Eight Years of Occupation In Iraq, Eight Years of Misery

Eight Years of Occupation In Iraq, Eight Years of Misery

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BAGHDAD, Iraq - Demonstrations broke out in other countries of the Middle East and North Africa only recently, but people in Baghdad, Basra and Kirkuk had been taking to the streets for years. And as
Iraqis mark the eighth anniversary of the March 20 U.S. invasion, it is likely those protests will only increase. Iraqis charge that they have lived in misery since the occupation began.

"There has basically been no change in the unemployment situation since the occupation started," charges Qasim Hadi, president of the Union of Unemployed of Iraq (UUI). "There are more than 10 million unemployed people in Iraq -- about 60 to 70% of the workforce. There's no electricity most of the time, and no drinking water -- no services at all." Eight years after the start of the U.S. military intervention, "there's hardly even any repair of the war damage -- there's still rubble in the streets. People are going hungry."

According to the UUI, government unemployment statistics are artificially low because they don't count many people. For instance, "women aren't counted," Hadi says, citing just one example, "because the government says their husbands or fathers are responsible for supporting them."

Hadi was one of Baghdad's first protestors, leading marches of unemployed workers to the gates of the Green Zone, where U.S. occupation chief Paul Bremer had his offices. On July 25, following the May 2003 invasion, Hadi was arrested by U.S. troops for protesting. For the next six years, he led one protest after another, making the Union of the Unemployed a thorn in the side first of the U.S. occupation administration, and then of the Iraqi regimes that followed.

Some government representatives tried to stop the union's growth with bribes. "They said they'd give us a position in the Labor Ministry, and make us responsible for unemployed people," Hadi says. Those attempts were unsuccessful because, he explains, "we belong to the union because we want civil rights, not for ourselves, but for all people."

When bribes didn't work, threats followed. "A representative of the Dawa Party (the party of Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki) told us to leave the union," Hadi recalls. "If we didn't, he said we'd be enemies of the people of Iraq. We know what this language means. They will kidnap you. They'll make holes in your body with a drill. They will kill you slowly, with lots of pain."

Hadi wasn't exaggerating. During the years of the U.S. occupation, many union organizers have been murdered; some, like Hadi Saleh, brutally tortured first. "People who get threatened like this change the place where they sleep many times," he says. "Sometimes they go live in another city. I don't care what they do to me. I have a dream I'mfighting for. But when they threatened to kidnap my wife and children I couldn't stay." A year ago, Hadi left Iraq.

He describes enormous economic pressure on families. "Prices are very high, and millions of people have no income at all," he elaborates. "Even for those who have a job, wages are so low you see people on the streets selling all their furniture. If they get a sugar ration, they sell it instead. People stop drinking tea because they have to spend all their money just on the food they need to stay alive. It surprises me how people can survive."

The Iraqi government only counts 2 million unemployed, and pays unemployment benefits to a quarter of them. Benefits are low, about $110 a month, and if there's more than one unemployed person in the family, they reduce the benefit. But the worst problem, the UUI says, is that you have to register with the governing political party at the same time you register for benefits. "If you oppose the governing party, you can't register," Hadi says, noting: "Benefits are given out as political bribes."

Unemployment, hunger and corruption were the fuel that fed the rising wave of protests that culminated in Iraq's Day of Rage at the end of last month.

At the beginning of the month, rallies in the Al-Kuray'at and Al-Mutanabbi Street neighborhoods featured banners saying "The Baghdad Municipality is wasting billions and the capital is sleeping in trash." Other banners had warnings for the government: "O inhabitants of the Green Zone -- think about the others," and, "Remember the fate of Arab dictatorship regimes and how their people revolted."

As the month wore on, the government passed an $82 billion budget, financed almost entirely from oil revenue. Endemic corruption, however, practically guarantees that little of that will reach the country's hungry and unemployed populace. The growing anti-government tone of the demonstrations was displayed in one large banner at a Tahrir Square rally that read, "The oil of the people is for the people, not for the thieves."

Finally, unions, left wing political parties and other organizations of Iraqi civil society announced a national mobilization day for February 25, the Day of Rage. The Maliki government attempted to keep turnout low by arresting leaders of organizations calling for the protest. Offices of left wing political parties were closed, as union offices for oil and electricity workers had been last year.

Nevertheless, Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, reported that almost 70,000 people participated in the day's protest rallies. One demonstration in Samarra was the first tribal protest organized by women, in part because widows now make up a majority of the city's female population. "The army shot the demonstrators in the evening," Mohammed says, "attempting to disperse them. Seven were killed in Samarra, and 15 were wounded." According
to the Iraqi Society for the Defense of Press Freedoms, 14 people were killed in Hawija, Mosul, Tikrit and Basra.

If only several hundred people were brave enough to demonstrate in Baghdad's Tahrir Square on March 4, a week later, the reason was obvious. But it is not likely that shooting demonstrators and a massive show of force will end the protests sweeping Iraq. Instead, the state's violence has pushed protestors into moving beyond calls for better conditions to demands that the government itself resign.

"The government says we're Baathists or Al Qaeda," says Qasim Hadi. "That's their main tactic -- try to scare people, to say we're going back to 2003. But it's a lie. They know the people don't want them."