In Iraq, the Most Coveted Item Now Is a Passport

By SOMINI SENGUPTA

The New York Times

July 16, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 15 - There is one thing the sovereign state of Iraq can offer its citizens today, and Iraqis are banging down the doors to get their hands on it: a passport out of the country.

On a recent morning in front of the newly reopened passport office, bodies pressed on bodies for a chance to get inside. Pink and yellow files, each containing a precious passport application, waved in the air, as a young man tried to climb onto a rust-orange gate to get the attention of the bureaucrats inside. In the chaos, a sign that hung above the front door toppled to the floor.

At one point, Iraqi policemen charged at the crowd, wielding batons. A couple of shots were fired in the air. The line, if it can be called that, disintegrated and the crowd retreated toward a barbed wire fence before lunging forward again.

Jobless, rattled, fed up, Iraqis are dreaming of getting out.

"Escape from Iraq" is how Muhammad Kadhum, 26, a college student, described his intentions. "I cannot live here in Iraq. I cannot feel like a man."

Zeinab Heart, 24, waiting in black in the already wilting midmorning heat for a chance to move to her husband's native Lebanon, lamented: "I want to get out. I want my children to live in a peaceful place."

Wesam Mohammed, 22, who arrived at 4:30 a.m. to claim a choice spot in the passport line, only to lose it when the police struck, said: "There is no comfort here. No stability. Explosions everywhere. This is impossible." He wiped his forehead and said he hoped to go to the United Arab Emirates to join a relative.

In Saddam Hussein's day, getting a passport and permission to leave the country was arduous and for most Iraqis prohibitively expensive. During 15 months of American occupation, there was no Iraqi government to issue one. Only after the Iraqi interim government took control on June 28 did the passport office reopen for business. It has been swamped ever since: over 500 applications every day, according to the office director, Sabbar Atia. "Some people don't even need it," he snapped.

This morning, trying to get into his car and leave, he was swamped himself by a beseeching, demanding crowd. His guards seemed unafraid to use their sharp elbows.

Someone told him there were people in his office charging a little extra to process applications quickly. "There are thieves outside this building, not inside," he said testily. "Please organize yourselves. Stay in line. We are giving out passports."

The waiting turned out to be good for vendors, at least. A man sold tamarind juice from a sack strapped to his back. Two small boys pushed a cart piled high with orange soda.

Today, the fervor with which Iraqis crave a passport, and with it a chance to escape, speaks volumes about their frustration with the existing order. At this passport line, one of five in the capital, patience wears thin, and melts again to frustration. It is a grim portrait of this fledgling government coming face to face with its constituents.

"It's a disaster," muttered Mr. Kadhum. "An Iraqi disaster." He watched the chaos from the sidelines and decided to come back another day. He said he wanted to go to Germany. He admitted it was a dream.

Certainly, not everyone here was applying for a passport in order to emigrate. Three Iraqi traders were angry at not being able to get to Syria, where their goods were sitting in a warehouse. A photographer wanted to visit his brother in Romania. A schoolteacher wanted to renew her passport to see the holy shrines in Iran. Her husband, a professor of accounting, said simply, "I want to see the world."

But it was the young men who stood here in the unforgiving, shadeless sidewalk who were among the most impatient to leave, and it is their impatience and ennui that presents an urgent challenge to this government and its backers in Washington.

The unemployment rate here is impossible to gauge correctly, but even conservative American government estimates put it at around 24 percent. Reconstruction projects, dogged by sabotage, have so far created 30,000 jobs for Iraqis - far fewer than Iraq's American overseers had originally hoped.

Today, in an odd riposte to the trickle of young men who come to Iraq from as far away as the Philippines to cook, clean and drive for American soldiers here, a new crop of employment brokers are promising young Iraqi men a chance to work overseas.

That promise brought three friends, all trained in Iraqi universities to teach Arabic, to the passport line this morning. One of them, Sami Jabbar, 29, was almost certain he would receive a two-year contract on a timber plantation in Malaysia. It would be his first trip out of Iraq.

"I am really looking forward to it," he said. "I want to make something of my future."

Standing at his side were two friends, also praying for jobs in Malaysia. Fifteen of his neighbors, Mr. Jabbar said, are applying for passports, just to be able to go abroad to work.

The company making the arrangements for Mr. Jabbar has already arranged to send 750 men from Nasariya, its chief, Abdul Rasoul Hussein, said in an interview in his office. In August, an additional 700 Baghdadis, all men in their 20's, are scheduled to be shipped off to Malaysia. Most are to be hired as loggers and drivers.

"If we found work here, we wouldn't be leaving," said Mr. Jabbar's friend, Sabah Abdul Hussein.