Sunday, November 29, 2009

Iraq's postmen put their lives in God's hands

BAGHDAD — At 10:20 am on October 25, postman Mussa Sallus delivered letters to a bank at the ministry of justice in Baghdad. Five minutes after leaving the building, a shock wave blew him off his feet.

"I thank God for saving my life," says Sallus, who was less than 300 metres (yards) from the building when a suicide truck bomber detonated his payload, killing dozens, many of them children at a nursery for ministry workers.

A minute later, a second bomber drove an explosives-laden minibus into the entrance of Baghdad's municipal headquarters, located only 800 metres away, triggering a blast that raised the death toll to 153.

The attacks were the worst to hit Iraq in more than two years, wounding hundreds of people and causing major damage to dozens of nearby buildings.

When Sallus, who has been walking the Iraqi capital's streets for 27 years, reappeared at the post office his colleagues thought he was a ghost.

"They told me to stay at home," the 56-year-old bachelor recalls. "But the next day I was at my station. In Iraq we are used to this kind of situation. It is no reason to stop work."

Unlike in most countries and during the regime of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq's postal delivery workers do not wear a distinctive uniform, although a proposal for standard attire is being considered.

The post office in Salhiyah district, in central Baghdad, has 46 employees, among them six postmen, one of whom was almost killed in similar coordinated attacks on August 19.

"I had just finished a delivery of registered letters to the ministry of foreign affairs, when it arrived," says Abdul Hussein Tuma, describing the suicide truck bomb that left dozens of ministry employees and locals dead.

Tuma, also aged 56, was about to enter the Green Zone, seen as the safest area of Baghdad and home to diplomats and international workers, which is part of his sector, but ran in shock toward the capital's Republican Bridge.

"People were horrified when they looked at me and so I stopped and saw that I was covered in blood," says the 30-year postal veteran.

The August attacks at the finance and foreign ministries killed 95 people and left about 600 wounded. It frightened Tuma, but did not deter him from doing his rounds the following day.

"Of course I returned to work," he says. "What else can one do? It's routine. It is up to God to decide when I die. I survived because he wanted me to."

Violence has fallen markedly in the past 18 months. Even so, insurgents loyal to Saddam and to Al-Qaeda -- blamed by the government for the ministry attacks -- clearly retain a potent capability.

Despite security improvements and a better business environment, the postal service is not thriving.

The number of letters and parcels delivered nationwide has halved -- from 10 million to five million between 2002 and 2008, the latest available statistics show.

Revenues have slipped from 2.5 billion dollars (1.7 billion euros) to 1.7 billion dollars.

Paradoxically, though, the number of postal workers has risen from 1,600 to 2,864. That is a trend repeated throughout Iraq's dominant public sector, which is used, amid international criticism, to minimise heavy unemployment.

There are 330 postmen nationwide -- compared to 150 seven years ago -- post office planning and administration director Hannah Ali told AFP. Of them, 130 work in Baghdad.

Three postmen have been killed in explosions since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam six years ago. Three others died in sectarian attacks, Ali said, and one was shot dead in a crime for which the motive remains unclear.

Abdul Razak Talib, 43, the chief postman in Salhiyah, recalls an incident on Haifa Street, the capital's most dangerous at the height of the insurgency in 2006.

"I was riding on a moped with my colleague to hand over telephone bills when insurgents told us to turn back as they were about to start fighting," he says.

"They knew our faces but, for them, we were not part of the conflict."

The ministry attacks have shown that the postmen still face a precarious working environment and memories of the daily explosions that pulverised the city in the years after the invasion are still raw.

An attack on Shawaf Street, a busy thoroughfare full of restaurants, remains vivid in Talib's mind.

"I feared for my life," he says. "I crossed the street and the suicide bomber wearing an explosives-filled belt exploded a few seconds later."

The attack on June 19, 2005, killed 23 people, including six policemen, close to the Green Zone.

"It is a miracle that so many explosions did not kill more members of my profession," Talib says, with a smile on his face.

"God must think we are on a humanitarian mission."



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