Fri, Aug 06, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Iraqis rush for passports that Saddam denied

A WAY OUT Some hope to get jobs abroad or go on pilgrimages, but many just feel a passport would offer an escape route if security were to collapse altogether

THE GUARDIAN , BAGHDAD

Mohamad Ghiath and his wife Yusir were outside the passport office at 5:30am, long before the sun was up. Both are doctors, and, with a small daughter to raise, the thing they most want is to get out of Iraq.

"The office doesn't open until 8am, but we couldn't face pushing and shoving in the heat all day," Ghiath said. "On the way home we heard three different explosions, and were caught in the traffic jams they caused. Our jobs in the hospital are stressful enough and then we have to live in this stressful environment. It's too much."

They hoped to go abroad for at least five years, he said.

He and his wife are not alone. The new Iraqi government started issuing passports as soon as it took sovereignty on June 28, and every day the offices are virtually under siege.

Police used batons and fired into the air a few days ago after crowds tried to storm one passport office and later surrounded the manager's car as he tried to leave. To deal with the crush the authorities have already opened five offices in Baghdad and are planning a sixth.

Some applicants hope to get jobs abroad, some plan to go on pilgrimages to Islamic holy sites, others want a break from daily worries, and many just feel a passport would offer an escape route if security were to collapse altogether.

"I'm not planning to go anywhere yet and I've never been abroad in my life, but I want a passport as a precaution," said Sheikh Yassin Abdul Ghafudhur, 32, as he queued to reach a small iron window inside the compound at the passport office in western Baghdad. He teaches religious studies at a mosque in Falluja, where US warplanes have struck six times in the past few weeks.

He was applying for passports for his wife and two children. The procedure is relatively simple, or would be without the crowds: copies of identity papers, two color photographs, a thumbprint and a form to fill out.

An official checks the form and gives out a slip with a date in two or three weeks' time to return and collect the new passport. The document is only valid for a year because Iraq's new government is an interim body to be replaced after elections in January.

Sheikh Yassin's elderly parents stood quietly by a wall while their son queued.

"I applied three times under [former Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein to go to Mecca, but it was a lottery. I failed three times," his father said.

Mezhir Ali Hussein is a Sunni from Mahmoudia, a town south of Baghdad which has seen a spate of attacks on police stations, murders and foreigners taken hostage. His wife is a Shia from one of the thousands of families of distant Iranian origin who were stripped of their Iraqi citizenship a quarter of a century ago during one of many Shia revolts against former president Saddam. Most were then forced into Iran.

"She has five brothers and four sisters. She hasn't seen them for 25 years. They're in Isfahan," said Mezhir Ali Hussein, as his wife and teenage daughter, both dressed in coats and headscarves, stood to one side.

The government issues around 3,000 passports a day in Baghdad. Under Saddam's regime only a chosen few, with special permission, were allowed to get a passport. It cost around US$250.

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