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Can anything else go wrong?
Unstable Conditions in Iraq

17 October   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

In an interview with the Daily Mail last week, repeated on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme a few days later, the head of the British Army, Chief of the General Staff General Sir Richard Dannatt, stated that British troops should withdraw from Iraq "soon". He surmised that the difficulties Britain is experiencing around the world are not necessarily caused by the presence of its troops in Iraq, but that such a presence undoubtedly exacerbates those difficulties.

His sensible comments, affirming what many people have either known or voiced already, and the discussions that they provoked here in the UK and across the Atlantic, made me think once more about the overall situation in Iraq and its impact on ordinary Iraqis who are paying the price of this conflict and its resurgent consequences. Mind you, I am quite confident that many SOMA readers - whether in Iraqi Kurdistan or elsewhere in the country - are quite well aware, certainly more than me, of the existential realities and challenges affecting their lives and livelihoods today - every day.

However, I would like to share some of those realities and challenges with you again as I believe there is a causal link between cause and effect, one that fills me with distress and foreboding, and to which Sir Richard Dannatt alluded to in his courageous but perhaps politically naïve interview last week.

Let me kick off my litany of concerns with the study published last week by a team of American and Iraqi public health researchers estimating that over 600,000 civilians have died in violence across Iraq since 2003. This is the second study by researchers from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public health, and their findings reflected a survey of 1849 Iraqi families in 47 different neighbourhoods across Iraq. According to the researchers, the selection of geographical areas in 18 regions was based on population size, not on the level of violence. AlertNet news reported that the survey also featured a number of compelling aspects that were meant to validate the study: the reported deaths were certifiable, non-violent death rates were broadly consistent with pre-war conditions (suggesting no over-reporting by families), the profile and typology of violent deaths were based on normal standards and the findings mirrored closely those of the previous Hopkins / Mustansariya survey of 2004. Gilbert Burnham, principal author of the study, added that the figures showed an increase of deaths over time similar to that of another civilian casualty project, Iraq Body Count (which collates deaths reported in the news media) and even to that of the military. [Their figures put the number of deaths just short of 49,000]. The statistics from the survey also showed that Baghdad was an area of medium violence, whereas the provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin, north of Baghdad, and Anbar, to the west, had higher death rates than the capital.

This study has been lambasted by many people as being an exaggeration of real figures resulting from a discredited methodology of research that is too 'political' in nature. Her Majesty's Government issued a response very similar to that which followed the release of the first Lancet survey in 2004 and suggested that the extrapolation technique was drawn from a relatively small sample from an area of Iraq which is not representative of the country as a whole.

However, Francesco Checchi, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who has worked on mortality surveys in Angola, Darfur, Thailand and Uganda, and authored Interpreting and using mortality data in humanitarian emergencies for Humanitarian Practice Network, disacquiesced with those criticisms. Acknowledging that the estimates are shockingly high, he added nonetheless that no study is perfect, especially when conducted in an insecure country where physical safety is well nigh non-existent, and that the work of a few courageous researchers should not be discounted too quickly. Besides, he added, ignoring alarming findings simply because "they sound wrong" is not the way to move forward. If such findings cannot be proven wrong (or partly wrong) on scientific grounds, they must stand until better evidence emerges to the contrary.

But this startling study is unfortunately not the only piece of grim news filtering out of Iraq today. A fortnight ago, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had sounded its own alarm bells by speaking out against the new laws in Iraq that criminalise any speech ridiculing the government or its officials, whereby any journalist who "publicly insults" the government of public officials can be subject up to seven years in prison. Referring to the nascent concept of "young democracy" in Iraq, the CPJ added that more than 130 journalists or other employees of news outlets have so far been killed in the war - most of them Iraqis. It said that some died accidentally, but too many working journalists have clearly been targeted, some even brutally tortured to death, because of their publications.

But the bad tidings do not stop here. In fact, they are aggravated by a silent albeit serious exodus of Iraqis. According to both Reuters Foundation and the UNHCR, more than 300,000 Iraqi families (roughly over 1 million individuals) have fled their homes to other parts of Iraq since 2003 to escape the violence, with the rate swelling in the past six months of increased sectarian conflicts. The largest number of displaced families is from Karbala, in the south, followed closely by the capital Baghdad, with many of them relocating to Wasit, Diyala, Mosul, Najaf, Missan, Babib and Nassiriya.

