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Iraq’s political crisis disheartens the middle class

When American tanks tore through her neighborhood, ripping up the roads as they uprooted a nation, she stayed put, refusing to move abroad like many of her wealthy friends.

When the black-clad gunmen took over her religiously mixed west Baghdad neighborhood, turning it into a killing field, she wouldn’t let them drive her out of the country she loved.

And even when they killed her husband, gunning him down as he left work, she fought through her grief, staying in Iraq and hoping for better times.

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But as a postelection political deadlock threatens to pull Iraq back into violence and uncertainty, Ibtisam Hamoody has had it. Within months, the 56-year-old former engineer and women’s rights activist plans to take her savings, her family heirlooms and the youngest of her three daughters and settle in Jordan or Syria.

“I know what’s going on. It’s not possible for there to be a good outcome,” she said. “This time, I know it’s going to be worse than before.”

Over the last 30 months of relative security and economic progress, Iraq’s middle class and intelligentsia had emerged from the shadows of war and exile, strutting around town without head scarves or cruising through gleaming new shopping districts.

But now, as they watch the camp of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, whose allies control the nation’s security apparatus, jostle with that of Iyad Allawi, backed by some of the same Sunni Arabs who support the insurgency, they are preparing to dash back into hiding.

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Already, the crisis has changed the character of a country that was bristling with hope just a few months ago, not least, Iraqis say, because the imminent drawdown of U.S. troops might create a vacuum that will leave the political drama festering for years.

Years of immense suffering have also conditioned Iraqis to brace for the worst, if only to protect themselves from disappointment.

“We all hope that things will not go back to what we were facing before,” Wahid Thani, 43, an engineer at the Housing Ministry, said as he spent an afternoon at a friend’s snack shop. “But the indications we are witnessing suggest that we will face a bad situation again.

“We are pessimistic because of the things we are seeing. The disputes are like infinity, and can never be solved.”

Before the crisis, as middle-class families crowded newly refurbished parks with their children and some young women walked alone through the streets, many dared to dream of a day when Iraq would be safe and prosperous, like its richer neighbors to the south and north. But each breach of security chisels away at that progress, revealing the fragility of the gains achieved since late 2007, when the violence began to subside.

Violence has begun to rise again. The number of civilians killed in Iraq jumped 50% from March to April, according to government statistics. On May 10, nearly 100 people died in a day of bombings and shootings that was the worst in Iraq since last year.

A perplexing string of assassinations of Sunni Arab clerics has led officials to wonder whether Al Qaeda in Iraq insurgents or Shiite militants might be involved. One was beheaded Monday at his mosque.

And on Wednesday night, a car bomb killed six people and wounded at least 10 at a restaurant in the town of Musayyib, south of Baghdad.

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Whether Iraq slides back into the despair or manages to limp forward, the gloom threatens to undermine what little faith Iraqis had in the country’s future, say dozens of Iraqis across the country.

“We made sacrifices,” said Hassan Raheem Rahoun, 40, a hairstylist who moved back to Iraq from Libya two years ago and is considering leaving again. “We put our lives on the line when we went to the polls and voted for the most appropriate person. It didn’t work.

“We gambled in a game and none of us will win, except those sitting in the Green Zone,” Baghdad’s fortress-like administrative center that houses much of Iraq’s squabbling political class.

The political elite are well aware of the middle-class backlash and some have begun to agitate for the politicians to move forward on forming a government.

“Their responsibility ended on the 7th of March,” election day, Leila Khafaji, a former lawmaker and member of the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, said of the country’s educated and middle class. “They are very responsible and very intelligent to go and do what they have to do, but they didn’t see the fruit.”

Every Wednesday, the party’s leader, Ammar Hakim, meets with middle-class constituents in an effort to gauge their opinions and assuage their fears, Khafaji said. But the crisis has begun to change people’s economic calculations for the future.

Bagher Sheikh, a respected painter whose works fetch as much as $2,000 in Iraq and more abroad, returned to Iraq just before the U.S.-led invasion and stayed through the insurgency, the sectarian warfare and political crises. But he’s now decided to leave, in large part because he doesn’t believe the government will be able to improve the schools to properly teach his two young daughters.

“I felt like I belonged to this country,” he said in his gallery and studio, Dream, its walls covered with oil paintings of nudes and landscapes.

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“I had hope for this country that it would work,” he said, pressing his hands against the sides of his head. “Now I have none. We tried to change the government by an election, and the same people come back. It’s a sign that the constitution is a failure.”

Signs abound that these skilled, educated and middle-class Iraqis are withdrawing from public life. Hamoody, the widow, who heads the Democratic Forum for Civil Dialogue and Human Rights, said she has come to believe that speaking out for the rights of Iraq’s women and disadvantaged is pointless when the political situation is so intractable.

“It’s impossible for the situation to be good,” she said in English. “I have met almost all of the politicians, and if you want my opinion, I would let them all go out of the country. I believe we need one like Saddam Hussein. He’s the only one who can fix the Iraqi people.”

In addition to dashing hopes in Iraq’s democratic experiment, the political stalemate threatens the country’s weak economy. A trickle of foreign and domestic investment has slowed to a halt as Iraqi and foreign companies wait out the political storm before making strategic decisions.

“The political situation now in Iraq casts a shadow on the general aspects of Iraqi life, and commercial traffic witnesses a standstill and freeze like the Iraqi political situation,” said Salem Mohammed Obeidi, 40, an Education Ministry official in the northern city of Kirkuk.

Iraqis with money in their pockets are spending less, saving it for a potentially bleak future. Many of those who are staying have stopped traveling, going out or making long-term plans.

“More than two months have passed, and people don’t see any signs of hope or good things from those for whom they voted,” said Abdul-Razzaq Khalaf, 49, owner of a currency exchange in the southern port city of Basra, which was struck May 10 with its worst violence in years.

On Baghdad’s Sanaa Street, the capital’s main electronics market, vendors complain that customers at ministries and businesses who used to buy desktop computers, laptops and surveillance cameras have stopped placing orders.

Commercial districts are less crowded than they were before, as wary families opt to spend evenings close to home. Shop owners burdened with surplus inventory chain-smoke and fret while huddling with colleagues along sidewalks bare of customers.

“Now the street is afraid of the return of sectarianism,” said Ahmad Mohammad, 36, a computer and telecommunications specialist who works at a vendor of Canon photocopy machines, where sales have dropped by two-thirds since a few days before the election.

“I can describe the situation as a time bomb. You don’t know when it’s going to explode.”

daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondents in Basra and Kirkuk contributed to this report.


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