Iraqis mark Ramadan with mix of concerns, woes

Sunday 12/06/2016
Iraqis shop for traditional Ramadan items at a market in Basra, 550km south-east of Baghdad, on June 6th.

Baghdad - Ramadan in Iraq resembles the Muslim holy month in any peaceful country. Lanterns light shops, houses and public offices. Free meals are offered to the poor and sweets adorn shop windows.

Nevertheless, bloody attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS) were pre­dicted to increase during Ramadan because the jihadists say “martyr­dom” in the holy month would gain them more divine rewards.

Ramadan is also a reminder of how tough life has become in Iraq where more than 6 million people are displaced by ISIS violence and sectarian strife, poverty is rising and a weak government is unable to hold the country together.

“Ramadan is the time for family,” said Mohammed Saad, a Baghdad banker. He said his brothers, sis­ters and he meet daily at their par­ents’ home. “Each of us brings food to share. The kids play with their cousins. Our parents love it to see their grandchildren,” Saad said.

“What to do and where to go, since explosions increase during Ramadan?” he asked.

Ramadan is the month in which the Quran was revealed to Prophet Mohammad. Fasting during Rama­dan is one of the five pillars of Is­lam. The month is usually spent by Muslims fasting from dawn until sunset and is considered a time for reflection, worship and showing charity to others.

Iraqis have received the holy month with worries since the US-led invasion in 2003 and the chaos that followed. Ramadan in Iraq has since been often marred by vio­lence mostly carried out by Sunni insurgent groups targeting security forces and members of the majority Shia sect that has dominated Iraq since the overthrow of Sunni dicta­tor Saddam Hussein.

On the first day the majority Shias began to fast on June 7th, a day after Sunnis began to observe Ramadan, a car bomb exploded in the holy Shia city of Karbala, killing five peo­ple and wounding 33 others. ISIS jihadists claimed responsibility for the attack. Bombings in Karbala are rare but the city, 60km south-west of Baghdad and which is the site of the mausoleums of revered Shia imams Hussein and Abbas, borders Anbar province where Iraqi forces are battling ISIS.

A series of attacks in 2015 tar­geted public places and mosques in Shia neighbourhoods during Rama­dan, killing hundreds of people. In one attack, a car bomb blast left at least 90 people dead. They were celebrating the end of Ramadan in the predominantly Shia town of Khan Bani Saad. The explosion inflicted a higher casualty since it took place with the marketplace filled with holiday shoppers on the eve of the Eid el-Fitr, which marks the end of fasting.

In May, ISIS spokesman Abu Mo­hammed al-Adnani urged jihad­ists to launch attacks against non-believers everywhere in the world during Ramadan.

“Ramadan, the month of con­quest and jihad. Get prepared, be ready to make it a month of ca­lamity everywhere for the non-believers,” Adnani said in an audio message distributed on militant websites.

The call appeared to have been answered in Jordan on the first day of fasting. A gunman stormed the of­fices of Jordan’s intelligence agen­cy in Ein Pasha, a city on the edge of a Palestinian refugee camp north of Amman. Five intelligence agents were killed in the June 6th attack quickly blamed on ISIS.

Ahmed al-Azawi, a Baghdad civil servant, said that due to the dete­riorating security situation in the capital, he had stopped some Ram­adan practices that he was used to before 2003, such as performing night prayers at mosques or playing the game Mheibis with friends after the end of fasting.

Mheibis is a traditional Iraqi game played especially during Ramadan in which rival teams must find a ring hidden by the opposing group. The game used to be played across Baghdad and several other cit­ies but the number of the matches dropped significantly, because of fear of attacks by jihadists.

“Our fears increase during Rama­dan because Daesh is mounting its attacks. We think twice before go­ing outside in crowded places. For us, Ramadan is a month of extra bloodshed,” Azawi said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Contrary to most Muslim coun­tries where people pour into the streets after iftar and spend eve­nings in cafés or parks, Iraqi city streets are almost empty after sun­set.

Economic hardships due to low oil prices and the costly war against ISIS have added to the country’s economic woes and markets see lit­tle of the expected upturn in busi­ness during Ramadan.

Abu Mustafa, a wholesale food trader, said that in past years he had to work hard to satisfy his cus­tomers’ needs, starting even before Ramadan. This year, he said, busi­ness was slow.

“The current economic crisis has negatively affected our business this Ramadan,” said Abu Mustafa as he stood in his store with no cus­tomer in sight.

He said many people preferred to save their money rather than spend it on Ramadan food or activities.

“With the uncertainties embrac­ing the country, Iraqis must save money for emergencies. Appar­ently, Ramadan is not one of them,” Abu Mustafa said.