BAGHDAD, Iraq—Shortly after 9 on a recent morning, the line at the passport office in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood stretched out to several hundred people, with three or four lines morphing into two to get into the building.
The temperature had climbed into the 80s, on its way to 115. Babies were red-faced from crying, and men were arguing, setting a mood of desperation. Some had violated curfew, arriving in line at 5 a.m. Still, they weren't assured of getting their passport paperwork completed—the passport office can process only 100 applications a day and it closes faithfully, like any good bureaucracy, at 2 p.m.
In a country where the economy is in tatters, electricity outages happen daily, violence is widespread and seemingly random, and sectarian militias have killed thousands, Iraq's passport offices are doing booming business—a barometer of the rising anxiety and weariness besetting Iraqis.
Government officials say they have no numbers on how many passports have been issued or how many people have left Iraq recently. They dismiss the idea that thousands of Iraqis are fleeing the country, suggesting instead that the crowds at the passport offices reflect nothing more than a seasonal interest in getting away from the heat.
"I do not think the Iraqis are emigrating. They are people who cherish their country," said Ali al Dabagh, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
But interviews suggest that increasing numbers of Iraqis—particularly the remaining middle class and the poor who can scrape together the $28 fee—are hedging their bets by having passports at the ready. Others are obtaining their documents and immediately fleeing the country.
Haifa Saleh, a primary-school teacher, said she and her husband recently updated their passports—he was renewing his; hers was her first. She said the Rusafa office in eastern Baghdad was chaotic, and one official threatened to tear up everyone's papers if they didn't stay in line.
"After discussing it with his family, my husband and I decided that everyone should have his passport ready just in case something really bad happens and we have to leave the country," she said.
She said she was influenced by five teachers at her school who took unpaid leaves and fled with their families for a year to Jordan and Syria. "So many of my friends and neighbors left in the beginning of summer after the school examinations because it is hot and there is no electricity and no fuel and, more important, there is no security," she said.
With people lining up for hours, the passport offices have become easy targets. On Aug. 14, a bomb exploded near the passport office in western Baghdad, followed two minutes later by a much larger car bomb. Two people were killed and four wounded in the blasts.
The passport rush isn't unique to Baghdad. In the southern port town of Basra, the crush for a passport has become so great that applications are now taken only one day a week on a rotating basis in six city districts. About 1,300 applications are received every day, said Major Jabbar al Bahadi, the manager of the Basra office.
The passport jam has given rise to a lucrative side business for mediators who pay off officials and expedite the paperwork.
In Basra, a mediator costs the equivalent of about $56.
The price of a mediator is much higher in Baghdad—$500 above the cost of the passport. That's up from $200 just two months ago.
Baghdad mediator Ayad Younis, who also will tackle other bureaucratic tasks, said passport applications now take up most of his time. He takes $100 off the top and distributes the rest of the fee to various government officials to expedite the stamping and application process. A client pays half the fee up front and the rest when the passport is issued, usually after a little more than a week.
Younis, who makes an average of $600 to $700 a month, said he's been helping people speed the passport process since the days of Saddam Hussein, and it's evident that he's on good terms with passport officers, as he moved freely around the long lines into the building.
Younis said that during Saddam's time, passport offices moved more smoothly, largely because a tax of about $280 was imposed on anyone seeking a passport, reducing considerably the number of applicants.
Still, he believes the violence and economic uncertainty of Iraq today drive the lines now.
Most of his clients, he said, intend to leave the same day they get their passports, and many have sold everything to pay his fee and travel expenses. "The whole idea is get the passport, leave at once," he said.
Even those who have no immediate travel plans feel better having a passport in hand. Last month, Younis noted, he renewed his own passport.
(McClatchy special correspondent Ali Alsaidi in Basra contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.