Baghdad's Changing Face Not a Reflection of Reality for Majority of Iraqis

By McDowell, Rick | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, February 28, 2001 | Go to article overview

Baghdad's Changing Face Not a Reflection of Reality for Majority of Iraqis


McDowell, Rick, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Baghdad's Changing Face Not a Reflection of Reality for Majority of Iraqis

Rick McDowell has traveled to Iraq 11 times since August 1996. A member of Chicagobased Voices in the Wilderness, he has accompanied 12 delegations, including a delegation of Nobel Peace Laureates, and last visited Baghdad in November 2000.

The Baghdad Trade Fair, held in early November, had almost a carnival atmosphere, as tens of thousands of starry-eyed Iraqis meandered from exhibit to exhibit viewing 21st century technology. Shattering Iraq's decade-long isolation, some 18,000 foreigners representing 1,600 companies from 45 countries, including France, Germany and Italy, flooded the streets of Baghdad, hoping to gain the inside track on a strategic emerging market.

Baghdad's International Airport has become the destination for dozens of flights bearing such dignitaries as the Venezuelan president, Iranian and Russian foreign ministers and the Jordanian prime minister, all seeking closer diplomatic and economic ties with Iraq. Russia, Jordan and Dubai are planning to resume commercial flights to Baghdad, while, in a direct challenge to the U.S./U.K.-patrolled "no fly zones," domestic flights have resumed to Basra in the south as well as to the northern city of Mosul.

Throughout the Middle East, American foreign policy is collapsing. Washington's partisan role in the Middle East peace process has infuriated the Arab public. As a result, even U.S. allies in the region are beginning to challenge--or ignore--the world's only remaining superpower, further eroding international support for sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussain.

With Iraqi oil production levels at 2.3 million barrels a day, and expected to generate more than $10 billion in the current six-month phase of the "oil for food" program, the international community is knocking at Iraq's door. The president of OPEC has joined France, Russia, China, Venezuela, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Egypt and a chorus of nations in calling for an end to the U.N. embargo. After a 20-year hiatus, Syria has resumed diplomatic relations with Baghdad and reopened an oil pipeline, shut down since 1982, which has begun pumping 150,000 barrels a day--beyond the production levels permitted by the U.N. "oil for food" production levels.

The past months have seen a dramatic change in the face of Baghdad. Shops overflowing with new products--major appliances, TVs and designer clothes--inundate the city's affluent neighborhoods. Newly constructed buildings, sidewalks and fountains adorn their streets, which teem with late-model Mercedes and BMWs.

Asked to explain this new affluence, Saad, who works by day in a bank and as a hotel manager by night, replied that nothing has changed for him, as he still struggles to feed his family. Remittances by expatriates (an estimated 2 to 3 million people), however, are beginning to be received by some of his neighbors, he added. Other Iraqis say that expanding oil sales have led to an increase in the availability of jobs. And the country's porous borders with Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have exponentially expanded the black market--a proven windfall for a growing minority of Iraqis.

The further one travels from the center of Baghdad, however, the less likely one is to encounter people willing to allow themselves to hope, for little has changed for the majority of Iraqi civilians. …

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