First day of summer in Iraq signals hot, violent months ahead
On the first day of summer the temperature has already reached 120 degrees F. in Iraq, with the hottest days yet to come. Faltering electricity, on top of violence and a political vacuum, has plunged many into deeper despair.
The morning after a double suicide bombing of Iraq’s Trade Bank, employees working around collapsed ceilings and bent beams to pack up computer equipment and files say they are a day away from reopening the institution central to Iraq’s reconstruction efforts.
Resilience is a way of life here. But between the attacks, faltering electricity which has sparked deadly protests, and the lack of a new government almost four months after national elections, Iraqis are dreading a long, hot, difficult summer ahead.
Iraqi security forces in Basra over the weekend opened fire on protesters demanding the resignation of the electricity minister, killing one protester and wounding two others. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for emergency measures to increase electricity to the port city, where temperatures are already 120 degrees F., to nine hours a day. In the southern city of Nasiriyah on Monday, protesters enraged over the power cuts threw stones at provincial council buildings, wounding 17 police officers and demonstrators.
In central Baghdad, outside the bank where two suicide car bombers struck on Sunday, the tangled blackened frames of parked vehicles were draped with yellow crime scene tape, indicating where some of the 26 victims were killed. Three of them were bank guards but most were passersby, conducting business at the beginning of the busy work week.
Parts of the suicide vehicles were flung onto the roof of the three-story bank. It was the second attack in a week on an Iraqi financial institution. An insurgent umbrella group that includes Al Qaeda in Iraq took credit for the June 13 suicide attack on Iraq’s Central Bank that killed 15 and injured dozens more.
Mohammad Shaker, the Trade Bank’s deputy general manager, says several of the departments, including the money-laundering investigation unit, had been damaged but none of the files lost.
“Tomorrow we will resume working with the Iraqi government and we will have the ability for full recovery in one week,” Mr. Shaker says as he supervises moving the bank’s letters of credit and guarantee operations to a nearby building.
The Trade Bank, owned by the Finance Ministry, was set up by US occupation authorities in 2003 to provide banking services for business and reconstruction. The Finance Ministry has been one of the main targets of 10 months of devastating attacks aimed at destabilizing the Iraqi government.
In what had become an open-air lobby, piles of shattered glass lay in layers on the ground like snow. The guard trailer outside looked as if a hurricane had whipped through, tossing furniture and bending the steel beams. A calendar featuring a smiling baby clung to the walls.
At the bank, the casualties were guards stationed outside when the suicide bombers drove up to the metal barricade and detonated more than 80 pounds of explosives three minutes apart. Of 16 guards, three were killed and nine wounded, one very seriously.
“Just after the explosion one of the [relatives] of the men who were killed called me asking me to give him the day off because his wife was giving birth,” says supervisor Ali Jaber, who was thrown into the air and knocked out by the explosion. “I just hung up – I couldn’t say a word,” he says. The guard, Wissam Abdullah, was recently married.
“They are all from poor backgrounds – if they didn’t have to, they wouldn’t do this job,” he says. The guards make about $400 a month.
Without a stable government, Iraqis feel vulnerable to more attacks this summer.
“I believe we can expect the worst because the situation is still critical in Iraq, particularly the political situation,” says Shaker. “If we had a government there [it] would [make] a lot of difference – anyone who wanted to try to attack or do something to us would think twice.”
The March 7 elections were seen as the best hope for a more broad-based government than the current one in which Sunni Arab Iraqis felt widely excluded. But more than three months after the poll took place, as US forces continue to draw down tens of thousands of troops, political leaders are still wrangling over who will be prime minister and have made little progress in forming a government.
'This is worse than Saddam'
The political vacuum and the violence have been hugely unsettling to Iraqis. With the onset of summer, where temperatures hover close to 150 degrees F., the prospect of continued electricity cuts has plunged many into deeper despair.
“This is worse than Saddam. At least with Saddam we had electricity every two hours,” says Jaber, who says he has been sleeping on the floor in the Trade Bank office for the past 25 days because of the electricity cuts in their neighborhood.
“It’s like Christmas lights – it goes on and off.” When the electricity comes on, the water cuts out, he says. His wife and two children – aged 6 and 2 years old – have it the worst.
“When you see your child being tormented by the heat and you can’t do anything but fan them it’s like a fire eating you up inside,” he says. “We’ve decided not to have any more children to save them this torment.”