Wednesday, November 05, 2003

The bureaucracy here is unbelievable.

To arrange to see government ministers, you call various ministry and coalition phone numbers for days with no success. The coalition press people with oversight for various ministries are unable to make arrangements for you. You then visit the ministries to request interviews. Security guards will often take away your satellite phone, digital camera, radio, tape recorder and walkie talkie. Once inside, it can take up to an hour just to find or meet the equivalent of a media spokesman for the ministry. Then you officially apply for an interview by writing down your name, organization and questions in advance, in Arabic.

Then the answer is usually “not today, not tomorrow, maybe next week.” Because my satellite phone does not work well indoors, or perhaps because the ministry employees are also not easily reachable even on their coalition-provided cell phones, I’m told to come by the ministry each day to check on the status of our request.

At the oil ministry, one of the more efficient ministries, we actually have a 10:30 appointment with a spokesman for the minister. We get to the ministry itself before 10:30 but it is 11:40 by the time we reach the spokesman. This is because various guards and ministry employees insist we must first see other people and sit in other offices along the way.

The red tape reminded my translator, Ali Abbass, of another story he worked on immediately after the fall of Baghdad, with another reporter. Three hospitals had already given him statistics on civilian deaths, but the director of a fourth hospital demanded they first seek permission from the Health Ministry, an impossible task as the government was nonexistent after the fall of the old regime.

“This country needs people who can think for themselves, not just follow the rules,” Ali said Tuesday.

I agreed it was a big problem for a country seeking to rebuild quickly.

“This is a disaster, not a problem,” Ali replied. “If we need a new Iraq, we need new minds. Not the old minds, they had their minds washed by Saddam. You can find many people here who are well educated and have good minds. But people have been taught to be scared, so they cannot make their own decisions.

“For example, if I am the director general of a government agency, I have a list of rules. But if one of Saddam’s relatives came to me and asked me for something that would force me to break all the rules, I should do it. I will just follow orders, not think for myself, out of fear for what will happen if I disobey.”

The favored term here for someone who can't think for himself is "donkey," an epithet liberally applied in the city's chaotic traffic.