A taxi driver in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, tried to make a small joke: "When US-led administrators hand sovereignty of the country back to Iraqis, insurgents will storm the prison where former President Saddam Hussein is held and bring him back to power."
When asked why anyone would want the former dictator back, Mohammed Abdullah, 30, chuckling sadly, told IRIN, "At least then, we had security."
Even if the electricity works better to power wheezing air-conditioners to beat the blistering heat, or more people are working again, all that Iraqis want to talk about these days is the lack of security in their country.
HOPING FOR BEST, PREPARING FOR WORST
Even before the handover of power happened unexpectedly on Monday, two days before the scheduled 30 June date, aid workers at international and local agencies were hoping for the best, but planning for the worst.
"People are expecting things to start moving. They hope things will get better with infrastructure such as electricity and sewage," Edmond Adam, Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) interim director, told IRIN in Baghdad. MECC has worked in southern Iraq and is bringing in medical supplies. "We are also waiting to see what happens."
US administrator Paul Bremer on Monday morning handed over government documents to Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, in the heavily fortified "green zone" in the capital where many governmental offices and palaces of former President Saddam Hussein are located. Allawi was accompanied by other members of the new interim government, including Sheikh Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, the new president.
Insecurity in many parts of Iraq has already forced many international organisations to send international aid workers out of the country. Most put operations on hold during the handover period. All UN international staff were evacuated and work for Iraq is being done by local staff directed from Amman, Jordan. International staff left Iraq following an August bombing which killed more than 20 people.
"[Regarding] the movement of our expatriate staff, we try not to go out too much," Giorgio Tarditi, director of Lifeline, Relief in Crisis, a South African-based aid agency, told IRIN. "Let's suppose the situation worsens, then there is progress, complete autonomy, and everything falls apart."
Intelligence reports put out by US-led administrators and others have indicated that things might get even worse in the coming weeks for foreigners, newly named interim government officials and "collaborators" who work with US civilians or troops. In recent days, insurgents have kidnapped and killed a US citizen and a South Korean man. Insurgents currently hold three Turkish citizens they said they would kill if all Turks did not leave the country.
Dan Senor, a US administration spokesman in Iraq, said insurgents would try to destabilise the new interim government, but officials would stand firm.
"This is a government prepared to weather the post-30 June storm," said Senor. "They will do everything they can to beat back this terrorist threat and not get off the track to democracy."
All civilian movement out of the "green zone" is restricted until 4 July because of the potential for increased instability. There were additional rumours that civilians working for the US-led administration would not be allowed to fly out of Iraq until after that date for security reasons.
"Aid agencies are lessening their presence even more in case things go bad," Darren Nance, who works for the US-based NGO, the National Democratic Institute, told IRIN. The US-based democracy-building group is working on preparations for planned January elections.
NEW INTERIM GOVERNMENT
US officials appointed a Governing Council of 25 members last autumn. That council was dissolved in June for the new interim government, formed through a process facilitated by Lakhdar Brahimi, Special Adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and approved by Governing Council members.
The new government, expected to be in power until the January 2005 elections, has a president, two deputy presidents, and a prime minister who oversees a council of 32 ministers.
The head of the UN election division, Carina Perelli, working on the election process in Iraq, said earlier that the situation would calm down once citizens started realising there would be a national election. But Prime Minister Allawi said recently he believed an election should be postponed to March. A newly named electoral commission of Iraqis expected to run the election has already left the country for training.
Sam Patten, resident political director at the International Republican Institute's Baghdad office, told IRIN that workers tentatively planned to do a country-wide census in October, an essential part of the election process. Already, some 120 self-declared political parties have stepped forward to get training from the US-based democracy-building group, which is also working on election preparations. UN officials suggested last month that food ration cards issued under former international sanctions against the country could be used to form a voter database.
"Whether that (census) information can be analysed and tabulated in time is a whole other story," Patten said. "But the political parties are realising this is a democratic means of engaging the system."
Some aid workers said there could be fighting among Iraqis themselves due to the humanitarian and political situation. "In the next six months, there could be some insecurity - there could even be a confrontation between religious leaders and the government," Lifeline's Tarditi said. "If there is a civil war, which we don't expect, we would have to leave, too."
