the pieces after devastating quake

Updated 31 October 2020

Turkey picks up the pieces after devastating quake

  • Although the local residents are used to living with frequent tremors, the 7.0 magnitude quake on Friday evening was the biggest they had experienced

ANKARA: Canan Gullu was having coffee with her friends on her balcony when the quake struck. The head of the Ankara-based Women Associations of Turkey, she had decided to spend the weekend in her summer house in the coastal town of Seferihisar after sleepless nights spent helping victims of domestic violence in the capital.

The teacups fell on the ground, and they hid under a table until they feel safer.

“I felt the building shaking, then the house began moving toward the house next door. It was as if the ground was moving back and forth under our feet. We could barely stand,” Gullu told Arab News.

It was followed by a mini-tsunami that hit the district where she was living.

“I am now focusing on providing essential goods for the women living on the streets or whose buildings collapsed. It is the other face of poverty in Turkey,” Gullu said.

The powerful quake that hit Turkey’s western province of Izmir on Oct. 30 revealed the weak infrastructure of the country’s building stock. Although the local residents are used to living with frequent tremors, the 7.0 magnitude quake on Friday evening was the biggest they had experienced; it was as powerful as the 1999 earthquake near Istanbul when more than 17,000 people died.

The search and rescue operations continued on Saturday, with touching footages showing a mother and her three children as well as a cat and a dog being rescued 18 hours after being trapped under the debris of their building.

Turkish survivors continue to stay outside in the tents provided by the municipality for fear of aftershocks. Some hotel and restaurant owners offered free rooms and free dinners to the traumatized people.

To prevent traffic blocking rescue efforts, the authorities have banned vehicles entering the city center.

Friday’s quake killed more than 30 people in Turkey and the neighbouring Greek islands, although that figure was expected to rise. Almost 900 people were injured, with 243 under treatment and eight in intensive care, officials said.

Despite their diplomatic row over energy drilling operations in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean, Turkish and Greek officials exchanged solidarity messages on Twitter.

“Whatever our differences, these are times when our people need to stand together,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted.

Many people were still waiting for news of relatives trapped under the debris.

Izmir is crossed by 17 different fault lines and has been prone to frequent tremors in the past. The quake resilience of the buildings in the city and unplanned urbanization have come under the spotlight, sparking criticism of the authorities.

The Turkish government issued a controversial zoning amnesty ahead of the general elections of 2018, resulting in 10 million illegally constructed buildings throughout the country.

These were eligible for legitimate deeds, with disastrous consequences during the quakes. Izmir tops the list for the number of illegal buildings that were “forgiven” by a government move to garner more votes.

Several buildings that benefited from that amnesty have collapsed over the years, killing dozens of people. Estimates say that one-fifth of the buildings in Istanbul could be completely destroyed in a quake with a magnitude of 7 or above.

In a past interview, Turkey’s famous contractor Ali Agaoglu, who was proud of selling massive residences to Arab clients, confessed that his company used sand from the Marmara Sea during their construction work. “If there is an earthquake in Istanbul, (the number of the dead and collapsed buildings will be so high that) the army won’t even be able to enter the city,” he said.

Turkey’s earthquake tax was also the subject of intense debate earlier this year with the quakes in eastern provinces of Elazig and Malatya, after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “We spent it where it was meant to be spent. And after this, we do not have time to provide accountability for matters like this.”

Special taxes were levied in Turkey after the 1999 earthquake and were later made permanent. However, there is widespread skepticism about whether these taxes were spent on quake resilience or whether they only helped the state budget at that time.