Iraqis in Yemen waiting for safety to return [Archives:2004/723/Community]

March 25 2004
I r a q i s   w o r k i n g   a t   L o r d s ,   a   b a r b e r s h o p   i n   S a n a  a ,   i n c l u d i n g   t h e   o w n e r   H a s s a n   R a s h i d   o n   t h e   r i g h t   ( Y e m e n   T i m e s   p h o t o   b y   P e t e r   W i l l e m s )
I r a q i s w o r k i n g a t L o r d s , a b a r b e r s h o p i n S a n a a , i n c l u d i n g t h e o w n e r H a s s a n R a s h i d o n t h e r i g h t ( Y e m e n T i m e s p h o t o b y P e t e r W i l l e m s )
By Peter Willems
One year after the US-led invasion began, signs are now surfacing that there is economic recovery in war-torn Iraq.
Recent studies have shown that unemployment has dropped, the output of oil is expected to reach pre-war levels by the end of the year, and economic growth will increase substantially in 2004.
But the picture of Iraq that most people see doesn't show new opportunities and prosperity down the road. Bombings, rocket attacks and ambushes are what have been seen regularly, including the attacks on Shiite worshippers in Baghdad and Kerbala during their holiest day early this month, which killed over 170 Iraqis.
Many Iraqis living in Yemen show deep concern about the future of their country, and their number one apprehension is security.
“The situation in Iraq is not good,” said Hassan Rashid, owner of a barbershop in Sana'a who has lived in Yemen for 10 years. “Safety, security and peace is what is needed before thinking about moving back to our country.”
Thousands of Iraqis have come to Yemen for over a decade. Some came for better opportunities while the Iraqi economy suffered in the nineties, while others came to avoid oppression under the Saddam Hussein regime. It is estimated that the largest Iraqi Shiite group in the Middle East living outside of Iraq is in Yemen. But although some felt optimistic that the time to go back would come soon after the fall of the Iraqi regime, they now have doubts.
And as security continues to falter, many Iraqis in Yemen have directed their anger toward the United States.
“I am not thankful for the United States ousting Saddam Hussein,” said Dr. Erfan Al-Shammari, a cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon at Hadda Hospital. “It should have let the Iraqi people do the job. And the US government hasn't finished the job they started. Where is security? Where is rebuilding? Where is the new government? The US government said 'liberation' and 'oust the dictator.' But what are we supposed to do? Now there is violence, revenge, and so forth. Is this liberation?”
Some are also concerned that there might be a conflict between Shiites – who take up around 60% of the Iraqi population – and Sunnis in the future.
“I am pessimistic,” said Hassan Omar, an Iraqi dentist in Sana'a. “We will never have security because of the differences between the Sunnis and the Shiites.”
But most Iraqis in Yemen feel confident that the two sects can live together peacefully. Some say that Sunnis and Shiites did not generate conflicts before Saddam Hussein rose to power and that he was responsible for sectarian strife while he was leading the country.
Many also argue that relationships now can prevent a civil war based on the sectarian divide. Most of the Iraqis that talked to Yemen Times said that many of their relatives, including parents, sisters and brothers, have been married to Iraqis of the other sect.
“I am a Sunni, but two of my sisters have married Shiites,” said an Iraqi engineer living in Yemen. “How can we fight between each other now that our families are mixed?”
He also believes that because the two sects are close to each other through relationships, the attacks on the Shiites in Kerbala and Baghdad early March must have come from groups outside of Iraq.
“They must have come from a neighboring country,” said the engineer. “They might be trying to create an internal conflict, keep the country unstable or prevent Iraq from prospering, especially through oil.”
The Iraqis also believe that to live in harmony a democratic government is a must. They worry that a religious state would have to favor Sunnis or Shiites which could easily lead to violence. They also argue that an Iraqi government will be able to build security.
“A democratic system is our only answer,” said Nawaf Kalaki, an Iraqi university student in Sana'a. “That way differences between the two sects can be handled diplomatically, not with violence. The Iraqi government would also be able to tighten security. They will do a better job than the United States because they will know much more about the people and what is going on in Iraq.”
Early this month, an interim constitution to guarantee freedom and human rights of Iraqis was established. Even though a permanent constitution is planned to be drafted by a parliament elected at the beginning of 2005, there is strong opposition. Religious clerics argue that the constitution could lead to internal strife while analysts believe that disagreements over the constitution mainly come from competition between the three main groups in Iraq – Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
With danger still looming in Iraq, many Iraqis in Yemen are still waiting for safety and security before they decide to return to their country. But others are preparing to go back soon, regardless of the risk.
“My family calls me all the time and tells me that I should go back now because the economic environment keeps getting better,” said Munir Al-Obeidi, an electrician.
Last year, The World Bank reported that unemployment in Iraq reached 60%. It is now estimated that unemployment has dropped to 25%.
The United States has on its agenda to implement 2,300 projects to rehabilitate Iraq's electricity, water, oil, health and transport infrastructure. The US government has already awarded a number of contracts to companies, and it is expecting to create 50,000 jobs by July.
As oil production continues to rise, the majority of the money is directed to the Iraqi Development Fund to help rebuild the war-torn country. Up to $59 billion has been promised by the United States and other countries for rebuilding, and around $28 billion has already been guaranteed.
The World Bank estimates that Iraq's GDP will jump 33% this year after two years of decline, and according to reports, despite widespread poverty across Iraq, consumption has boomed in the last year.
Al-Obeidi and many of his friends see this as a chance to return and are planning to go back in a few weeks.
“I don't care about the attacks,” said Al-Obeidi. “I have seen wars before, so it is normal and I'm used to it. I know what it is like when life is difficult, but now that there is opportunity in my country, I'm going back, even if there is violence.”