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