Indeed, the levels of sectarian violence have also meant that many Iraqis have headed to the safer Kurdish havens rather than displace themselves to the sectarian enclaves in Baghdad and other homogeneous cities like Falluja (for Sunnis) and Najaf (for Shi'i). According to a demographics report filed by Edward Wong in the New York Times last month, one can today see dozens of people sleeping nightly outside the Qadir Mosque in downtown Sulaimaniya. Even enrolment at the Jawahiri School (the only primary school where classes are taught in Arabic) has jumped to more than 1500 this year. But in some Iraqi Kurdish minds, such an influx also evokes memories of the policy of forced Arabisation that was pursued by Saddam Hussein's regime in which Arabs were moved into Kurdish territory and more than 100,000 Kurds were expelled in order to change the demographics of the region - especially around the Kirkuk oilfields.

In this overall maelstrom of emigration - after all, another 890,000 Iraqis have also moved to Jordan, Iran and Syria, (estimated almost at 40,000 each month) - comes another concern about the future well-being of Iraqi Christians. There are reports that around 300,000 Iraqi Christians have emigrated from Iraq for economic as well as security reasons, particularly from Baghdad and Mosul. It is estimated that 35,000 alone have settled in Syria. This is a major concern since the Christians are one of the minorities in Iraq who have for centuries been an integral part of the rich tapestry of the country and their departure in increased numbers also spells out an overall despondency about the future as a whole.

Let me refer to an article in the Guardian on 6 th October by Mark Lattimer, Director of Minority Rights Group International, entitled In 20 years, there will be no more Christians in Iraq . It paints a grim picture for Christians in Iraq. In an excerpt, Lattimer wrote:

The mechanisms of terror in the new Iraq have uprooted families from every community, including Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd. But although Christians made up less than four per cent of the population - fewer than one million people - they formed the largest groups of new refugees arriving in Jordan's capital Amman in the first quarter of 2006, according to an unpublished report by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). In Syria, which has a longer border with Iraq, 44% of Iraqi asylum-seekers were recorded as Christian since UNHCR began registrations in December 2003, with new registrations hitting early this year. Fleeing killings, kidnappings and death threats, they come from Baghdad. From Basra in the zone of British control and, disproportionately, from Mosul in the north. The Catholic bishop of Baghdad, Andreos Abouna, was quoted recently as saying that half of all Iraqi Christians have fled the country since the 2003 US-led invasion ...

Yet their exodus has gone largely unreported ...    

I use the Christian case as one critical weathervane of where things are heading today. But as most Iraqis would tell me, the challenges facing them are far more pervasive. How many Europeans, for instance, know that trash collectors are so nervous about their work that they carry their souls in their hands? Many of them have frequently refused to venture into problem-plagued Baghdad neighbourhoods, such as Dora, Adhamiya, Jamiya and Ghazaliya, where spasms of violence have often been the norm. No wonder garbage is ubiquitous, especially in dangerous areas, where collectors are afraid to go on their rounds in case they are killed by bombs left in public trash bins. In Arasat, Saidiya and even in Masbah, a wealthy central Baghdad neighbourhood that was once home to many embassies, mounds of refuse accumulate in front of elegant homes and gardens. With violence and terrorism, the city is also woefully ill-equipped to deal with the waste of six million people when it has only 380 working trash compacting trucks (compared with 1200 before 2003).

I am not unfamiliar with the bloody tyranny exercised by regimes such as those of former President Saddam Hussein. Nor am I impervious to any struggle for liberation that ushers with it welfare and prosperity. But I am saddened that a US-led invasion - waged under false and ever-spinning pretences anyway - which could have nonetheless produced a true model of democracy, human rights and good governance has gone awry in such a destabilising manner. An arrogant lack of planning along with vested interests by some Western countries, when coupled with resistance to occupation and resort to terrorism and insurgency by cross-sections of Iraqis, have rung the death knell to this experiment of forging a new Middle East. The country is unravelling into fiefdoms ruled by militias and managed by diktat. I grieve for this development that could have been avoided if we had all been wiser, more thorough and more candid.    

All this takes me back to General Sir Richard's critique of present policies. There are certainly many reasons why Iraq has descended into anarchy - with daily deaths and violence that fill the pages of so many blogs and belie any real hope for the future. As the Chief of General Staff pointed out, one fundamental reason is the occupation of Iraq and the lack of legitimacy for it. After all, few countries welcome foreign invaders, however much they dislike their own despotic rulers - and whatever they tell us. Occupations are inherently unpopular, and their unpopularity grows the longer they continue.

Was it not Maximilien Robespierre, the French revolutionary leader, who said during his Discourse on War at the Jacobin Club in 1792 that "no one loves armed missionaries"..?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   17 October


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