Baghdad (AFP) – While they are long accustomed to the stench of corruption, two grim and eerily similar tragedies have shocked even hardened Iraqis, who blame graft and negligence for deaths and much more.
In separate parts of the country, young people have stumbled into neglected sewers where they suffocated, with would-be rescuers succumbing to the same gruesome fate.
The bigger of the two accidents was in Basra in oil-rich southern Iraq, where seven-year-old Karrar al-Shomari plunged through an uncovered manhole in the Al-Moafaqiya neighbourhood.
Six bystanders who had until then been relaxing in the relatively cool evening air tried to help — two were asphyxiated by the sewer’s noxious fumes.
“We had asked the council for a cover for the sewer a week before, and the only response we got was ‘send an official request’”, one of the surviving rescuers said in a video posted on Facebook, his voice shaking with rage.
All four survivors were hospitalised; online videos show them hooked up to breathing apparatus.
One is in a critical condition.
For journalist and activist Ahmad Abdel Samad, the episode is more than an accident.
It is “an atrocious crime stemming from the actions of corrupt enterprises,” he said.
– Fake contracts, ghost firms –
Stalled programmes, shell companies and fake contracts — aside from causing individual tragedies, experts say these scourges explain why Iraq lacks infrastructure, organised agriculture and industrial projects.
Corruption is a huge problem in Iraq. Since 2003, more than 5,000 fake contracts have been signed in the public sector.
And over the same period $228 billion dollars (around 195 billion euros) has gone up in smoke thanks to shell companies, according to Iraq’s parliament.
That figure is more than the country’s gross domestic product and nearly three times the annual budget.
Some public works never move beyond the paper they’re printed on; others stop abruptly after an initial flurry of activity.
An unfinished sewerage project accounts for the other recent tragedy, with a policeman dying trying to save a young man in Diwaniya around 10 days ago.
Monitoring a surveillance camera, Colonel Hussein Manafi saw Ali Farhan fall into a sewer in the eponymous capital of the southern agricultural province.
He rushed to the scene, but in vain — both men died.
And these were not the first fatalities at the water treatment plant; a girl died at the unfinished facility in 2015.
The project got underway in 2011, when the government mandated state firm Al-Rafidein to equip Diwaniya city with a sewerage network.
The state paid 218 billion dinars (over 150 million euros, more than $175 million) for the project that should have been completed in less than three years.
– ‘Negligence killed my brother’ –
Back in Basra, Iyad Mohsen buried his brother Imed — one of the two people who died trying to rescue little Karrar — on Friday.
“Negligence killed my brother, leaving three children without a father and a pregnant wife”, he said, lambasting “the bureaucracy” that eats away at Iraq’s social and economic fabric.
“The authorities said they would only put a cover back on this sewer after authorisations by the municipal council and a series of other procedures”, he told AFP.
The municipal council said it was grappling with regular theft of iron.
“People steal (manhole) covers to resell to iron smelters”, district spokesman Najah Shaker told AFP.
But in a country wracked for decades by wars, violence and corruption, avoidable accidents arouse anger.
“It seems Iraqis must all be shot dead, die fighting jihadists or by falling in sewers,” said journalist Abdel Samad.
“We only wish for a natural death.”