BAGHDAD — Shamal — Accented on the second syllable, that means the ill wind that blows in summer across Iraq, and other countries in the region, stirring sandstorms in its wake.
Vice President Joe Biden found out late last week what 25 million Iraqis have known for a long time-everybody talks about them, but nobody can do anything about them. His chopper flight from a U.S. base to the International Zone was canceled when a shamal turned the skies over Baghdad and beyond the same color as Biden's khaki desert boots.
He wound up donning body armor and a helmet for a caravan to his meetings with Iraqi leaders and others. Several NFL coaches visiting troops in Iraq also found their plane to Kuwait delayed a day.
That same storm still hovers over the capital. It coats parked cars in a tan frosting. It seeps under windowsills and doorways. It grits the teeth and stings the eyes. It clogs rifles and etches scrimshaw across sniper scopes.
And it kills people.
Three in Diyala Province this week, where 800 others were hospitalized with breathing and related ailments. Dr. Jeleel al Shammeri, head of the health department in Karkh in west Baghdad, said 13 major hospitals and 84 clinics had received several thousand patients over the last two days, many of them children. Dr. Ali Bustan, head of the health department in Rusafa in eastern Baghdad, said ERs had taken in 800 to 900 patients since Saturday night. "Thank God, we have not run out of medication," he said.
Sandstorms pose diplomatic as well as medical and weather problems. Baghdad negotiators are locked in a battle with Istanbul over how much water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers — which start in Turkey — its neighbor is willing to release to the southwest for Iraqi farms and factories. A lack of irrigation water has caused thousands of acres of agricultural land to dry up. Just this week, the government signed an agreement with an Iranian delegation to limit such "desertification."
Sandstorms and their duststorm cousins are nothing new in these parts, of course. Iraq averages only 4 to just over 6 1/2 inches of rainfall a year. The Sahara Desert, which is the size of the United States, is just a short jet stream hop to the west. Iraq itself is half desert.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the sham al causing the storms combines two separate weather systems. One is a sub-tropical jet stream pushing north from Arabia, the other a polar jet stream shoving south from Europe.
When they meet, they form a northwest wind that fills the sky with sand and dust. Two of the ancients' elements, earth and air, become one. Gusts can reach 50 miles an hour. Sometimes, as happened last year and much more often in recent years, the sandstorms balloon into fronts tens of miles wide, maybe a half-mile high, that blot out the sun.
For days. Or, in recent years, longer.
Evidence is mounting that today's sandstorms are worse than in the past. Ibrahim Shareef, head of the desertification department in the Ministry of the Environment, notes that dusty days like Saturday in Iraq used to total only about eight times a year. Now it's one or two days a week.
Like other experts, he blames a five-year-long regional drought and urban expansion into areas that once grew crops. "Military operations also have had some role," he adds, "as their vehicles travel across our deserts and to some extent remove the upper crust of sand."
U.S. Air Force meteorologists at Multi-National Corps Iraq say trends from last year till now "show a significant increase in the occurrence and duration" of sand and dust storms compared to 2003-07. "The sandstorms here are not the high-powered, sand-blaster clouds of fast-moving gravel and grit like in the movies," says Air Force Capt. Noah Rich, a meteorologist. "They are more like a fog of extremely fine dust powder that hangs in the air and gets into everything."
The director general of counter-desertification in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fadhil al Faraji, says it's trying to establish grazing stations in western deserts, set up large nurseries to transplant greenery in the deserts and build oases. However, "it will take decades to complete all these projects," he says. "There is no hope to stop these storms but for the drought to end."
The 1991 Persian Gulf War's saturation bombing destroyed much of Iraq's electric power generation. Families in Fallujah, for example, were forced to cut down trees in and around their city for fires to bake bread. Since the 2003 U.S. invasion, electric power in Iraq has been intermittent at best, nonexistent at its worst.
Today's sandstorms visit hardship on ordinary Iraqis almost like a biblical plague. Vendors now peddle cloth medical masks at traffic circles. Jassim Chiad, 46, bought one. "They're worse than in the '80s or '90s," he says of the brown haze that restricts visibility to a few blocks. "We don't have electricity, so we can't stay home. We haven't had running water for a week."
Rahgad Qassim, 32, a partner in Anaqty (My Elegance), a shop that sells colorful cloth for robes and veils, thinks the sandstorms have hurt business. But she sees the glass as half full — even of sand. "Thank God for the storms," she says. "No car bombs."