Ali Allawi: A nation in turmoil, lives under siege

School runs beset by danger; home life blighted by power cuts; the daily ordeal of finding fresh water. In the final extract from his new book on Iraq since the invasion, Ali Allawi charts the struggle for normality
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By the autumn of 2004, 18 months after the fall of the Ba'athist regime, and as Iraqis were preparing for the elections, the verities that underpinned Iraq's society and the relationships between its peoples had been violently upended.

Every basic tenet of society had been disrupted in ways that would have a profound effect on the electoral outcome. For the first time, the most fundamental questions about who and what an Iraqi was were being seriously asked, against a backdrop of escalating violence and resistance. The undoubted new liberties and freedoms that the overthrow of the Ba'ath brought had to be set against the accelerating disintegration in the most elemental relationships that are the mainstay of any stable society. Identities that had been smothered, suppressed, or simply overlooked bubbled to the surface. To be secular or religious, a Kurd, Arab, Turcoman, Shia or Sunni could literally determine whether you were to live or die, or whether you felt safe or had to flee your neighbourhood or town.

Restrictions on personal freedoms were swept away, but this was not much use if a simple travel request to one of the coalition partner countries was to be routinely rejected. Iraqis were now free, but apparently not good enough to be allowed into these countries. "Iraqis could travel anywhere as long as it was to Jordan!" as the refrain went. Newspapers could write what they wanted, and they did, including outright lies, slander and calumnies, and rumour-mongering. The millions of Iraqi exiles from the Saddam era were now joined by hundreds of thousands fleeing the violence, or who simply could not abide life in the new order. It now seemed that the Ba'ath Party was not simply a small coterie that sat upon a repressive system of control. It had hundreds of thousands of adherents, sympathisers, fellow-travellers and beneficiaries of its largesse. A repressive and corrupt government was replaced by an equally chaotic, if not more corrupt, administration.

The lot of the average citizen when dealing with officialdom was still subject to the whims and bigotries of the bureaucrat. But access was far more daunting. Ministries had huge throngs milling outside, often in ferocious heat or engulfed in dust clouds, while people awaited their turn to be individually screened. What used to take hours to achieve now took days, if not weeks. And this in a climate of anxiety and stress, as a suicide bomber might mingle in the crowds, or a car packed with explosives might detonate while waiting in line in front of one governmental department or another. Everywhere, there was cynicism mixed with disgust at the litany of broken promises made by the government. The abysmal level of services during the Saddam era began to look positively rosy in light of the appalling shortfalls in electricity, water, sanitation and policing services. The overthrow of the dictatorship was decidedly a mixed blessing. Ultimately, it depended on who you were.

It was the unrelenting violence that most affected the daily lives of urban dwellers. The killings were not all insurgency-related. In the early days after the war, the violence was directed mainly against former regime operatives and those suspected of being informants or accomplices. But the tempo and scale of the violence changed with the rise of the insurgency. As it gained traction, assassinations and kidnappings began to affect the normal lives of citizens, and added to the increasingly unsettled and anxious world in which most people existed. The security forces, especially the police, were relentlessly and deliberately targeted - to drive home the point that anyone working with or for the coalition was treasonous. Government employees became routine assassination targets, and as the terror became more indiscriminate, all classes of workers for the government or the coalition became fodder for the terrorists' bullets and bombs. Simple labourers, kitchen workers, factory hands, garbage collectors and teachers were mown down in a horrible campaign to frighten and intimidate often desperate people to abandon thought of government work. Later, workers in Iraq's small business sector would also feature in the terrorists' campaigns. Bakery workers and even barbers were routinely killed en masse. The latter were targeted supposedly because the Wahhabist wing of the insurgency took exception to trimmed beards and fashionable haircuts, considering them to be an affront to their religious scruples. Kidnappings of civilians, for ransom as well as for terror-inducing purposes, surged in 2004. Bankers, businessmen and even would-be parliamentarians were kidnapped and released only after the payment of large ransoms.

Most Iraqis had neither the means nor the desire to change their daily routines, but they did worry about their children. The school run became fraught as parents fretted over whether their children would be caught up in the latest bombing or some similar outrage. The lives of the mass of people began to diverge greatly from those of senior officials. The latter could at least protect themselves with bodyguards, armoured vehicles, special phones and alarm devices, when they were moving about. The armoured-vehicle business boomed, as Iraq became the leading market for specially protected cars and vans. The first set of armoured vehicles was provided by the Coalition Provisional Authority for a few political leaders, but later most ministers, deputy ministers and officials in sensitive or dangerous jobs would be issued with their own armoured cars, courtesy of the cabinet office.

