Baghdad’s beggars reappear in Green Zone
By Qassim Abdul-Zahra
BAGHDAD — A woman wrapped in a dirty abaya sits beneath a tree in the Green Zone, her palms turned upward awaiting the kindness of strangers.
The sidewalks around the Convention Center are an ideal place for 50-year-old Um Mohammed — a nickname that means "mother of Mohammed" — to hustle for spare cash.
Beggars are reappearing in the Green Zone and elsewhere in the capital, an indication that police seem to be losing interest in carrying out orders last month to round them up. The Interior Ministry’s directive followed a series of suicide attacks by homeless or disabled people who had been lured by insurgents.
"This segment of the population is an easy target for terrorist groups trying to deceive them and make them walking bombs," said Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman.
Um Mohammed, a beggar who would not give her real name, said she preferred the Green Zone.
"I’m getting older and weaker, and I don’t have the ability to walk and beg on the streets," she said.
Except for the occasional rocket or mortar, the heavily fortified area is a haven of relative peace in the middle of a city torn by war. Home to the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy, the 3.5-square-mile area is safer than the streets where daily bombings and shootings are an ever-present threat.
And the Green Zone is full of people — Americans, Iraqi officials and others — who can afford the occasional generosity.
It is unclear where those asking for handouts are coming — from outside the Green Zone or from within the homes and villas cordoned off from the rest of Baghdad inside the Green Zone boundaries.
The Green Zone is by no means infested with beggars. But a handful do get through regularly — especially when Iraq’s parliament is in session inside the protected zone. Although entries to the Green Zone are guarded, Iraqis can gain access by producing proper identification cards and submitting to a search to make sure they aren’t carrying explosives or weapons.
Yaqdhan al-Dikhil, security director for the Convention Center in the Green Zone, acknowledges the risk in allowing beggars into the protected area. He said photographs of beggars have been posted at checkpoints.
Thaer al-Zubaidy, a Parliament employee, said they often appear at the Convention Center meeting site early in the morning. "It’s a normal sight, but out of sympathy we try to turn a blind eye," he said.
While security concerns are tantamount, some Iraqi officials acknowledge a fine line separating harsh measures to ensure such security from the compassionate leniency for those who need it most.
"The majority of them are professional beggars. They used to beg on the streets. Sometimes when they claim to be sick, we try to help them by calling officials at the Health Ministry," he said.
In the shade outside the Convention Center, a woman wrapped in black cloth approached pedestrians. Holding the hand of a young girl dressed in dirty clothing, she jabbed her finger and pleaded shyly for help. "Please, please," she said in Arabic.
But for others, begging in the Green Zone may just be another scam in a city full of graft.
Fadhil, who declined to give his last name, wore clean jeans and a clean black shirt. He claimed to suffer from heart problems and carried papers for proof. He bent at the waist and his hands shook in a finely honed act.
"If I go to beg on the streets, I have to wear torn-out cloths," Fadhil said. "But when I come to the Green Zone, I have to wear decent clothes. Otherwise the guards would deny me access."
Beggars are a common sight in many cities in the Arab world, including Baghdad before the war.
Panhandlers — including women with small children — used to loiter outside fashionable Baghdad restaurants, mosques and at traffic intersections where they would shake down motorists waiting for green lights.
Some lawmakers and parliament employees object to the beggars, which they believe reflect poorly on Iraqi society.
Hassan al-Rubaie, a member of the parliamentary security and defense committee, said begging near the offices of Iraq’s government is a security flaw and a mark on Iraqi culture.
"Begging reflects the social status of Iraq at large," al-Rubaie said. "It is something that should be stopped."