Insurgents also continue to attack Iraq's oil infrastructure, causing a loss of up to US $1 billion in revenue in recent months, money that could be going towards building a new Iraq. Allawi said anyone attacking oil pipelines is a traitor to the freedom of Iraq's people.
In addition, several government officials have been gunned down in front of their homes or at work in the last few weeks. The deputy foreign minister was killed, as was a Baghdad University official. An Education Ministry official, who had been coordinating changes to the educational curriculum and its textbooks, was also killed.
"Criminals are criminals - they don't differentiate between workers for the ministry of oil and workers for the ministry of education," Fadhal Tala, a ministry of education spokesman, told IRIN earlier. "Why criminals are interested in one person and not another, I don't know."
On the positive side, the Ministry of Human Rights expects to work on more prison issues, including getting the country ready to sign an international convention against torture, Baktiar Amin, the human rights minister, told IRIN. Following US troop abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, Iraqi guards are expected to take over day-to-day administration of criminal prisoners. US troops will continue to watch those classified as "security detainees".
"We are preparing Iraq to be a part of this, (but) we need to reform our penal code and train our people," Amin said. "It's not an easy issue when you have had a pattern of systematic torture for decades."
Many NGOs in Basra were anxious ahead of the handover. Ra'd Suliman, deputy director of the General Organisation for Human Rights (GOHR), established in May 2003, told IRIN that the handover would be good for the Iraqi people even though it's a new national undertaking. "There could be some difficulties because of recent history and the worry over real independence," he added.
After major military operations ended over a year ago, Suliman said, many NGOs were formed throughout the country. But he stressed that it was mainly in Basra where people were heavily oppressed by the former government, and suffered more than any other from wars with Iran and Kuwait, that NGOs are focused on humanitarian work. Basra was neglected because of the uprising of local people against Saddam during the first Gulf war in 1991.
Today human rights is one of the biggest issues dealt with by NGOs in Basra.
There are some 35 NGOs seeking civil rights for local Iraqis. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has been working with 18 of the leading organisations.
LOCAL NGOS WANT MORE INVOLVEMENT
Azer Naji heads the Media Department of the Arabian Gulf Studies Centre at the University of Basra, and is one of the NGOs working with the CPA.
He pointed out that aid agencies in southern Iraq were facing many problems primarily because it was impossible for them to monitor what was going on or to take part in the political decision-making. "This is because, like the centre, we are marginalised by both the CPA and those Iraqis who were delegated legitimate authority," he maintained.
He said that although political advisers in southern Iraq who work with the CPA had organised meetings for civil society organisations to help develop skills in human rights, media operations, and development projects, there had not been much international help as yet.
Naji expressed concern over the security situation too, saying he hoped it would improve following the handover. "The Iraqi government will be more aware of the security needs of the Iraqi people, but I'm not sure if security will prevail in the short term."
SECURITY - KEY ISSUE
Others too have security concerns. Nabil Kazim from the Iraqi National Association for Human Rights (INAHR) is concerned about their own protection following the handover. "There are some organised gangs that threaten our work. At one point, we stopped our activities when I was threatened because I criticised some of the political parties here. The militias which work for political parties those like Badr troops, and al-Mehdi troops (the latter are supporting radical Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr) must be eliminated before we can carry on freely with our work."
Sajda al-Abadi, from the Union of Basra Women, one of three independent women's groups here, told IRIN that they were hoping for a peaceful transfer following decades of turmoil in the country, with more female participation.
"The CPA is certainly working with women representatives. On the other hand, we were shocked just today by the result of the Basra Governorate Council decision to take just one candidate from among the 150 women who applied," she said.
The NGO found that almost 90 percent of widowed women in Basra and other southern governorates were living under severe conditions and form the highest percentage of beggars in the streets. Although she had a variety of projects to help these women, funding was not adequate, al-Abadi said.
"I can't predict what will happen after the handover, civil society in the country will not be able to develop very fast. But we are hopeful that we could start doing that with better security."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions