Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Sense of Time in Iraq

No international flights go to Iraq, so after traveling for 18 hours by bus from Jordan, I finally arrived in the capital of the country that has been ostracized by the West since the Gulf War.

After the first several hours in Baghdad, my image of Iraq as a country suffering from poverty and starvation evaporated without a trace. Instead I began to see Iraq as an odd combination of modern Russia and shadows of the Soviet Union with an Arab flavor.

United Nations sanctions have been in place since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, and the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein blames the country's economic problems on the embargo and U.S. and British "aggression."

Many international companies that operated in Baghdad had to switch to stand-by mode or move to Amman, the capital of Jordan, straight after the war. "I worked for a Japanese company here, but it closed its business in 1990," said a taxi driver named Mohammed, who like many Iraqis, speaks rough English. "Since that time I do not have a permanent job and wait for them to come back."

Most Iraqis I met have no sense of time and no use for words like "urgent," "quick," or "now." They prefer to do things tomorrow, rather than today, or even better in two days. Their patience appears to have no limits.

"We waited for 10 years already for sanctions to be lifted," said one high-level Iraqi official. "And we can wait longer, but will not give in to U.S.-U.K. demands to overthrow our government."

The political establishment in Iraq stresses the support the country gets from France, China and Russia - permanent members of the UN Security Council - in the campaign to lift the sanctions.

"America - bad. Russia, France and China - good," said another taxi driver. He pointed to a destroyed house on one of Baghdad streets - "a bomb."

Baghdad looks similar to Cairo. There is little evidence remaining of the bombing raids in 1991, and the city boasts highly sophisticated traffic junctions and a few new buildings under construction. The whole capital is covered with sandy dust, and needless to say there are statues and portraits of Saddam everywhere.

Baghdad's air stinks of exhaust fumes. Low octane gasoline (the equivalent of Russia's standard A-65) costs only 20 Iraqi dinars (1 cent) per liter, though drivers complained that the price was recently hiked from 15 dinars. High quality gasoline (A-98) is also available at a price of 50 dinars.The city's air is further poisoned by the Dora refinery, which is just across the Tigris River from Baghdad and at night its flame can be seen from most spots in the city.

Amid the general shabbiness of Baghdad, there are also many expensive private homes. The Iraqi elite congregates on Arasat Al-Hindiy Street, which is crowded with boutiques, restaurants, offices and luxury apartments.

Old and smelly cars are not allowed to drive along the posh street. Dinner in an average restaurant on Arasat Al-Hindiy costs about 15,000 dinars ($7.50), which is out of reach for most Iraqis.

Most office workers I met told me that they earn about 3,000 dinars ($1.50) a month. But mysteriously they seem to live beyond what their income would allow. Teachers, or so I was told, have some of the highest incomes, about 15,000 dinars a month.

Taxi drivers seemed the most sincere in revealing their income. "I make about 5,000 to 7,000 Iraqi dinars a day, but I have a family of 32," said a driver named Hassan. "Most people do not show their earnings or else they take bribes."

Most of the time Iraqis pay in 250 dinar notes. Since they typically do not have machines to count bills, they weigh them. For example, 121 grams of 250 dinar notes is worth about $10, one currency trader said.

Some local observers and the rare businessmen I happened to talk to shared the view that despite all the talk about the evils of the UN sanctions, some political forces in Iraq would suffer if the embargo was lifted. Those who distribute goods and control supply contracts under the UN oil-for-food program are open to bribe-taking.

Smuggling also is profitable with the economic sanctions in place.

You are not allowed to take photos in Baghdad unless accompanied by a "minder" from the Intelligence Service. In general, Baghdad authorities require foreigners to have minders, which means visiting journalists have to take them along to meetings. Obviously, under such conditions, Iraqis tend to curb their discussions and stick to "politically correct" statements.

But in most cases, visitors can avoid the minders by just escaping from the hotels. Among the locals, taxi drivers are most easily available to talk privately about what life is like in Iraq.

Communicating with your home country is another problem. For predictable reasons, the Iraqi government limits access to the Internet. Visitors who bring computers with them have the modems wrapped and sealed at the border or the modem slim card taken away for the duration of their stay.

The UN, the Red Cross and international media registered in Baghdad use satellite phones to connect to the Internet, but the providing firms charge the users from $6 to $13 per minute for the connection. Foreign journalists who work in Baghdad must register with the Ministry of Culture and Information Press Center, which costs $100 a day or $35,500 a year.

Calling or sending a fax is another headache for visitors, a process both time consuming and costly. The cheapest way to call Russia is through Iraqi Airways. Unable to fly because of the sanctions, the airline left its 18 planes behind in Jordan, Egypt, Iran and the United Arab Emirates and became a communication center.

A quick call to Moscow costs 12,500 dinars.

How to Get There

Since no flights go into Baghdad, most visitors go through Amman, Jordan. Aeroflot flies twice a week, direct, from Moscow to Amman for about $375 round trip. Visas are required and cost $72. U.S. passport holders need the permission of their government to travel to Iraq.