BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -Freedom to criticize the government is one of the few things flourishing in contemporary Iraq. But editorial cartoonists who are testing the limits of expression face a different threat: extremists incensed by their art.
During Saddam Hussein’s time, speaking out could bring imprisonment, torture and even execution. Nowadays, the danger doesn’t come from the government but the readers.
“These days there are two kinds of people: those who accept your drawings and criticism, and those who take the drawings as insults … and threaten to kill you,” said Diaa al-Hajar, a cartoonist for the government newspaper Al-Sabah.
The threats — which come by e-mail, phone and even cell phone text messages — have forced many cartoonists to flee the country. Others, like al-Hajar, are thinking about leaving. Some have shifted to biting complaints about general problems — corruption, power shortages, garbage collection — without necessarily pointing the blame at individuals or specific groups.
One cartoon that appeared Thursday in Al-Sabah showed a young boy and girl standing in a pile of garbage singing the national anthem, “My homeland, my homeland.” The same newspaper printed a cartoon last month showing a chicken reading the paper while musing: “Very strange. People are scared of bird flu but not corruption flu.”
“We fear the armed groups, because they show zero tolerance of criticism,” cartoonist Abdel-Khaliq al-Hubar said. “They only accept what suits them. The message we always receive is ‘Be nice, or else.'”
Al-Hajar said threats have forced him to tone down some of his cartoons dealing with the insurgency.
“After the fall of the regime, we were full of hopes, but now we are shocked because of the harassment we are facing,” said al-Hajar, 54.
Nevertheless, every day about 10 newspapers publish cartoons satirizing issues ranging from political instability to sporadic electricity to the brutal, daily violence chipping away at Iraqis’ faith that things will get better.
No one is immune from the cartoonists — politicians, American soldiers and the militants and criminals launching attacks on Iraqi civilians.
Kidnappings, roadside bombings and drive-by shootings have become a regular part of daily Iraqi life — particularly in the capital — and frequently work their way into the cartoons. So do the repeated attacks on mosques and the sectarian, execution-style killings common since a Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra.
In the weekly Dar As-Salam, affiliated with a major Sunni political party, one recent cartoon shows a Muslim dropping by his mother’s house to hand over his will before heading to mosque for prayer.
“In case something happens … take care of the children,” he says.
Three years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam’s regime, many Iraqis are torn over whether their lives are better or worse. They acknowledge improved infrastructure and newly acquired freedoms, but say the changes mean little when they afraid to walk out their doors.
Heady optimism has given way to disillusionment and fear that their country will continue its slide toward anarchy.
The deep frustration, bordering on desperation, is reflected in the cartoons.
In the Al-Sabah al-Jedid newspaper, a mother, cloaked in a black robe, takes her baby — representing democracy — to the doctor’s office.
“Doctor,” she says, “it’s three years old but still not growing. It’s getting smaller — is there a cure?”
Faith in politicians is waning, particularly after five months of struggling to form a national unity government since the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. Although the new government is nearly completed, the drawn-out process left many Iraqis frustrated.
A cartoon in Al-Sabah Al-Jedid shows two Iraqis watching a soap opera. “Each episode is the same — after 15 minutes, they say it’s postponed,” one says, an allusion to the stop-and-start negotiations between Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political parties.
Such criticisms are a far cry from what was allowed under Saddam.
“You drew what the regime wanted you to draw,” said al-Hajar, who fled Iraq in the 1990s and returned shortly before Saddam’s fall. “If you wanted to act freely, a punishment would be waiting for you.”
Al-Hubar said he used to secretly send his cartoons to a newspaper in Morocco. Even then, he said he only dared tackle the political situation in the Arab world in general, not Saddam’s Iraq specifically.
Now, politicians are one of his top targets.
In one drawing for Al-Mutamar newspaper, al-Hubar shows a heavyset, bespectacled man puzzling over a chalkboard with a complex diagram. The man is labeled “Political Blocs” — but a passer-by looks at him and thinks, “…equals Personal Interests.”
But al-Hubar said fears of attack mean cartoonists don’t have total freedom.
“During the past six months, I have been threatened many times, directly and through mobile messages,” he said.
He believes the messages are from insurgents, common criminals — even religious clerics.
What keeps cartoonists drawing is positive feedback from the Iraqi public and the feeling that they’re providing an essential service at a critical time.
“We are trying to tell regular, crushed citizens that somebody is still with them, somebody is feeling their misery,” said al-Hubar. “Somebody is saying what they cannot.”