A Look At Life In Iraq, Beyond Baghdad

When we hear about life in Iraq these days, often, we hear only the perspective from Baghdad. For a look at what life is like for Iraqis outside the capital, NPR's Melissa Block talks to Zaid Al-Ali, a former legal adviser in Iraq for the United Nations.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

When we hear about life in Iraq these days, we tend to hear the perspective from Baghdad. At this moment of transition, we were curious about what life is like for Iraqis outside the capital: in the Shiite south, the Sunni center of country and the Kurdish north. And we're going to get some sense of that now from Zaid Al-Ali. He's a former legal adviser in Iraq for the United Nations, and he joins us now from London. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ZAID AL-ALI (Former Legal Adviser in Iraq, United Nations): Thanks very much.

BLOCK: You spent time traveling all over Iraq, and I'd like to start with you in the south of the country, the largely Shiite south, an area with huge oil reserves. What are conditions and security like there, for example, in the port city of Basra?

Mr. AL-ALI: Well, I mean, today, the conditions are very poor throughout Iraq, the south included. But comparably, if you're comparing it to, for example, 2007 or 2006, they've improved somewhat, especially from a security point of view. You can, you know, go from one place to the other without being certain that you'll be killed on the way or kidnapped. However, regularly, there's demonstrations and riots over poor quality of public services, particularly electricity and the state of hygiene.

Basra used to be called the Venice of the south because it's a city that's made up of a large network of canals, and those are now filled with garbage, completely chock-o-block. It's really amazing. You have this sense of a very poor country despite all the wealth of natural resources.

BLOCK: Right, so the people in the south aren't reaping the rewards of those oil riches that we mentioned?

Mr. AL-ALI: No, they aren't. And that's really the amazing thing is we often hear that Iraq's ruling elite is sectarian in the sense that the Shia only care about the Shia and the Sunnis only care about the Sunnis. Well, it turns out that that's not even true. If that were true, then there would be improvement on the current situation because in fact they don't render any services to anyone.

BLOCK: Let's move up to those Sunni areas in the center of the country, areas that were the heart of the Sunni insurgency, al-Qaida strongholds. And we do hear now about al-Qaida making a resurgence in that part of that country.

Mr. AL-ALI: Yeah, I mean, I haven't seen anything like that with my own eyes. I mean, I was in Tikrit just a few weeks ago. And I was there for a few weeks, and there was only one explosion during that period. So I mean, yes, I've been reading about that, but you don't really have a sense of that everywhere.

What you do feel is that people are very frustrated by the lack of progress in Iraq. And, you know, conditions are very, very poor and the environment is in a terrible state. There are dust storms, you know, throughout most of the week. Whereas previously, they used to take place perhaps once or twice a year. The economy grinds to a halt during those dust storms, and it keeps getting worse.

And then when you - when those dust storms occur, the first thing that, you know, happens is that the hospitals fill up with asthmatics. People have breathing difficulties. People are really in a state of despair. And droughts in the agricultural areas in the north and in the south as well. And the south in fact, it's worse. You know, you go to areas that used to be lush agricultural areas, and now, they're bone-dry. And they're contributing to desertification and to the dust storms.

BLOCK: Are those dust storms that you're talking about made worse by something the government is or isn't doing?

Mr. AL-ALI: So far, I haven't seen - and I have looked very carefully - any scientific studies into the causes of these dust storms. I haven't seen them in English, and I haven't seen them in Arabic, but people have raised theories as to what's causing the dust storms. And, you know, everyone seems to agree that the causes are linked to construction of a very large amount of upstream dams in Syria and in Turkey and in Iran, a failure by the Iraqi government to do anything about it. They hardly raise any types of objection.

The agricultural sector in Iraq has practically disintegrated. So whereas previously, there was a lot of support from the government, there's no electricity for farmers to use in order to pull out water from the rivers to irrigate their farms. And so not only is cost of producing agricultural goods is much higher, but on top of that, they have to compete with heavily subsidized produce from abroad.

BLOCK: Let's move finally to the Kurdish north of the country, which has enjoyed a great deal of autonomy for a long time now. Does it feel, when you go there, like a very different Iraq?

Mr. AL-ALI: Well, it does. There's often this phrase that you hear, which is that Arbil - which is the capital of the Kurdistan region - is the new Dubai. That's not right. I mean, it's not comparable. However, what is true is that it's a very clean city. It's a very developed city nowadays. There is a lot of construction, and there's a lot of development. It certainly feels very, very safe, a lot safer than many other cities. Not only that, of course, there's, you know, culturally, it's a different region as well. I mean, they speak a different language up there.

But at the same time, I should say that there's also a certain amount of exaggeration when it comes to what relationships are like in Iraq. I was here -Western analysts assume that the population of the Kurdistan region is very hostile to the rest of Iraq. That is definitely far from being right.

Politically, things are very tense. It's been tense and it will continue to be tense for a while. But, you know, what I'm describing is basic human relations between people in the north and in other areas tend to be very, very friendly, and there's really no hostility when it comes to ethnic backgrounds or sectarian backgrounds. People get along very well.

BLOCK: Zaid Al-Ali, thanks very much.

Mr. AL-ALI: Thank you.

BLOCK: Zaid Al-Ali is a former legal adviser in Iraq for the U.N.

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