Picturing Baghdad

Iraq has endured decades of sanctions, war, invasion, regime change and dysfunctional government. These span Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, a devastating eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s and crippling UN sanctions throughout the 1990s. Those difficult years gave way to the traumas of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and its chaotic aftermath, which brought the insurgents of the Islamic State to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad in 2014.

While governments form and collapse behind the blast walls of Baghdad’s Green Zone, life in the rest of the city has grown resilient to the disruptions of politics. Iraqis are finding individual and civic solutions to collective problems that politicians and state are failing to address.

Crisis Group photographer Julie David de Lossy joined our Senior Iraq Adviser Maria Fantappie in the city in October and November 2018. Her images portray a people whose public spaces – main streets, coffee houses and marketplaces – bear the scars of all its upheavals. But they also communicate Iraqis’ ambition to overcome them and capture moments in their search for normalcy against enormous odds.

 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

It’s late October 2018, and the new prime minister is forming his government. He is promising meaningful reform to a dysfunctional political system. This change is hard to imagine, since political actors and rules of the game remain largely the same. The next ruling coalition is likely to be a “government of enemies”, one of our interlocutors tells us. But the streets of Baghdad feel distant and indifferent to the details of the struggle for power within Iraq’s narrow political elite.

 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Mutanabbi Street, named after a 10th-century Iraqi poet, is the heart of Baghdad’s book trade. Even at peaks of violence and political crisis, Fridays here have remained a melting pot for Iraqis of all backgrounds. Enjoying calmer hours on this Muslim day of prayer and rest, booksellers in the pedestrian zone mix with vendors of tea, songbirds, street food and antiques.

 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

For less than a dollar, anyone can buy a bird in Baghdad’s Mutanabbi Street. The buyer then frees the bird, believing this will avert the evil eye of bad fortune and bring good luck to the bird’s liberator.

 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Iraqis born after 2000 have grown up in a city divided by checkpoints and the invisible walls erected by sectarian conflict. From northern Iraqi Kurdistan to southern Basra, whatever their sect or ethnicity, young people share similar grievances and seek rights as citizens. But political participation among young Iraqis is still overshadowed by a legacy of division and parochial politics.

 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Shahbander Coffeehouse in Mutanabbi Street reflects Iraq’s resilience. Open since 1917, the coffeehouse outlasted a deadly bombing in 2007 and has preserved many architectural features of old Baghdad. Despite the city’s volatility, its owners take pride in hosting several generations of established and aspiring intellectuals.

 31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

An image of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of the most contentious figures in post-2003 politics, hangs on a Baghdad street corner. The Shiite cleric moves in and out of Green Zone politics. He led calls for the formation of a militia that fought against the U.S. occupation in 2004-2008. His Sa’iroun electoral list won 54 seats in the May 2018 elections, the largest number of seats of any party. The Sadrist movement has proved canny at capitalising on the changing moods of the Iraqi street.

 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A Friday morning walk in Mutanabbi Street.

 4 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
4 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Iraq’s government bureaucracy, the country’s biggest employer, often seems like a Kafkaesque behemoth. Chronic mismanagement and the post-2003 system of muhasasa – the distribution of administrative posts according to ethnic and religious background – has riddled it with inefficiency. Senior politicians can decree reforms, but implementing them requires a skilled and streamlined bureaucracy, as efficient as private offices like this one.

 1 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
1 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Inside the walls of the Green Zone where senior politicians operate, the formation of the latest government continues. On 2 October, Adel Abdul Mahdi was tasked with forming a cabinet. On 24 October, several technocrats were sworn in as new ministers and charged with important reforms. Yet the survival of this government, as with those that preceded it, still hinges on maintaining a balance of power between ethnic and religious groups and fragile coexistence between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq.

 3 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
3 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Though widely underrepresented in government, women are a leading force in civil society. Initiatives here are trying to shape new policy agenda focused on society’s needs rather than the self-serving interests of politicians. But civic-minded activists and politicians remain disconnected, blocking the way for new figures and new ideas to be channelled into decision-making.

 4 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
4 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Baghdad’s millennials are the beating heart of citizen-led initiatives. Civil society has grown more vibrant as politicians fail to resolve the challenges affecting people’s daily lives, whether ending the economic crisis or preventing the rise of the Islamic State. Civil society groups are prioritising issues often neglected by politicians, including family law, ecology, urbanisation and archaeological conservation.

 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

When we ask ordinary Iraqis about what they expect from the new government during informal conversations, their answers frequently highlight their continuing distrust of politics and politicians. People want reforms that have a direct, positive impact on their everyday lives.

 31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The defeat of the Islamic State in 2017 has reduced violence, but Iraqis still have to cope with an economic crisis aggravated by the fall of oil prices. Iraq remains completely dependent on oil revenues, which feed a bloated public sector. The private sector, far from rewarding independent business owners, remains an extension of the politicians’ patronage network.

 2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
2 November 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A family prepares for an evening outing on the Tigris. In the summer of 2018, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which supply almost all of the country’s drinking and agricultural water, fell to the lowest levels in living memory. Water shortages provoked a series of riots in Basra during the summer heat in mid-2018. Iraqi officials blame Turkey and Iran for drawing off too much water from both rivers and their tributaries but still do not consider water management a policy priority.

 31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
31 October 2018. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The sun sets over the Tigris River running through Baghdad.

Julie David de Lossy, Publications Officer.

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