(Naji Zaineb, Salman Dawood)
Residents of the Iraqi capital face lots of problems. But none appears more serious than the growing mounds of garbage that threaten to bury Baghdad under a mountain of trash.
"Unchecked garbage is destroying the quality of life in Baghdad. Dumps are everywhere, and sometimes near water pipes and rivers. This creates all kinds of bad fungi that lead to food poisoning and diarrhea, and can bring on diseases such as typhoid and cholera," said Qasim Dawood, a member of parliament's health and environment committee.
Waste management has been a serious problem in Baghdad since the United States-led invasion in 2003. In the years of sectarian violence, government agencies basically gave up attempting to collect the city's trash.
Garbage collectors were routinely kidnapped or killed. Blast walls, barbed wire and barricaded checkpoints have choked off access to many parts of the city, making regular cleanup sweeps impossible.
"Our neighbourhood is a big dump. During the day, the awful smell is really hard to stand. The smell gets worse with the heat in summer. At night it is very annoying to hear the dogs and their howling. We have gone to the municipality more than once to ask them to clean the area, but it's been no good," said Ibtesam Aziz, 36, resident of the poor Shaab neighbourhood of east Baghdad.
And like so many other issues confronting Iraq today, officials acknowledge the problem but are unable to come together with a solution.
"Baghdad is not like other places, and the issues are complex. The municipality is not doing its job properly, but at the same time we lack laws that prohibit the public from littering and polluting. This is why we are unable to provide a healthy environment," Dawood said.
In some areas, trash heaps have blocked off entire roads, and residents throughout the city complain of foul odours, insects, and rodents. Local media have reported a rise in packs of scavenging dogs, putting the number in Baghdad at more than one million.
The United States has spent $33 million to improve Baghdad's waste-management system, but U.S. officials concede that garbage removal has been a low priority for a city with a host of other problems.
In more affluent areas, residents pay for their garbage to be picked up, but even this is proving inadequate.
"We have a huge area, too much garbage, and too few vehicle and workers. We hired a number of trucks from private sector. Altogether now, we have 100, which is one-third of the total number we need," said Azhar Abdul Sahib, a government spokesperson in the Mansour suburb of Baghdad.
In 2007, a program to place large yellow containers on each block for residential waste also was ignored, with most of the containers being stolen, according to residents.
Parliament in 2009 passed a law requiring citizens to put garbage in plastic bags. The Baghdad city government distributed the bags to most houses and shops in the city, but no one came to collect the trash bags.
"Having garbage everywhere in the city is just uncivilized. It affects people's health, as well as the environment. We need to educate people about how cleanliness is good for our health, but no group or agency is doing this ... because we lack money and support," said Salama Dhaeia Naeif, the head of Love and Peace Messengers organization in Baghdad.
As the garbage problem continues to grow, residents and officials are increasingly pointing fingers at each other.
"The Baghdad municipality makes great efforts to clean the city, but these efforts are mostly wasted by the citizens who throw trash everywhere, anytime," said Sabah Sami, a spokesperson for Baghdad's city government. "For example, a man puts trash outside his house in an open box four or five times each day. So, when a cat or dog passes by, the garbage is scattered everywhere. Now, take into account the millions of citizens in Baghdad and you can imagine what the city is like." Sami said Baghdad's current fleet of 314 garbage trucks should be more than enough to collect trash in a city of 7 million.
In comparison, however, New York, with a population of 8 million, relies on 5,700 waste-removal vehicles to haul away its trash.
For now, Sami said, city government plans to launch a media campaign to educate citizens on the health risks of garbage and how they should dispose of it. City officials hope the initiative will raise awareness and possibly lead to anti-litter laws.