Prashant Rao: slideshow photograph 1
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Prashant Rao: slideshow photograph 5

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‘Baghdad Night’ keeps alive folk tales of the dead

BAGHDAD (AFP) — As Iraq rebuilds after decades of brutality, one Baghdad resident is bent on reviving an ancient folk tale that, like much of the country’s history, risks being lost in time.

Baghdad Night” is a 10-minute 3D animated film made against all odds by an Iraqi team led by film-maker Furat al-Jamil.

It tells the story of the saalua, a ghoul known across Iraq and the Gulf who also makes a brief appearance in “One Thousand and One Nights”.

The saalua is used by parents to scare naughty children, but many now fear its story is fading as Iraq marches into modernity. (more…)

In Baghdad square, varied life paths since statue felled

BAGHDAD (AFP) – It was an iconic moment, viewed by people around the world on television, that came to symbolise the fall of Iraq’s capital Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

But residents have competing memories of the decade since the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously toppled in Firdos Square, among them three men — Hilal al-Dilfi, Qais al-Sharaa and Bassam Hanna — who work just metres apart.

In the years since, tens of thousands have been killed in brutal violence, the American military presence rose to 170,000 troops before the US withdrew completely, and countless Iraqis fled the country, fearing for their lives or in search of better opportunities.

In that time, Dilfi, Sharaa and Hanna have lived very different lives, reflecting competing histories of Iraq as the country marks a decade since the US-led entry into Baghdad. (more…)

Iraq’s people yet to feel benefit of oil boom

BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraq’s economy is expanding and government coffers are swelling, but Sabah Nuri, like many Iraqis who still struggle with poverty and poor services, has yet to see the benefits of rising oil exports.

Nuri is lucky: he has a job, albeit a relatively menial one, and a roof over his head. But he barely manages to cover the costs of rent, food and the regular payments for the neighbourhood generator used to meet the vast power shortfall.

“Everything here costs a lot of money — you always have to pay for things,” said the 45-year-old, who pushes heavy items around Bab al-Sharji, one of Baghdad’s oldest neighbourhoods, on a wooden cart.

“Outside Iraq they have services, so if you have a job, life is ok.”

“Where is the oil? We only hear the numbers, but we are not getting anything.” (more…)

Decade on, Iraq far cry from pre-war vision

BAGHDAD (AFP) – The US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein aimed to enshrine a liberal democracy in the heart of the Middle East but instead unleashed sectarian violence and endless political disputes.

Launched a decade ago with the stated goal of wiping out Saddam’s stores of weapons of mass destruction, which were never found, the focus of the divisive war quickly shifted to solidifying Iraq as a Western ally in an unstable region.

But the removal of Saddam gave Iraq’s non-Arab neighbour Iran the opportunity to dramatically increase its sway in the country, with ambiguous motives, according to Western diplomats.

And since the departure of American forces at the end of 2011, Washington has often struggled to exert influence over Baghdad.

“There were the superficial arguments — the weapons of mass destruction, the links with Al-Qaeda, the present risks to the security of the United States,” said Crispin Hawes, London-based Middle East and North Africa director for the Eurasia Group consultancy.

“These things look farcical now.” (more…)

Syria gets ‘blowback’ after playing with fire in Iraq

BAGHDAD (AFP) – At the peak of Iraq’s sectarian war, officials in Baghdad accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s regime of allowing Islamist militants to cross the two countries’ border to sow chaos.

Now, Damascus may be feeling the consequences of “playing with fire” as the uprising against Assad’s rule enters its 23rd month and regime forces fight the Al-Nusra Front — a formidable group that has been linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

At its peak, the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq was a key concern of the US military. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in the wake of deadly Baghdad bombings in August 2009 that “90 percent of terrorists” entered Iraq via Syria.

“They (Syria) contributed to forming a radical generation to fight the Americans in Iraq, but after the withdrawal, those fighters started thinking about working in Syria,” Iraq’s deputy interior minister Adnan al-Assadi told AFP, referring to the December 2011 pullout of US forces from Iraq.

Assadi’s remarks echo the complaints of Iraqi security officials who for several years argued that Assad’s regime was responsible for actively allowing militants into their country. (more…)

Using an Apple TV for journalism training

Last month, as part of a three-year journalism training programme run primarily by BBC Media Action, I helped train 10 Jordanian and Palestinian journalists on using basic web and digital tools to improve their journalism, digital ethics, and things like that. It was really fun and illuminating. I’ve written more about the project and the training itself in a post that will go up on AFP‘s blog (which I will cross-post here). But today, I just wanted to make a brief mention of a useful tool for journalism trainers who have Macs — the Apple TV. (more…)

Kerala – a journey through God’s own country

In November, I spent a week travelling through Kerala with some friends — it was a great trip, though extremely rushed. I totally recommend it, but wouldn’t suggest you try and make it as hectic as we did: we spent a week going through Trivandrum, Alleppey, Periyar, Munnar and Kochi, and didn’t really see any of those places in any real depth.

In any case, go to Kerala! It’s beautiful. Hopefully my photos do some justice to it. (more…)

Baghdad Protests – In Pictures

Demonstrators supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gathered at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square today — here are a few pictures from the rally.

Hundreds back Maliki amid calls for Iraq PM to quit
By Prashant Rao
BAGHDAD (AFP) — Hundreds of demonstrators rallied in central Baghdad backing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Saturday as the latest in weeks of anti-government rallies in Sunni areas of Iraq called for him to quit.
Read the full story

The Great Christmas Day Baghdad Flood

An Iraqi man pushes a vehicle through flooded streets in Baghdad's Sadr City neighbourhood. (© Prashant Rao for AFP)On December 25, 2012, it rained in Baghdad — this would not be a notable fact in any other city but the Iraqi capital, whose sewage systems remain woefully under-equipped for anything but the minimum of precipitation. Unsurprisingly, what turned out to be Baghdad’s heaviest rains in 30 years basically flooded entire streets of the city. (more…)

Syria — a rebel victory, a school and a devastated city

A bakery hands out bread in Aleppo, where residents are suffering from major shortages of bread. (© Prashant Rao for AFP)

Earlier in December, I spent some time covering the conflict in Syria for AFP — much of it was spent in Turkey, but here are a collection of photographs I took and stories I wrote from my assignment.

Hunger sharpens misery in Syria’s Aleppo
ALEPPO, Syria (AFP) — Residents of Aleppo have suffered through months of brutal urban warfare and now face a humanitarian crisis with a lack of food and fuel as the Syrian winter sets in.

School opens for displaced Syrians at Turkey border
KILIS, Turkey (AFP) — In a Turkish town across the border from Syria, a few dozen exiled schoolteachers have established a makeshift school for children displaced by their native country’s brutal civil war.

Tactical victory bittersweet for Syria rebels
MUSLIMIYEH, Syria (AFP) — A key tactical victory for rebels in northern Syria proved bittersweet when a well-respected commander was killed, with fighters recalling a father figure with a sharp military mind. (more…)