‘I just want to get out’: Iraqis des­per­ate for pass­ports

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By James Palmer

BAGH­DAD — Razi Gali Ham­dum pushed to­ward one of a dozen win­dows in a sim­ple brown build­ing in cen­tral Bagh­dad, undeterred by a throng of des­per­ate coun­try­men or the in­fer­nal mid­day sun.

The 40-year-old tex­tile mer­chant had al­ready spent five hours on his feet, shuf­fling for­ward in pur­suit of one of the most trea­sured doc­u­ments in Iraq — a pass­port.

“I don’t know where I’ll go,” Mr. Ham­dum said as he drew near the front of the line. “I just want to get out of Iraq.”

More than 2 mil­lion Iraqis are es­ti­mated to have left the coun­try in the more than four years since the fall of dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein, many of them mak­ing their first stop at this one-story con­crete build­ing to ac­quire a travel doc­u­ment.

For some of the ap­pli­cants — who num­ber up to 3,000 a week — a pass­port rep­re­sents an ed­u­ca­tion for a child, med­i­cal care for a loved one or an op­por­tu­nity to con­tinue a pro­fes­sional ca­reer. For oth­ers, it sim­ply means a life in which kid­nap­pings, sui­cide bomb­ings and mor­tar at­tacks are re­placed with un­in­ter­rupted elec­tric­ity, potable wa­ter and peace­ful mar­ket­places.

The 400 em­ploy­ees at the cen­tral travel of­fice do their best to keep up, churn­ing out 800 pass­ports a day de­spite fre­quent power out­ages and a short­age of equip­ment, said Mah­moud al-Malaki, 48, who su­per­vises pro­duc­tion.

“We’re not work­ing with the latest tech­nol­ogy,” Mr. al-Malaki said. “Some days, we go hours with no elec­tric­ity, and this slows our out­put.”

But Mr. al-Malaki’s prob­lems are of lit­tle in­ter­est to frus­trated ap­pli­cants.

“I’ve had to wait 40 days, now they’re telling me I might have to wait an­other 20,” said Moutala Ab­dul Reeda, a 47-year-old day la- borer from Basra who wants to leave the coun­try with his wife and 4-month-old daugh­ter. “The mili­tias con­trol ev­ery­thing, and they’re al­ways fight­ing each other for more con­trol.”

Em­ploy­ees in the travel of­fice have their own frus­tra­tions, among them ap­pli­cants who never come back to col­lect their com­pleted doc­u­ments. Some may have been killed or kid­napped; oth­ers sim­ply grew tired of wait­ing and moved to a safer re­gion in Iraq.

The process was made worse last year when the gov­ern­ment or­dered a re­call of thou­sands of sim­ple hand­writ­ten pass­ports that were is­sued im­me­di­ately af­ter Sad­dam’s ouster in April 2003.

The new pass­ports are elec­tron­i­cally pro­duced and harder to forge, but the cen­tral of­fice in Bagh­dad is the only one in the coun­try with the equip­ment to make them.

Pre­dictably, the back­log has spawned a cot­tage in­dus­try of en­trepreneurs who of­fer to ex­pe­dite the ap­pli­ca­tion process for a fee of $100 or more.

Fourat Hameed, a hospi­tal se­cu­rity guard who lives 40 miles north of the cap­i­tal in Baqouba, said he paid $1,400 for pass­ports for his mother and his young daugh­ter, Teba, who is sched­uled to re­ceive med­i­cal treat­ment in Cleve­land this sum­mer.

“I turned in four ap­pli­ca­tions, and they lost them all,” Mr. Hameed said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “A man out­side of the of­fice said he could take care of ev­ery­thing for me within two months, and he did.”

The travel bureau’s spokesman, Talad Asi, said the of­fice is work­ing to re­store its rep­u­ta­tion for in­tegrity. It has pros­e­cuted 50 em­ploy­ees on cor­rup­tion charges, fired 20 more and de­moted 115 oth­ers.

Un­der Sad­dam, pass­ports were al­most ex­clu­sively re­served for high-rank­ing of­fi­cials and those with close ties to the Ba’ath Party. Those per­mit­ted to travel abroad were re­quired to pay $300 for a pass­port af­ter pass­ing an in­tense se­cu­rity check.

To­day, any Iraqi not await­ing trial can ap­ply for a pass­port.

The cost is 25,000 Iraqi di­nars, or about $20, and the doc­u­ment is valid for eight years. The wait by ap­pli­cants for a stan­dard pass­port is sup­posed to take 40 days; pass­ports ap­proved for med­i­cal treat­ment abroad are to take only seven days.

But for many Iraqis, the re­al­ity is some­thing else.

Post­man Hus­sein Mo­hammed, 49, be­came in­creas­ingly rest­less as he stood on line for the fifth straight day, hop­ing to se­cure two pass­ports for coun­cil mem­bers in the north­ern city of Kirkuk.

“They told me if I don’t come back with the pass­ports, they’ll throw me in jail,” Mr. Mo­hammed said. “I can’t go back home with­out them.”

James Palmer / The Wash­ing­ton Times

Back­log: A clerk in Bagh­dad’s cen­tral travel of­fice pre­pared pass­ports for the throngs of Iraqis look­ing to leave the coun­try. Pass­port ap­pli­cants can num­ber up to 3,000 a week in Iraq.

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