Flooding Paralyzes Baghdad

Flooding Paralyzes Baghdad

BAGHDAD (AP) -- After a night of intense rain storms pummeling Baghdad, a joke shared on social media on Thursday assures Iraqis they don't need to go far to catch a migrant boat to Europe.

"Grab a boat from Baghdad and it will take you straight to Greece," it reads.

But Baghdad residents may not have been in the mood for humor after awaking to knee-deep floodwaters that seeped into homes and paralyzed parts of the city.

Blocks of ice, the type usually sold on outdoor stalls, floated down the streets of Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood as men trudged through muddy water, trying to assess the damage.

The rare rainstorm began late Wednesday and continued into Thursday, dumping heavy rain on the Iraqi capital and across much of the country. The Iraqi government declared Thursday a holiday to ease the burden on people who may otherwise struggle to get to work and school. The stormy weather forecast to continue throughout the weekend, which is Friday and Saturday in Iraq.

Police and security forces were deployed in Baghdad — a city of about 5 million people — to help citizens navigate the floodwaters. Security forces have been stretched thin battling the Islamic State militant group since last year, so the battle with Mother Nature was something out of the ordinary.

"We are your brothers, and we are here to serve the citizens of Iraq," one police officer in central Baghdad said, speaking live on Iraqiyya state television.

Old and inadequate drainage systems have long been an issue in Iraq and among the complaints of citizens who have been protesting for better basic services and an end to corruption. Calls for reform have intensified since the summer, when scorching temperatures led to chronic power cuts.

Iraq's power, communications, water, sewage treatment and health facilities were severely battered during the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War, and then again in the 2003 invasion. In between, stringent U.N. sanctions severely limited the country's ability to rebuild.

Despite some investments to rebuild infrastructure since the 2003 invasion, many Iraqis blame corruption at home for the lack of progress.

"When it comes to the sewage system, there is a main line that serves all of Baghdad and it only takes three months to clean them from north to south," said Mazin al-Eshaiker, a spokesman for the Provincial Reformists Protesters, a pro-democracy group of activists.

"They (authorities) claim that there have been rocks that were thrown in the sewage lines but none of that is true, it is 100 percent because of corruption," added al-Eshaiker.

Following widespread protests in August, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced a far-reaching reform plan that eliminated the country's three vice presidencies and three deputy prime ministers.

The plan also reduced the budget for the personal bodyguards of senior officials and transferred it to the interior and defense ministries. A number of reforms have been announced since then, but many Iraqis believe the measures were too little, too late.

"There is neither infrastructure nor reforms," said Muyad Ali, a Sadr City resident whose home was severely flooded when he woke up Thursday. "They promise to do something and then do nothing. Families are fleeing from their homes because they are flooded."

Still, the burden is always hardest on those who have nothing. At a camp for displaced people in the town of Yousifiyya, south of Baghdad, the water was knee-high and pouring into tents, soaking mattresses and other belongings.

Iraq is home to more than three million displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees, many of whom are barely able to get by.

"Our furniture is soaked," said 10-year-old Malak Saad, who fled her Fallujah home with her family last year. "We want to go home. I want to go to my school. I can't stand living here in a tent. I want to go home and play with my friends."