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…)

Jakarta – A Brief Visit

Jakarta's skyline, as viewed from an apartment block (© Prashant Rao for AFP)I briefly got a chance to visit Jakarta in November, and stayed with an old friend — I didn’t explore a huge amount of it, and mostly spent it at my friend’s place hanging out. It’s a massive city, and so much time is spent on the road (there is effectively no public transport system, only taxis), and it doesn’t have the same kind of historical sights as Bangkok. If you can’t tell, I wasn’t a huge fan. (more…)

Christmas in Baghdad 2012

An inflatable Santa sits outside a shop in central Baghdad selling Christmas-related goods (© Prashant Rao for AFP)

After visiting the Our Lady of Salvation Church in central Baghdad, the site of a brutal massacre in 2010, I wandered around some nearby shops to take some Christmas-related photographs. I filed them for the AFP wire, but this is my favourite of the ones that were not used.

Here’s the story I wrote about Christmas Eve mass at the church, and here’s a post about my visit to a different church in Baghdad for Christmas last year.

‘Looking for nothing’ in Iraq’s desert

Ruba Husari sets off on her trek through the desert in east Iraq, in search of a confluence point (© Prashant Rao).

QALAAT MUZEIBLEH, Iraq (AFP) – At the end of a research trip to an oil field in east Iraq, Ruba Husari took a detour to visit a site she had wanted to see for some time. When she arrived it was barren — but still she was delighted.

Less than 10 kilometres (six miles) from the Iranian border, Husari’s destination was nondescript and unremarkable — a 20 minute walk from a pothole-filled road and several kilometres (miles) from the tiny village of Qalaat Muzeibleh, with the Badra oil field barely visible in the distance.

But the spot marked the exact geographic intersection of a latitude and longitude point — 33 degrees north and 46 degrees east — one of several in Iraq and around the world that adventurous travellers are looking to document as part of an Internet-based project.

“It’s a fantastic way of exploring the country,” said Husari, whose day job involves running the website. (more…)

Paralympic dream over, Iraqi wakes up to old life

Ahmed Naas, who won a silver medal at the 2012 London Paralympics, hurls a javelin at his 'training ground'. (© Prashant Rao)

BATHA, Iraq (AFP) — For a moment, Ahmed Naas thought his life would change — he overcame the odds to not just qualify for the Paralympics, but briefly held a world record, and was eventually awarded a silver medal.

He dreamed of fame in his native Iraq, adulation from his friends and compatriots, and a chance to secure his family’s future. He was, after all, a champion, in his words. A hero.

Then he came home. (more…)

Iraq investment concerns remain as trade fair ends

BAGHDAD (AFP) — Nuri al-Maliki may have trumpeted Iraq last week as the top destination for investment in the region, but experts warn that myriad problems keep it from being a good choice for all but the most adventurous.

Excessive red tape, rampant corruption, an unreliable judicial system and still-inadequate security, as well as a poorly trained workforce and a state-dominated economy all continue to plague Iraq, which completed its biggest trade fair in 20 years last week to much domestic acclaim.

The various difficulties of doing business in Iraq cast doubt on efforts to raise $1 trillion (788 billion euros) in investment income over the coming decade that officials say is needed to rebuild its battered economy.

“If you want to attract capital, if you want to attract firms, you’ve got to make it positive,” complained one Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “You’ve got to provide the incentives to invest here, and there are already so many disincentives.” (more…)

Iraq needs $1 trillion to rebuild: investment chief

BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraq needs up to $1 trillion over the next 10 years to rebuild its crumbling infrastructure and battered economy, its investment chief said in an interview on Thursday.

Sami al-Araji‘s remarks come during the Baghdad International Fair, Iraq’s biggest trade showcase in more than 20 years, as the government looks to court foreign investment, diversify the country’s oil-dependent economy and reduce unemployment.

“We are talking about the reconstruction of Iraq, a minimum requirement of money … is about $600-700 billion dollars, and could go all the way to $1 trillion” in the years to 2022, said Araji, director of the National Investment Commission. (more…)

Bush-Quayle ’92 in Iraq!

With the US election coming up, my thoughts turned to a photograph I took a few weeks ago, while on a boat ride of the Tigris, the river that flows through Baghdad.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but someone pointed out to me later that our boat driver was wearing a very unusual baseball cap — take a look.

Maybe if I come back in 2028, I’ll be able to nab some McCain-Palin memorabilia.

A Baghdad boat driver rides along the Tigris, wearing a Bush-Quayle ’92 baseball cap (© Prashant Rao).

Iraq PM in power grab by ousting bank chief: experts

by Prashant Rao

Note: This article was published by AFP on October 22, 2012. It can be found in full here.

BAGHDAD (AFP) – The targeting of Iraq’s well-respected central bank chief appears to be a move by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to consolidate power and sends a bad message to international investors, experts and diplomats say.

Sinan al-Shabibi was last week replaced as governor of the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI) while he was overseas, and arrest warrants have since been issued for him and other bank officials over allegations of currency manipulation.

The moves are the latest that appear to undermine CBI independence, after a supreme court ruling early last year put the bank under the supervision of Iraq’s cabinet rather than parliament.

“It (is) another step down the road (to) an extremely centralised level of control,” said Crispin Hawes, the London-based director of the Middle East and North Africa group at the Eurasia Group think tank.

“Via a proxy, he (Maliki) has direct control of the CBI, the ministry of defence and the ministry of interior — these are the signature institutions of a Middle Eastern state,” Hawes told AFP by telephone, referring to the fact that the top ministers at the two security ministries are seen as Maliki allies.

“It’s not a complicated story,” he added. (more…)

Ex-minister slams Iraq PM for tolerating graft

by Prashant Rao

Note: This article was originally published by AFP on February 14, 2012. It can be found in full here.

LONDON (AFP) — The first minister to quit Iraqi premier Nuri al-Maliki‘s unity government criticized the prime minister for turning a blind eye to worsening corruption among his loyalists, in an interview with AFP.

Former communications minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, who resigned on August 27, added he was holding documents pointing to graft within the government, but declined to give details, insisting instead they would be released at an unspecified future date.

He said he was “100 percent sure that the people surrounding al-Maliki, they are corrupt people, very close to him, they are highly corrupt people.”

“But definitely, he knows the corrupt people, but those who are loyal to him, he never takes any action. He allows them to be more corrupt, and it is very obvious,” Allawi said at his west London home. (more…)