The daily routine of travel to and from the place of work had to be changed constantly, to avoid a pattern that would be detected by terrorists and insurgents. The suicide bomber who killed the Governing Council President, Izzedin Salim, had tracked his movement to and from the Green Zone. His journey had become predictable and thus an easy target for the killers. But all the protection in the world still could not stop repeated attempts at the lives of senior officials. In one notorious area, the Tahrir Square roundabout and tunnel complex, convoys carrying ministers and senior officials would periodically become the targets of suicide bombers or rooftop ambushes. The stress of being on constant watch against terrorist attacks ate at the composure of bodyguards and drivers in convoys. They would routinely fire salvoes into the air to open a pathway for their convoys during Baghdad's notorious traffic jams, or drive at breakneck speed down the wrong lane of a highway. (Doing a "wrong" was bodyguard slang for driving down the wrong or opposite lane in a divided highway.) The antics of ministerial convoys, which frequently ended in pile-ups and fatalities, became a deeply resented facet of Baghdad life, and drew the anger of commuters, ordinary drivers and passers-by. Short journeys became a complex logistical nightmare, especially if road blocks had been thrown up by trigger-happy American troops or Iraqi government security forces. Many people would meet an untimely end because they failed to see the signal to stop from a coalition soldier who, fearing suicide bombers, would open up against the oncoming vehicle.

The effect of the violence was compounded by the irregular supply of the basic elements for the functioning of an urbanised society: fuel, water and power. The supplies of these three essential services were interrelated. The absence of regular fuel supplies affected the workings of power plants and the flow of electricity, which in turn affected the operation of the water and sewerage treatment plants. By the end of 2004, the electricity supply in Baghdad was being cut to a four hours per 24-hour cycle. Generators proliferated, but these had to be fed with regular diesel supplies, which were scarce. Neighbourhoods often banded together to buy a large generator for a number of households. More common, however, was the rise of the generator entrepreneur, who would ensure the flow of expensive power at regular intervals to a number of households. These entrepreneurs would often own and operate the generators, which had sometimes been "liberated" stock from government installations and depots during the chaos of the post-war days. Nobody would seriously challenge the generator entrepreneur's claim to these assets. This was not quite what the Green Zone economic planners had in mind when talking about "encouraging private entrepreneurship". Their performance, ruthlessness and purported greed became the stuff of urban legend. Petrol ran short to the point where filling a car with the government-supplied and subsidised product might easily take 14 to 16 hours of waiting in line in front of the state-owned petrol stations. Senior officials, of course, had their own sources of gasoline and diesel, which were provided, regularly and abundantly, at special pumps inside the Green Zone. Water flows into people's homes were sporadic, and when the water did come, it was often at such low pressure that it would take hours to fill the water cisterns. The hardships of daily life, especially for the middle classes, became ever more acute and a constant source of griping. It was the plight of the middle classes that captured the headlines and the attention of the world's media. The poor, of course, especially the denizens of Sadr City and other neglected neighbourhoods, had never had many of services in the days of the Ba'ath regime. They were therefore used to communal taps and electricity supplied through theft from the public grid in "chattals" - cables illegally connected to the main power lines and drawing unmetered electricity into people's homes. The Ministry of Electricity estimated that up to half the power distributed by the transmission system in urban areas was stolen. Not many people bothered to pay their electricity bills, which in any case were next to nothing and part of the absurd subsidies system inherited from the former regime.

One of the main concerns of the poor was the availability of cooking gas. Iraqis were used to using LPG cylinders for their cooking needs, as no national grid for natural gas distribution had ever been developed. The LPG came mainly from Iraq's refineries, and as these sputtered to meet the increasing demand for petroleum products, an acute shortage of cooking gas developed. There was a proliferation of adulterated gas, with frequent gas explosions reported on a regular basis. The gas distributor going around Baghdad's neighbourhoods in his donkey cart, loaded with rusting and battered gas cylinders, was a common sight. The government tried to regulate the supply of subsidised gas by a ration system that called on the users to take their coupons to depots where the gas would be dispensed. The depots were located with the authorised food distributors of the Public Distribution System (PDS), Iraq's omniscient system of providing subsidised food and other essential items.

It was the operations of the PDS that most impacted on the lives of the poor, with its inefficiencies and waste. Arcane Green Zone discussions about replacing the PDS with more economically efficient mechanisms were abandoned for fear that this would lead to public disturbances. The PDS was not only politically popular but a lifeline for the poor, who were not prepared to gamble on losing the certainty of supplies from the PDS today for the promise of a better deal tomorrow. Trade ministers would spend their time publicly decrying any intention of changing the terms of the PDS, while privately insisting that the system had to be reformed. Nothing much happened, therefore, and the corruption, graft and theft that were embedded in the system continued with no serious let-up.

From time to time, shortages of basic commodities would occur as the purchasing, transport or distribution mechanism broke down. In some cases, shortages were artificially created as senior trade officials blocked purchases of basic commodities, mainly because sufficient commissions had not been paid. For example, no wheat was purchased for months on end in early 2005, which created a serious risk that the PDS would not be able to meet the flour quota for the ration card. As the crisis loomed, teams of buyers were hurriedly assembled by the government to make huge flour purchases from nearby countries, at prices that reflected the "emergency". Millions of dollars of commissions were raked off by unscrupulous officials and politicians, because of a previous decision to halt normal wheat purchases. The PDS became a regular target of media ridicule.

This is an extract from Ali Allawi's The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, published by Yale University Press (£18.99). To order a copy for the special price of £16.99 (including p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit