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field notes

Aug 23, 2016 | 09:01 GMT

4 mins read

Letter From Iraq: An Unseen Threat in Baghdad

Editor's Note: This Field Note was written by a Stratfor correspondent who, for reasons of personal safety, has asked to remain anonymous. 

Iraq is no stranger to tragedy. It is a country riven by war and terrorism, a place where the threat of bombings and shootings have become part of the fabric of daily life. But there is another, less obvious threat endangering — and angering — Iraqi citizens: a lack of reliable public services.

In the early morning of Aug. 10, a fire broke out in the maternity ward of Yarmouk hospital, one of the largest public hospitals in Baghdad province. The blaze spread quickly, killing at least 12 premature babies. That evening, Iraqi Health Minister Adila Hamoud attributed the incident to an electrical short circuit in the maternity lounge, well before the special committee tasked with investigating the fire had reached a definitive conclusion. (The committee later declared the incident the result of arson, which, if accurate, hints at inadequate security measures.) Hamoud then announced her resignation, shouldering responsibility for the safety failure. 

As I watched her televised address, I was reminded of the state the same hospital had been in when I worked there as a local interpreter for a U.S. military unit in 2003. The unit's mission was to protect the building while it trained the first Iraqi security group, known as the Facilities Protection Service, to guard the hospital in the U.S. troops' stead. But the captain and his soldiers cared about more than security; I often translated his meetings with the hospital's chief on the dearth of basic services, including electricity. (These talks were some of the best practice in translating I've ever had because they required me to interpret and relay the sensitivity and emotion that inevitably surround humanitarian problems.)

I remember that, at the time, the hospital experienced frequent blackouts because of the conflict raging outside its doors. The electric cable feeding into the building was fixed many times, yet the outages continued, in large part because of persistent vandalism by saboteurs and insurgents. U.S. and international aid groups sent supplies when they could, and the U.S. military unit tried to help, but to no avail.

Months later, the unit withdrew from the hospital. Then, several years after that, the rest of the U.S. military followed. Many Iraqi governments rose and took charge of the country, but little changed. Iraqi citizens continued to live without dependable basic public services, including a stable electric grid, garbage removal, and safe and sufficient water. Quality of life, already poor because of the insecurity sweeping the country, was made even poorer.

Now, 13 years later, things are getting worse. Baghdad is one of the hottest cities in the world. In 2015, temperatures there topped 49 C (120 F). But electricity remains spotty at best, and hourslong blackouts are still a regular occurrence. Despite the billions of dollars that reportedly have been spent to fix Iraq's electric grid, many citizens are forced to rely on neighborhood generators (or their own) amid the summer heat. Moreover, several friends and relatives have told me that when something goes wrong — whether broken plumbing or a power outage — they often have to fix it themselves. Help from municipal authorities rarely comes.

Frustration is building among the Iraqi people. In 2015, widespread blackouts triggered the first protests against corruption in Baghdad and the country's southern provinces. The government's promises to make substantive moves toward reform went unfulfilled, and public discontent has continued to rise. Though security threats can slow operations to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure (as Iraqi officials have pointed out), they do not stop the construction entirely. But corruption can, and fighting it within the government poses as big a challenge to Iraq as terrorism does.

That a minister tendered her resignation in the wake of the recent hospital fire is unprecedented and could signal the government's awareness that Iraqis are increasingly demanding that officials be held accountable for lapses in public safety. Whether sackings will be enough to instigate real change, however, remains to be seen.

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