May 5, 2006
“They say that corrupt officials have siphoned most of the money.”
Before it became a symbol of Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the Kurds, Halabja was one of the most prosperous communities in Iraq.
Pomegranates, grains, grapes, tobacco and nuts grew in Halabja’s fertile soil. Local factories employed those not working in the town’s thriving agricultural sector.
Today, 18 years after the Iraqi military launched chemical attacks on this mountainous city near the Iranian border, the community’s economy remains in ruins.
The agriculture industry, which once employed about 90 percent of local residents, never recovered from the 1988 attacks and the United Nations-imposed sanctions in the 1990s. Local products now struggle to compete with lower-priced imports.
Many in the city of about 80,000 in Sulaimaniyah province say they have been waiting since 1991, when the Kurds took administrative control of the northeastern Iraq, for some help.
They certainly expected something to happen after Saddam was overthrown in 2003.
Instead, residents in Halabja, especially those who survived Saddam’s chemical-weapons attack, say they still cannot receive treatment for the variety of ailments caused by the attack, including cancer and respiratory illnesses. They note that many of the roads in the city remain unpaved and that most of the buildings destroyed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s still lie in rubble.
In March, demonstrators staged a protest during ceremonies marking the anniversary of Saddam’s chemical attack.
Security forces opened fired on the demonstrators, killing a teenage boy.
Soon after the protest, the Kurd-ish government pledged $30 million for projects in Halabja. Officials promised that basic services such as water, roads and health care would be provided.
But a conference scheduled for last month on the rehabilitation projects had to be indefinitely postponed after Kurdish authorities revealed they could not come up with the financing for the projects.
All of this has left locals in Halabja wondering what happened to the millions of dollars in aid that have poured into the region since 2003.
Even the town’s former mayor, Jameel Abdulrahman, said he has no idea how much the central Kurdish government has spent in his community. He does know that his request for economic development funds, to open some of the shuttered factories in the city, have gone unheeded.
According to officials with the central Kurdish government, $105 million has been spent on recovery efforts in the region over the last three years. But most local observers say there is little to show for it. They say that corrupt officials have siphoned most of the money.
For example, Abdulrahman said, after pouring the foundations for three new government buildings in Halabja last year, all construction came to a halt because of lack of funds.
Meanwhile, unemployment is rampant. There are few private-sector jobs in the region and those who can get jobs in the government sector, usually the police force, have relied on family connections for their posts.
“The economic situation is terrible in Halabja,” said Yaseen Najim, 27, an unemployed resident who has tried several times to find work. “There is no company or factory we can work in.”
At the same time, farmers have abandoned their fields, saying they cannot compete with cheaper fruits and vegetables coming from Iran and Syria.
“It’s a shame that we’re importing products when we have such fertile land,” said Arsalan Manucher, an economics professor at the University of Sulaimaniyah.
“It’s not just Halabja,” said Ibrahim Khidr Ahmad, head of planning for the government’s agriculture ministry. “The situation for farmers and farming isn’t good in all of the areas (of Iraq). The country was destroyed.”
Ahmad said ministry officials recently visited Halabja to discuss assistance for the area and have pledged $6 million for irrigation projects. He also said the Baghdad government will start buying wheat from Iraqi farmers later this year. Currently, three-fourths of the country’s needs are provided by the United States.
But government officials say they are unwilling to finance the reconstruction of factories in the region.
“We’re not taking on the burden of building factories because all government factories are unsuccessful,” Ahmad said. “All over the world the private sector runs factories. The era of the government building them and employing people is over.”
Mariwan Hama-Saeed is a journalist in Iraq who writes for The Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofit organization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. Readers may write to the author at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 48 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8LT, U.K.. Its Web site is http://www.iwpr.net . Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.