Idle Iraqi date farms show decline of economy

Idle Iraqi date farms show decline of economy

Late July and early August is date harvesting season in Iraq, when within the span of a few weeks the desert sun turns hard green spheres into tender, golden brown fruit prized for its sweetness.

But here in Iraq, one of the places where agriculture was developed more than 7,000 years ago, there are increasing doubts about whether it makes much sense to grow dates — or much of anything for that matter.

As recently as the 1980s, Iraq was self-sufficient in producing wheat, rice, fruits, vegetables, and sheep and poultry products. Its industrial sector exported textiles and leather goods, including purses and shoes, as well as steel and cement. But wars, sanctions, poor management, international competition and disinvestment have left each industry a shadow of its former self.

Slowly, Iraq’s economy has become based almost entirely on imports and a single commodity. [continued…]

The sheikh down

It’s a bright day in February, and I am in a pink villa on the outskirts of Fallujah, sitting with a tribal sheikh and a Marine commander as they hunch over a plate of truffles. The sheikh is Eifan Saddun al-Isawi, a charming 33-year-old Iraqi in a red-checkered kaffiyeh, a brown dishdasha, and DKNY wraparound sunglasses who uses phrases like “sons of bitches” when he talks about Al Qaeda with Americans. He is the head of Fallujah’s Sahwa, or Awakening, council, the Sunni militia hired by the United States in early 2007 to fight its enemies in Iraq, and he’s become one of the American military’s go-to guys in the city, as evidenced by the photos on his walls of him with George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The American officer, Lt. Colonel Chris Hastings, apologizes for forgetting to bring Eifan “magazines with pictures of pretty ladies” and congratulates him for winning a seat in the provincial elections. He proceeds to tell Eifan to make sure that a certain someone the Marines are “concerned” about doesn’t make it into local politics. Eifan assures him he’ll see to it.

Hastings also needs Eifan on the hearts-and-minds front: The Marines recently killed a teacher strapped with a suicide belt, and Hastings wants the sheikh to convince his community that the Americans aren’t bloodthirsty warmongers. The Awakening councils don’t officially work for the Americans anymore—the Iraqi government now pays the $300-a-month salaries of Eifan’s men—but Eifan obliges immediately. “Give me pictures and I will give it to all the imams and sheikhs to show them he was wearing a belt,” he says. He then presses the lieutenant colonel to release some of his friends from prison (Hastings agrees), offers him an antique hunting rifle (Hastings declines), and steers the talk back to the topic he’s been hinting at throughout the meeting: American cash.

“Just tell the colonel to give me the contract. Come on, man. You know I’ll do a good job,” he says. Over the years, Eifan’s gotten used to the way Americans do business in Iraq. Working with them has made him a millionaire. [continued…]

Minorities trapped in northern Iraq’s maelstrom

Kamal Ahmed woke up before the crack of dawn and went to the village mosque where he serves as the muezzin.

After calling the people to prayer, he went back to sleep on the roof of his house in a metal post bed covered with a mosquito net, a common practice in Iraq during the sweltering summer months. Minutes later, a huge explosion brought down half of the two-floor house. His side of the house remained miraculously intact, but three members of his family, who were asleep inside, were crushed to death.

Two explosions, which obliterated a large swath of this village of nearly 10,000 people near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Monday, killed 34 people and wounded almost 200. The village is inhabited by Shiite Shabaks, a Kurdish-speaking minority. [continued…]

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