BEIRUT

Middle East

Summit lockdown frustrates Baghdad residents

Iraqi Security forces stand guard in central Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, March 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

BAGHDAD: Hosting an Arab summit may be Iraq's way of opening up after years of conflict, but Baghdad's residents have been left smarting as swathes of the city have been largely shut down for it to do so.

The Iraqi capital's already gnarling traffic has all but ground to a halt, and the government has declared a week of holidays on the days surrounding the March 27-29 summit to encourage people to stay at home.

Prices at markets, where people have flocked to buy supplies to avoid having to venture too far from home, have shot up as short-term demand has soared and the time required to bring in new goods has lengthened because of tighter checkpoint searches and longer traffic queues.

"Prices have doubled because of the transport crisis," said Mehdi Jassim, who was shopping at a greengrocer's shop in Baghdad's central commercial district of Karrada.

Blaming authorities for going ahead with plans to host the summit, the first Arab League meeting to be held in Iraq since now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Jassim continued: "Politicians are just looking after their own interests, not the people's."

Muhanad Ali, 30, chimed in, complaining the price of his regular food purchases had as much as tripled.

"The expenses for this summit would have been better spent on improving public services," the laborer said, alluding to Baghdad's frequent power cuts, patchy main water supply and poor sewerage.

Officials have trumpeted their hosting of the summit as evidence of the country's relative stability after decades of conflict and sanctions, a sign that Iraq is ready to play a leadership role in the Arab world.

But insurgent groups have nevertheless been able to mount massive attacks, including a wave of shootings and bombings, claimed by Al-Qaeda, that left 50 dead nationwide on Tuesday.

Among the attacks was a car bomb that went off in a car park directly opposite the foreign ministry.

In response, security forces have closed off several key roads and most of the bridges that traverse the Tigris River, and drafted in thousands of extra policemen and soldiers to bolster security in the capital.

As a result, the time taken for trips around the city, already famed for its gridlock, has increased substantially, with residents reporting trips to work now taking several hours, where they previously took less than one.

"I spent five hours going from Dora (in the south of the city) to central Baghdad," Abu Mohammed, a 44-year-old taxi driver, lamented. "I usually only need half an hour to travel this distance.

"My petrol tank is already practically empty," he complained, as his car sat stationary in traffic in mid-morning.

Prices of fruit and vegetables at markets across the city have shot up -- where bananas were previously priced at 1,000 Iraqi dinars (85 cents) per kilogram (2.2 pounds), for example, they now sell for twice as much.

Tomatoes or aubergines now cost 2,000 dinars per kilogram, up from 500 dinars just days ago at one vegetable store in Hurriyah, north Baghdad.

"The difficulty of moving around, and the increased transport costs, have forced me to raise my prices substantially," said the shop's owner Abu Hassan, who sported a dishdasha, the traditional Arab robe.

And daily tasks are not the only ones that have suffered as a result of the tougher security, with Iraq's football federation suspending league fixtures until April 3.

"These security measures make transport difficult for the teams, and they cannot reach stadiums in Baghdad," Tariq Ahmed, acting general secretary of the Iraqi Football Association, told AFP.

Road closures are likely to worsen before they improve in the coming days. Although officials insist Iraq's forces are capable of maintaining security for the summit, they may need to effectively shut down Baghdad.

Security forces have mooted the possibility of imposing a city-wide curfew on the final day of the meeting, which was originally scheduled for a year ago but was postponed as a result of regional turmoil resulting from the Arab spring uprisings as well as concerns over Iraq's ability to secure the summit.

Back in Karrada, 60-year-old Munir Hashim was dismissive of Iraqi leaders' backing of plans to host the summit.

"What is the benefit to the Iraqi citizen," the pensioner asked.

"The people are looking for something that serves them," he said, adding: "What is going to be accomplished if Arab presidents do come?"

 

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