Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqis inspect the damage at the site of a car bomb blast May 13 outside a cafe in Baghdad's Shiite district of Sadr City. An increase in violence amid the country's political stalemate has many Iraqis fearful and making plans to leave.
Iraqis inspect the damage at the site of a car bomb blast May 13 outside a cafe in Baghdad's Shiite district of Sadr City. An increase in violence amid the country's political stalemate has many Iraqis fearful and making plans to leave. Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Ten weeks after Iraq's inconclusive national elections, the country's political factions are still struggling to form a government, and the view from the street is increasingly gloomy.
With several more weeks of political wrangling predicted and violence on the rise, more Iraqis are looking for refuge until the situation becomes clear.
At Ariha Travel in central Baghdad, travel agent Haider Hamed says that more of his customers are buying tickets for family members heading to Jordan, Syria or even Europe and beyond.
"They put it like this: 'Let's get out now and keep an eye on the situation in the coming months. If things get stabilized, then we can come back — and if not, at least we have a safe place,' " he says.
Iraqis cast their ballots in the March 7 parliamentary elections that observers described as free and fair. A Sunni-backed secular bloc received a two-seat edge in the balloting, leading former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to claim the right to form a government.
Since then, current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has announced a partnership of sorts with another large Shiite bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, potentially putting him within four seats of controlling parliament — and the government.
At times, reaction to these developments seems predictably sectarian. In western Baghdad, Durgham Sabah, a 25-year-old Sunni, says it is obvious what's going on: Allawi won, but the Shiites are blocking him from forming a government.
A secular coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (above) has claimed the right to form a government, based on its showing in the March 7 election. But current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has struck a tentative deal to build a government coalition between his party and another bloc.
A secular coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (above) has claimed the right to form a government, based on its showing in the March 7 election. But current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has struck a tentative deal to build a government coalition between his party and another bloc. Khalid Mohammed/AP
"Why is that? Allawi got the most seats, and the constitution says he should form the government," Sabah says. "If Maliki had won, you can bet the government would have been formed in a hurry. What has Maliki done? Four years and we have no security, no jobs, no water, no electricity."
But as helicopters circle over another corner of the city, 27-year-old Shiite Abu Ali says he is not worried about sectarianism. He was glad to see Maliki's State of Law Party join forces with the Iraqi National Alliance:
"No, it's not sectarian at all, and the process will go on without sectarianism," he says. "The State of Law and the Alliance are two good blocs. They've allied, and people accept that."
But frustration with political stagnation seems to cross all boundaries, regardless of sectarian affiliation.
A little later in the conversation, Ali throws up his hands in disgust with both the leading prime ministerial contenders.
"Look, Maliki is similar to Allawi, and Allawi is similar to Maliki. They might as well be brothers," he says. "That's what I feel — they're both the same. And may God help us."
Hamed says he knows how those frustrated Iraqis feel. He left the country during the worst of the sectarian violence, and would consider leaving again if it weren't for family obligations here.
The sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007 killed tens of thousands of Shiites and Sunnis.
"I lost two brothers during the sectarian bloodshed, now there's no one left to raise their kids. I'm in charge of too many orphans," he says. "There are people now just waiting for their kids to finish school exams. I think we'll see a lot more families leave after that."
As the apprehension on the street mounts, politicians from all factions seem to agree on one thing at least: The serious bargaining to form the next government is only just now beginning.
One of Hamed's competitors at nearby al-Warka Travel, Abu Abdullah, says he wonders if the politicians realize how urgently Iraqis need them to get moving, before the public's badly strained faith in their leaders reaches the breaking point.
When asked if he expects the parties to build a stable and responsive government out of the current confusion, he smiles wryly.
"We hope so," he says. "But do you expect a cool breeze in summer?"