Virginia-based Dr. Ali Al-Attar left his native Iraq at the onset of Iran-Iraq war. At that time, he says, most Iraqis lived a middle-class life and enjoyed better education, health and employment than most other Arabs.
In the past 25 years during his regular visits to Iraq, Dr. Al-Attar says he has witnessed a steady decline of the quality of life. Towards the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule, some civil servants were paid as low as two dollars a month. Unemployment forced many scientists, educators, lawyers, engineers and other professionals to work as plumbers, taxi drivers, carpenters and other low-skilled labor.
“And that also contributed to the deterioration of the Iraqi society and deterioration in their morals and their hopes. And that affected the structure of the families and the ethics of the family.”
Dr. Al-Attar says in their struggle to survive, many Iraqis, once socially conscious and caring, became self-centered and corrupt. The effects on the society as whole were disastrous. For example, he notes, the corruption in Iraq’s health ministry resulted in poor health and higher mortality rates, especially in children.
“These people (in Saddam’s government) were importing out-of-date medications. They were importing poisonous medications. They were importing medications that were banned in other countries for human use because of the high commissions they were getting in that (trade) and their personal gains.”
So, Dr. Al-Attar says when he visited Iraq last year, he was heartened to see some improvements for the first time in 25 years. “People were free to express themselves," he notes. "There was freedom of trade. It was an open market and the salaries increased and people were having a lot of purchase power and this has made a boom in the economical cycle.”
Dr. Al-Attar notes that the educational system is also improving, with a new curriculum, rehabilitated buildings and better wages for teachers. But, he says, a lack of security, poor electric power supplies, and ruined infrastructure have slowed down the overall progress.
Iraqi journalist Alaa Al Baldawy wrote in an e-mail to V-O-A that people are in constant fear for their lives, “If you want to pick up some bread for your family, you’ve got to say farewell to them before you leave because you never know whether you will come back or not.”
Last year’s comprehensive survey of 22-thousand Iraqi households found that even though most Iraqis are now connected to water, electricity and sewage networks, supplies remain unstable and unreliable. Mehdi Al Alalak, the head of Iraq’s Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology, COSIT, who helped co-ordinate the survey, says problems persist in both rural and urban areas.
“Most of the infrastructure has been destroyed or affected by the war. So we found that the percent of the people having access to drinking water is less than seventy percent. As for the electricity power, even the households where the electricity is provided, only ten percent of the people were saying that the electricity supply is stable.”
Mr. Alalak says health care, which declined especially in the 1990s when Saddam Hussein’s regime came under international sanctions, remains precarious. The survey found that almost a quarter of children between ages of six months and five years suffer from malnutrition. But the infant mortality rate has declined somewhat, notes Mr. Alalak.
“I think the most sensitive issue now, in addition to the security situation, which should take the first priority, the second issue is stabilizing the supply of the electricity," he says.
Some observers find the shortage of water in Iraq as deadly as the terrorist attacks. Journalist Ala Al Baldawy says even if people have water, it can be polluted. Dr. Al-Attar says health care needs urgent attention.
“Health is a disaster. There are places that don’t have any basic health or any preventive health care in Iraq. Baghdad, which is the capital, is not an example at all. People are miserable. They don’t have much except a few outlets or medical facilities, providing health services.”
Ali Al-Attar says the international community should make more of an effort to help Iraq secure and provide what its citizens need to survive. It would be a disaster, he adds, if Iraqis concluded that life was safer under Saddam.
This story has been broadcast on VOA's Focus program. To hear more Focus stories please click here.