This morning I tapped “Baghdad News” into Google and over half of the first 40 results were about bombing and violence. A further 12% of results were political analysis (mostly about bombing and violence). And there was a smattering of more positive news, mostly on Iraqi news channels: three stories on the reinstatement of flights between Baghdad and Kuwait; one story about art; and another about nice pavements. Hardly dynamic, dramatic news and negative news appears to dominate.
In 2012, Pakistan's biggest English language news agency Dawn helped me to conduct a survey, which looked at how people build perceptions of nations. With an academic interest in nation branding, and public diplomacy, I was staggered to see that 83% of respondents drew their perceptions of Iraq from the media. And not surprisingly, these were largely negative.
As the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq draws near, the political pundits swarm and draw their conclusions about Baghdad and Iraq, and Blair and Bush are challenged with the rhetoric of “was it worth it?” Having penned a modest account of “A Better Basra” I too am drawn into the discussion, canvassing my Iraqi friends for their opinion.
Last week I was lucky enough to be in Baghdad and had access to some on-the-ground thinking. The British delegation I was travelling with met more than our fair share of political players, civil society activists and some of the international heavyweights. On day one we were warned that we would hear a hundred different views and we were not disappointed.
We were in Iraq to discuss human rights, specifically in the context of detention, but we also touched on women’s, minority and disability rights. Despite this tight focus, we found ourselves constantly drawn into discussions about the current political crisis and broader thinking on what Iraqis refer to as "post-2003" Iraq.
Baghdad presented itself as a city still full of soldiers, albeit indigenous ones. The security presence on the streets is oppressive - with many checkpoints even for short journeys. It is a T-walled existence. But is it safer? Somewhere may lie a truth between Baghdad is Not That Bad and The Government is Losing Control of the Security Situation. Some claimed that there is an agenda to see it fail, whilst others suggested the government is so nervous of this perception that it manipulates figures downwards following bomb attacks - with staff in damaged buildings defiantly posting the number of fallen colleagues outside in contradiction to the official figures.
Some say sectarian divides are getting worse. Perhaps this is the legacy of the de-Baathification programme (which of course is the legacy of Baathification). Ethnographic maps of Baghdad certainly demonstrate a consensual apartheid as residents move into areas distinguished by sectarian divide. But some throw an arm around a brother and say sectarianism isn't a natural Iraqi problem - and that it is manipulated and urged by outsiders. Al Qaeda is on the lips of many – some say they fly their flag amongst Sunni protestors. Some resent the current Shi’a-led government for giving in to protestors and setting Sunni prison inmates free. Some say the absence of President Talabani (due to ill health) is causing the crisis. Some say Iran and Saudi are playing a game with Iraq in the middle and the fault-line along the border with Kurdistan. Some blame Qatar. Others, the Americans. Everyone has a theory uttered in urgent whispers and everyone we met says mistrust is a problem.
However, it is true that Mexico and Brazil have more violent deaths per capita than Iraq, and despite being in central Baghdad for an evening of bomb attacks, we didn't actually notice any. 22 people tragically lost their lives that night, but the city of seven million continued to function. Private security companies say it's dangerous enough to require their protection - but Iraqi friends welcomed us for dinner at their homes in the suburbs and we even managed a trip to a chocolate shop. It’s been well over a year since a westerner has been a target, and although I am loath to view this as evidence that Baghdad is safer, I can’t help wondering if there is a problem with constantly viewing Baghdad through the prism of security. There are clearly many other things going on – and many other measures to assess its recovery and development.
In our hotel (which was not in the International Zone) we met a group of international private investors who had come seeking business opportunities in the security, IT and construction industries. They were genuinely excited by the opportunities Iraq presented. A British Minister has this week described Iraq as “emerging as one of the most important and dynamic global energy producers”. In addition, an ambassador told us that Basra wouldn't be a bad bet for an outside investor, and elsewhere in Iraq we learnt of Europeans who had chosen to holiday in Erbil. I had an encouraging conversation with the Basrawi General Manager of our hotel about my longstanding dream of seeing Basra Palace transformed into a tourist attraction. And although some in the international community are mourning the demise of its big missions - The UK aid mission (DFID) has left Iraq, to be followed by USAID next year it is rumored - Iraq’s vast potential oil revenue will mean that, unlike some blighted aid-dependent nations, it will stand on its own feet sooner.
I am not saying that Baghdad does not have problems with violence and sectarianism, and as our delegation uncovered, some major failings in the criminal justice process and more than a handful of human rights issues that need addressing. However to support recovery and development, it is important to understand Baghdad more holistically. The Iraqi government has a tough job ahead of it – but it could genuinely brand itself as a diverse nation, rich in culture and historic fascination. And it wouldn’t be propaganda to say that Iraq is a nation with bountiful business and tourism opportunities. As I have done many times before, I urge journalists and news channels to provide us with balanced news on Baghdad and Iraq – there is evidence that what the media produces helps build the perception of a nation. The airport road is being lined with ornamental cabbages and fountains as well as soldiers, if only we could see it.
Photo Credit: Cambridge International Arts