In Iraq, a $600 bribe can get you a driver's license

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston.
Ten years ago, the US was seven months into the Iraq occupation. Iraqi and American losses were just starting to add up. Now with the war over, officially at least, Iraqis continue to die violently and we Americans mostly watch from afar. This afternoon, Iraq's prime minister met with President Obama at the White House. Security was at the top of the agenda. Nouri al-Maliki is asking for more American help, including weapons, to take on increasingly bold and dangerous insurgents. I checked in earlier with Iraqi journalist Sahar Issa. She told me, it's been bad lately.

Issa: To tell you the truth, I think the figures can speak for themselves. Just in October, we had 979 people killed. 1902 injured nationwide. That is the highest figure since April 2008. So as far as security is concerned, I must say that security is really going down the drain, and it's very bad. It's very dangerous out on the street.

Werman: I mean, a thousand--nearly a thousand dead in the month of October. Psychologically, how's that affecting people? How's it affecting you?

Issa: It is affecting us in the way that people are tending to keep to their homes, because they realize that although the violence is not personal - now a lot of the times it's explosions - but at the same time, because it is political, until political solutions are reached, it's not going to stop. That's what the people believe.

Werman: And so how do you reach a political solution? I mean, that seems to be largely out of the hands of the public right now since there is no election, right?

Issa: There is no election yet, of course, and the rumor is the--the betting, let us say, run high, that one of the main reasons that have submerged for Maliki's visit to the US is to court Obama's support for a third term. Which is, of course, according to our constitution, not so very constitutional. And so the violence here, of course, is trying to put Maliki on the spot because his platform has always been providing security, since as he has provided nothing else to choose.

Werman: So you believe, personally, that Nouri al-Maliki has given very little to the country?

Issa: It is not actually in what I believe; the facts again speak for themselves. What the country lacks are basic services, and the money that has gone, that has been forwarded towards providing those services, are very large amounts of money. And all this money is going towards providing infrastructure and basic services that people have not seen.

Werman: How does corruption then affect people on a day to day basis?

Issa: Oh, this is a very sore point, because as I said, because the corruption I believe--in my belief, it is the biggest, single issue that is holding back and restraining the country from making any steps forward. Formerly, and maybe everywhere in the world, you pay a bribe to do something that is not regular. Here, you don't pay a bribe when you are doing something that is irregular. Even when you are doing something that is regular, in every step of the process, you pay a bribe. You cannot get anything done, whether it's good, bad, red, green, blue, unless you pay the people who are working the system.

Werman: Could that be as innocuous as just getting a driver's license? Is that where a bribe might come into play?

Issa: You have no idea. Because my driving license, of course, expired a long time ago, and the institutions that are supposed to provide us with driving license stopped working for years and years. And they started up a year and a half ago. And now I am told I can get a driver's license for 600 dollars. Or if I want to get the plate for my car, I have to pay 1100 dollars. These are people who work the system, they know where to give the bribe, and they don't… I don't want to do that. But sometimes, people just don't have a choice. It has become institutionalized. It has become a revenue generating machine, and people have come--the people who are a part of that machine, have come to depend on these incomes as if they were regular incomes. They will fight, they will kick, they will bite to keep it going.

Werman: Sahar, you've lived through sanctions. You've lived through the invasion. That harrowing experience, as you described it, the occupation and troubles. And you've stayed in Iraq. Are you changing your plans for the future, for yourself, for your family?

Issa: For myself, it is a matter of, if everyone who can lend a hand in building this country leaves, then we have no right to complain, do we? For myself, I wish that I can stay and lend a hand. This does not extend, however, to considerations for the safety of my family. If I feel that any family member is in danger, I will do my best to get them to safety one way or the other. But generally speaking, if I had my own preference, I would stay in the country, I would lend a hand. I would try to make a difference, I don't know how or where... rebuilding a country that I love.

Werman: Journalist Sahar Issa, in Baghdad. Sahar, always great to speak with you. Thank you for your time.

Issa: Thank you.