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Iraq's political crisis disheartens the middle class

Many Iraqis who were enjoying normal life again are preparing to hunker down in the face of uncertainty. Some are finally giving up on the country.

May 19, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Baghdad —

When American tanks tore through her neighborhood, ripping up the roads as they uprooted a nation, she stayed put, refusing to move abroad like many of her wealthy friends.

When the black-clad gunmen took over her religiously mixed west Baghdad neighborhood, turning it into a killing field, she wouldn't let them drive her out of the country she loved.

And even when they killed her husband, gunning him down as he left work, she fought through her grief, staying in Iraq and hoping for better times.

But as a postelection political deadlock threatens to pull Iraq back into violence and uncertainty, Ibtisam Hamoody has had it. Within months, the 56-year-old former engineer and women's rights activist plans to take her savings, her family heirlooms and the youngest of her three daughters and settle in Jordan or Syria.

"I know what's going on. It's not possible for there to be a good outcome," she said. "This time, I know it's going to be worse than before."

Over the last 30 months of relative security and economic progress, Iraq's middle class and intelligentsia had emerged from the shadows of war and exile, strutting around town without head scarves or cruising through gleaming new shopping districts.

But now, as they watch the camp of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, whose allies control the nation's security apparatus, jostle with that of Iyad Allawi, backed by some of the same Sunni Arabs who support the insurgency, they are preparing to dash back into hiding.

Already, the crisis has changed the character of a country that was bristling with hope just a few months ago, not least, Iraqis say, because the imminent drawdown of U.S. troops might create a vacuum that will leave the political drama festering for years.

Years of immense suffering have also conditioned Iraqis to brace for the worst, if only to protect themselves from disappointment.

"We all hope that things will not go back to what we were facing before," Wahid Thani, 43, an engineer at the Housing Ministry, said as he spent an afternoon at a friend's snack shop. "But the indications we are witnessing suggest that we will face a bad situation again.

"We are pessimistic because of the things we are seeing. The disputes are like infinity, and can never be solved."

Before the crisis, as middle-class families crowded newly refurbished parks with their children and some young women walked alone through the streets, many dared to dream of a day when Iraq would be safe and prosperous, like its richer neighbors to the south and north. But each breach of security chisels away at that progress, revealing the fragility of the gains achieved since late 2007, when the violence began to subside.

Violence has begun to rise again. The number of civilians killed in Iraq jumped 50% from March to April, according to government statistics. On May 10, nearly 100 people died in a day of bombings and shootings that was the worst in Iraq since last year.

A perplexing string of assassinations of Sunni Arab clerics has led officials to wonder whether Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents or Shiite militants might be involved. One was beheaded Monday at his mosque.

And on Wednesday night, a car bomb killed six people and wounded at least 10 at a restaurant in the town of Musayyib, south of Baghdad.

Whether Iraq slides back into the despair or manages to limp forward, the gloom threatens to undermine what little faith Iraqis had in the country's future, say dozens of Iraqis across the country.

"We made sacrifices," said Hassan Raheem Rahoun, 40, a hairstylist who moved back to Iraq from Libya two years ago and is considering leaving again. "We put our lives on the line when we went to the polls and voted for the most appropriate person. It didn't work.

"We gambled in a game and none of us will win, except those sitting in the Green Zone," Baghdad's fortress-like administrative center that houses much of Iraq's squabbling political class.

The political elite are well aware of the middle-class backlash and some have begun to agitate for the politicians to move forward on forming a government.

"Their responsibility ended on the 7th of March," election day, Leila Khafaji, a former lawmaker and member of the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, said of the country's educated and middle class. "They are very responsible and very intelligent to go and do what they have to do, but they didn't see the fruit."

Every Wednesday, the party's leader, Ammar Hakim, meets with middle-class constituents in an effort to gauge their opinions and assuage their fears, Khafaji said. But the crisis has begun to change people's economic calculations for the future.

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