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Baghdad Mayor Ala' al-Tamimi (file photo)
Prague, 22 April 2005 -- On 21 April, Baghdad Mayor Ala' al-Tamimi visited Radio Free Iraq (RFI) at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague. He was interviewed by RFI's Ferial Hussain.
RFI: We welcome here warmly the mayor of Baghdad, architect doctor Ala' al-Tamimi, in this exclusive interview to Radio Free Iraq. First, let us talk about the purpose of your visit to the Czech Republic where you have met with the mayor of the capital Prague [Pavel Bem] and also with the Czech foreign minister, [Cyril Svoboda].
AL-TAMIMI: I have come to Prague on the grounds of official invitation from the Czech cabinet. I have met with the mayor of Prague and with Czech Foreign Minister [Cyril Svoboda], too. There was also a meeting with Senate deputy speaker [Jiri Liska] and with [Josef Jarab,] chairman of [the Czech Senate's] Committee on Foreign Affairs [, Defense and Security]. The purpose of the visit is prospecting the possibilities of the Czech side [to participate] in numerous projects in Baghdad that involve the municipality of Baghdad. The most important of them is laying down a layout plan for the city. The Czech friends had earlier informed us that they wish to finance the project of redrawing the layout plan of Baghdad city. As is known, the city's layout plan was laid in the mid-1970's. It was provided that many projects would be undertaken between 1980 and 2000 in Baghdad city. But the previous regime entered absurd wars with [Iraq's] neighbors, due to which the projects were not launched. After the regime fell in 2003, Baghdad apparently went through a period of undirected....
RFI: ...building and planning.
AL-TAMIMI: Exactly. That is why we are going to start a number of projects for Baghdad city. It was necessary to conduct scientific studies that would show our needs, and the Czech friends are experienced in this field. We have much in common between the two cities [Baghdad and Prague]. Both are historical cities, which is one of their common features. Likewise, Prague escaped totalitarian rule 15 years ago. Of course, as we have ourselves recently gone out of a totalitarian rule, their experience may help us in this regard.
RFI: Yes. The Czech capital, however, has been not exposed to wars, to bombing and destruction. I have not seen Baghdad for the last 10 years, but from the television and from what satellite and even Iraqi channels have been showing, you can feel as if its is not a capital. What will be the agreed layout plan? Being an architect, will you take part in it? Will you demand any changes that will suit the historical context and also the hot climate of Iraq as a whole?
AL-TAMIMI: The layout plan is not being done in a haphazard way. It is a matter of science and specialization. It must be based on particular strategies. Therefore I will, definitely, take part in these affairs. But my participation will be a scientific, architectural, and responsible one.
The fact is that Baghdad city has not been much affected by the wars. These [claims] are exaggerations. In the Iraq-Iran War, Baghdad was not affected at all. Al-Basrah and [other] southern Iraqi cities may have been affected. During the Second Gulf War [in 1991], military and industrial facilities were bombed. Normal buildings were not bombed. There was no bombing as it is understood from World War II. But Baghdad city has been a neglected city. As you know, madam, or maybe you do not know, that whatever was allocated by the Iraqi state for Baghdad city in the last 12 years, between 1992 and 2004, did not exceed over $260 million. Just imagine that. If the average number of city inhabitants [during that period] was 5 million, then the proportion for every inhabitant of Baghdad is less than $3 a year. This should cover water, sewer system, roads and pavements, municipal services, construction, and so forth. So the city has been neglected. If there are any quarters that have undergone reconstruction, those are the areas of presidential building, Saddam's palaces, and similar to these. Therefore, any architect is convinced that the current condition of Baghdad is out and out shameful. There is a big need for a new draft of a layout plan of the city.
RFI: Has any aid been offered for preserving the historical heritage of Baghdad, of historical areas and important old streets of Baghdad? There are, for instance, Al-Rashid Street or Sa'dun Street, there are old traditional houses.
AL-TAMIMI: This is one of the reasons of my visit, in fact. As I already said, the two cities are similar to each other. Both cities are historical. That is why we want to earn this experience. We want to preserve old Baghdad, the Baghdad of Al-Kazimiyah quarter, the Baghdad of Al-Rashid Street, the Baghdad of Al-Muraba'a area, the Baghdad of Uway'il area -- all the areas that have remained in the reminiscences of Baghdad. We want to modernize them but also to preserve their historical character.
RFI: Very modern designs have appeared from an architect living in a Persian Gulf country, and you also spent some time in the Gulf, in Abu Dhabi.
AL-TAMIMI: Certainly. But there are areas that we must, as I believe, preserve as they are now, renovating them without touching their architectural spirit. In other areas that are outside these historical quarters, we will definitely try to make use of the modern architecture to which you have pointed. We do not want to have a city built of concrete, iron, or armored concrete. We want a modern city that integrates both modernity and the traditional heritage. As you know, a city is like a person, it is a living being with its own changes, feelings, and influences. We will try to integrate all these factors in Baghdad.
RFI: Among the historical areas of Baghdad is the Suq al-Shorja market. The media has reported that this old market has been nearly completely destroyed [by a large fire that broke out on 14 April]. Can you give us an idea whether the destruction really reached such an extent and whether there is any intent to rebuild it into its previous shape?
AL-TAMIMI: I visited the scene of the fire three times. I visited it two hours after it broke out, and then the following day in the morning and evening. I was one of the many officials on the spot while the security situation is as you know. There have been two hypotheses: some say it was an intentional act and others say it was an accident coming out from short circuit in the electricity. I am with the theory of a short circuit in the electricity. But I do not insist on that. The official statement of the Iraqi cabinet said it was sabotage. Maybe, I do not insist. The lack of organization in the city, carelessness of citizens, and their disregard for the state were all involved in the incident of Suq al-Shorja market, and will be involved in similar incidents that may follow elsewhere. Even when the fire brigade came to extinguish the fire, their cars were not able to get there because the streets where blocked by hawkers. These do not block the streets [around the market] with their own cars that they could drive away -- they block them with parked cars.
