BAGHDAD – As the sun sets over Baghdad, Mustafa Jassim Mohammed wades into the Tigris River, lifts his feet off the muddy bottom and paddles with an arm maimed by shrapnel, practicing ahead of a journey on which his ability to swim could mean the difference between death at sea and a new life in Europe.
He knows that hundreds of migrants — men, women and children — have died when their smuggler boats capsized, and he's seen the heart-wrenching pictures of the drowned Syrian boy who washed ashore in Turkey last week. But he's also seen TV footage of thousands of migrants making their way across Europe and being welcomed in certain quarters. After more than a decade of chaos and war in his homeland, it's a gamble he's willing to take.
"The situation in Iraq is getting worse every day," said Mohammed, a 29-year-old father of two. "I'm fed up. I can't continue living here and can't feed my family. There's nothing left in Iraq."
He quit his two jobs, as a civil servant and a tea seller, and sold his belongings to buy a one-way ticket to Iraq's northern Kurdish region, where he'll cross into Turkey and join an unprecedented tide of migrants fleeing war and poverty across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. His wife and two children will stay behind, praying for his safety and hoping to be reunited with him somewhere more secure.
Like many Iraqis, he's wanted to leave for years, but is only doing so now because he's seen the images of migrants being welcomed in Germany and Austria. He's found videos online offering advice on how to sail from Turkey to Greece: Check the weather forecast before leaving; wear a life vest if you can't swim; get rid of your inflatable raft as soon as you arrive in Greece so the coast guard doesn't send you back on it.
Migration is nothing new for Iraqis, many of whom fled persecution under Saddam Hussein, the war with Iran in the 1980s and the crippling economic sanctions following the 1990 Gulf War. Well over a million Iraqis fled the violence and chaos that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. But until recently the only realistic destinations were neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan, where work opportunities were limited.
Now Iraqis are on the move again, joining Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans and others in the largest tide of migrants since World War II.
There are no official figures for how many Iraqis have left, or how many may have died on the journey. Brig. Gen. Riyadh al-Kaabi, who heads Baghdad's main passport office, has noted a "tangible increase" in requests for passports, with up to 12,000 issued each day. But he can't say how many are for people who intend to quit the country for good.
Of the more than 200,000 refugees and migrants who have arrived in Greece this year, more than 5,000 hail from Iraq, making it the fifth most common country of origin after Syria, Afghanistan, Albania and Pakistan. The vast majority of the migrants do not want to stay in financially stricken Greece, and head to the more prosperous European north on an overland route through the Balkans.
Mohammed says he's driven to leave by a mixture of fear and poverty. A bomb blast tore through his left side and arm as he rode on a microbus in 2006, at the height of the country's sectarian violence. He also struggles to make ends meet. Even with two jobs, his monthly income was just $575, of which $450 went to rent and electricity.
"I want to end up in a state where my rights are preserved and where I can find mercy for me and my family. No more, no less," he said. With $2,100 in his pocket, he left Baghdad on Thursday.
He has embarked on a long journey that will include an hours-long ship crossing from Turkey to Greece along the same route where two Syrian boys and their mother drowned last week after their ship capsized. Photos of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who washed up dead on the beach, galvanized global sympathy for the refugees, leading some countries to ease restrictions on accepting migrants.
Iraqis have also perished on the journey. The bodies of an 8-year-old boy and his 12-year-old sister, who also drowned in the Mediterranean, were flown back to Baghdad on Wednesday. Their relatives cried and pounded their chests in grief as they viewed the flag-draped coffins, with pictures of the children placed upon them.
The body of a third migrant, 17-year-old Ameer Mohammed Hussein, from the southern city of Basra, was also flown back Wednesday. He was shot dead off the coast of a Greek island during a shootout between smugglers and the Greek coast guard.
"Like other youths, he had a dream of having a bright future abroad," his father told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Basra. "Even though I lost my son, I can't urge others not to leave."
Iraqi authorities have expressed concern about the migration. In a recent Friday sermon delivered by his spokesman, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's top Shiite cleric, called on the youth to "reconsider their options, to think about their country and their people, to be patient and to look to the security forces and volunteers... who are sacrificing their souls while fighting the terrorists."
The belligerents themselves, oddly enough, have also urged people to stay.
The Islamic State group, in the latest issue of its online magazine, devoted an entire article to migration, warning that fleeing to non-Muslim countries is a "dangerous major sin."
On the other side of the battle lines, a notorious Shiite militiaman who refers to himself as Abu Azrael, or the Father of the Angel of Death, recently appeared in a brief Internet video calling on people to stay and describing Western efforts to ease restrictions as a conspiracy to rob the country of its youth.
"If you are leaving the country, who will stay?" the black-bearded fighter says from behind a machine-gun. "If I die tomorrow and two or three others die the day after tomorrow, Iraqi will be left to the filthy bastards who will continue robbing the country and stealing its oil."
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