Iraq’s prolonged political predicament and soaring prices for essential foodstuffs have overshadowed Ramadan this year, dampening the festive spirit for many Iraqis.
Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, began on Saturday for Sunnis while Shiites started on Sunday due to the differing moon-sighting techniques that each sect follows.
Many Shiites prefer to see the crescent with their naked eye, while Sunnis often use telescopes or follow Saudi Arabia’s lead.
“How can we feel the joy and happiness of Ramadan while we experience unprecedented injustice?” Youssife Haider, a street vendor of souvenirs outside a revered Shiite shrine in Baghdad, told The National.
“We have all the resources and economic potential that other nations envy us for, but we are going through all kinds of tragedies.”
In the weeks before Ramadan, prices for many imported food items and construction materials increased between 20 per cent to 50 per cent after the Russian military campaign in Ukraine was launched on February 24.
That has exacerbated the effect of the currency devaluation, a policy implemented by the Iraqi government at the end of 2020 due to a significant decline in oil revenue, which pushed the war-ravaged nation into a budget deficit.
Recovering from war
Mr Haider lost the use of his legs when Al Qaeda terrorists sprayed him with bullets in 2006, the worst year of Iraq’s sectarian chaos which engulfed the nation after the US-led invasion of 2003.
That attack left the 52-year-old father of one in a wheelchair, using a catheter to urinate. A small black bag is wrapped around his waist when he collects money.
“Iraq is making billions of dollars each month, but we have no government or real politicians who work for us, they are only a group of people working for other countries,” he said from behind his stall where he sells rosaries and praying mats along with other religion-themed souvenirs.
Nearly six months have passed since Iraq held its national elections yet the country still has no government due political wrangling over who will take the role of president, prime minister and leading Cabinet positions.
The standoff is mainly among the majority Shiites.
The populist Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, whose Sadrist Bloc was the clear winner in October’s election with 73 seats, has blocked some of his Iran-backed Shiite rivals from becoming part of the new government.
His rivals have teamed up in a parliamentary bloc that has hindered his efforts to elect a new president, despite their heavy electoral losses.
Through boycotting successive votes for a new president in parliament, they are blocking a crucial step in government formation — once a president is sworn in, he nominates the winning bloc which then forms the government.
The political crisis took a new turn on Thursday when Mr Al Sadr said he was stepping back and giving his rivals, the Co-ordination Framework, the chance to form the government. He has given them 40 days.
“Ramadan is not for us but for the politicians,” said Haider Ali Qassim, 46, the owner of a shop, selling women’s bags and shoes in Baghdad’s Karrada commercial district.
“Many people can’t find anything to eat and they are squabbling over the government for [nearly] six months now.”
He recalled how his neighbour knocked on his door late on Saturday to ask for two eggs for the suhoor meal, eaten before the call for dawn prayers.
“We didn’t see anything when the [barrel of] oil sold at $40 and now we are also seeing nothing at $120 price.”
Despite the gloomy atmosphere, many families have decorated their houses with lights, big crescent moons and traditional Ramadan lanterns, known as ‘fanous’ in Arabic.
Strings of colourful lights hang from the minarets of the mosques and their inner walls, along with banners that glorify the Prophet Mohammed and Ramadan.
“We pray to the almighty Allah to make this month a blessing month, and to overwhelm us and the Muslims with good, security, peace and love,” said Yilmaz Yousef, Imam of the Sheikh Abdul Qader Gilani Mosque in Baghdad.
“Also, we ask the almighty Allah to make people care for each other and to remove this gloom over the nation and give them a share of his blessing and mercy, and the blessings of this holy month.”
Some merchants have launched initiatives to sell food at cheaper prices.
Among them is Khalil Ibrahim Hashim who offers essential food items at wholesale price. He also offers a seven-item food basket at a discounted price of 10,000 Iraqi dinars (about $7).
“The poor are the ones who contribute to the festive spirit of Ramadan,” Mr Hashim says, standing outside his shop displaying an array of food with discounted price tags on each item.
“The government must intervene and help them — we can’t offer them all they need all the time.”