RFI: Known as "Chambar."
AL-TAMIMI: Chambar, yes. You have used the word that I was trying hard to avoid. So the fact was that several buildings collapsed.
RFI: I have also read that there are no places adjusted as warehouses, where the goods would be categorized. Everything is just put together: plastic, textiles, clothes, items that can contain chemicals. All this added to igniting the whole area.
AL-TAMIMI: Definitely. There are no criteria to abide by. You know from the world that when you go to the cinema, for example, you will be sitting on a chair composed from different materials than the chair you have at home. There are namely calculations on the flammability of the material, it is studied for how many minutes the material must be exposed to flames before it catches fire and so on. But Iraq has since the 1980's departed from any international criteria in everything. Constructing buildings, housing, and storage are among these. Therefore, we start from anew now.
RFI: How can we start? As you have spoken about the historical places in Baghdad, [the recently burnt] Suq al-Shorja market is one of these areas.
AL-TAMIMI: Certainly. As for the question how we can start, the plan has already been laid down, madam. But the problem is: what are the resources. I can tell you that I was entitled to lead the municipality of Baghdad less than a year ago, on 23 May 2004. On 20 June when I was studying the condition of Baghdad city, I asked for a budget from the Iraqi state. As you know, there are numerous problems, and I studied these problems as a specialist -- but I do not own a magic wand to solve them. I must ask for resources. I made a moderate and not exaggerated estimate of these resources -- it reaches, though, $1 billion [that would be necessary] in the year 2005. The budget that I was given is $85 million, 8.5 percent of the request. So how can we make a change?
RFI: Regarding these needs of Baghdad, what can be the contribution from the Czech side after you led talks with its representatives?
AL-TAMIMI: You know, I have paid many visits and heard any promises. So the issue has remained on the level of promises. They have promised some aid.
RFI: Without any contracts, without signing any agreement?
AL-TAMIMI: No, a general agreement has been signed that includes a promise of aid. But there is no confirmation in the agreement what the amount will be and how the support will be provided. I informed them clearly: we are going through a difficult period, you are our friends, but Iraq is a rich country, once we will overcome this difficult period, and we will remember the friends who stood by us in such times.
RFI: From the beginning, we have been talking about Baghdad. Nevertheless, is there any plan for other historical cities of Iraq, Al-Basrah for example? You named Al-Basrah a while ago, saying that Al-Basrah had been seriously affected by bombing and wars. If Baghdad is renovated, is there any intention to renovate other cities such as Al-Basrah?
AL-TAMIMI: I am convinced that all cities of Iraq will be renovated. Al-Basrah, Baghdad....
RFI: I mean with expertise.
AL-TAMIMI: Definitely. New Iraq is an Iraq of expertise. I expect that [municipal] officials in new Iraq will be experts elected by the people, and whose hearts will beat for their cities. It is possible that we are now going through a transitional period, which may not be necessarily fulfilling what has been demanded. Still, it is sure that new Iraq and the cities of new Iraq will be rebuilt in a proper and systemic way.
RFI: How long will this take, in your opinion, after you have led these talks [in the Czech Republic] and met with officials in other countries? How long will this process take, from the moment in which you hear promises until the projects are fulfilled, and now I mean in Baghdad city?
AL-TAMIMI: The promises have been too many. Not only from the Czechs -- if you heard what people were telling Iraqis, you would be astonished. But we have kept hoping. Trust me, if resources were provided, all these projects would go quickly. And we hope for the resources to be provided.
RFI: What would Baghdad look like after the reconstruction as you imagine it?
AL-TAMIMI: I can inform you what my strategy in rebuilding Baghdad is. Baghdad has been a neglected city that currently suffers from a horrifying condition of services. Immediately after the fall of the regime [of Saddam Hussein in April 2003], 70 percent of the equipment of Baghdad municipality was looted. Imagine that people broke into some sewage plants and stole them away. Or, they destroyed much of their equipment. Not speaking about cars, vehicles, and other equipment that was there, or about reserve items that were there. All this was completely looted. The strategy of rebuilding Baghdad is related to this: the first phase is returning the services in Baghdad to the condition in which they were a day before the fall of the regime [of Saddam Hussein], to 9 April 2003. We hope to have accomplished this during the current or the next year.
The second phase is raising the level of services in Baghdad to a minimum standard that would be acceptable according to international measures. Let us take water, for example. We produce 2.1 million cubic meters of water a day while we need 3.2 million cubic meters. So there is a deficit of 1.1 million cubic meters. As soon as we are able to cover this deficit, it will mean we have reached the minimum standard according to international measures. The same is true for the sewer system, roads, bridges, and so on. I expect that this period could last about three to five years. So we can speak about the years 2010-12.
RFI: Does this perspective make you optimistic? Is it fast?
AL-TAMIMI: If resources are provided, then it is a reasonable time. In the third phase, services, living standards, and building should be raised to a level appropriate for Baghdad, as a city of civilization and history, as the capital of a rich oil-producing country. I wish that this takes again some three to five years.
RFI: Will this last period include also the subway in Baghdad?
AL-TAMIMI: Baghdad inhabitants might be surprised to know that the subway was supposed to be finished in 1984, earlier that the subways in Cairo and Tehran. But the engagement of the [Hussein] regime in absurd wars with [Iraq's] neighbors wasted all the money.
(Translated by Petr Kubalek)