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War-Weary Welcome to 2008 in Iraq?
One week ago, having possibly made his strongest rhetorical statements to date in Jerusalem and Ramallah about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need to put an end to the forty-year old occupation of Palestinian land, ...

17 January   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... US President Bush travelled to the Gulf states where his discussions centred more sharply on what the US Administration considers Iranian kudzu-like nuclear ambitions as much as Syrian-Iranian negative role-playing in the Middle East.

However, after talks at Camp Arifjan (a sprawling US base in the Kuwaiti desert adjacent to the Iraqi border) with his military commander in Iraq, General David H Petraeus, and the US ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, the American president asserted that security gains in Iraq as a result of America’s new strategy had reversed the descent of the country into mayhem. He segued that the United States was on track to complete the withdrawal of 20,000 troops by mid-year, whereas any additional reduction will be based on the recommendation of his military brass and will depend on conditions on the ground in Iraq.

Having conceded that the US “strategy simply wasn't working” until last year, with Iraq riven by sectarian violence and al-Qa’eda militants strengthening their grip in many areas, the president argued that the new strategy, involving a surge of 30,000 American troops and a focus on counter-insurgency warfare, were together turning things round. The build-up of troops one year ago had meant to create the space for Iraqis to bridge sectarian divisions and achieve benchmarks for political progress. Indeed, the president’s assessment on Iraq was not totally off-mark in this instance. Attacks per week on American troops are now down about 60% from June, civilian deaths are down approximately 75% from a year ago and December 2007 saw the second-lowest number of US troops killed in action, although 2007 as a whole was the most violent year since the invasion in March 2003.

As many observers and pundits have reported from the field, the new alliances being forged with Sunni elements (such as in the Anbar Province) and the ability of counter-intelligence to work more efficiently, have definitely reduced casualties - although suicide bombings are still rocking the country from Baghdad to Mosul and Kirkuk and conditions remains hostile let alone treacherous for many Iraqi citizens. Only last week, for example, Appeals Court Judge Amir Jawdat Naeib, member of the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council, was shot dead in the Mansour district west of Baghdad in a car ambush. This violent killing is not dissimilar to other such homicidal incidents in Iraq that occur with spasmodic but regular frequency.

However, I am content with the reduction in violence: Iraqis certainly deserve a breather that might conceivably even hold out a promise of some legislative progress in the make-up of the country by the three main factions (Shi’is, Sunnis and Kurds) in government. This would involve allowing lower-ranking former members of the late Saddam Hussein's Ba’ath party to reclaim government jobs (which is what the current Accountability and Justice law that is subject to ratification by the Iraqi presidential council is ostensibly attempting to do despite the fact that it is riddled with caveats and loopholes and that just over half of the 275-member Parliament voted on it), or the divvying up the country's oil wealth, in addition to constitutional amendments demanded by the Sunni Arabs and a bill spelling out rules for local elections.
But with those dim signs of hope come also the reminder that Iraq teeters on the verge of another violent implosion that is characterised by the realities of the past near-five years.

According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) research published this month, about 151,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the three years following the US-led invasion - more that half of them in Baghdad. Stating that violent deaths could have ranged from 104,000 to 223,000 between March 2003 and June 2006, this comprehensive study drew on an Iraqi health ministry survey of nearly 10,000 households. This is fivefold the numbers interviewed in a disputed Johns Hopkins University study mentioning that more than 600,000 had died over the same period, but still more that the death toll figures of 80,000 to 87,000 cited by Iraq Body Count (IBC) which uses media reports and hospital or morgue records to calculate its web-based tally.

Moreover, and parallel to those frighteningly sobering civilian figures, some 3,915 US and 174 of our own British forces have also died since the occupation of Iraq, alongside anything between 4,900 and 6,375 Iraqi military personnel. In addition to the dead are also the injured and maimed returning soldiers. William C Gentry, an Iraq veteran and San Diego prosecutor last week commented on the harrowing psychological trauma of those soldiers when he opined that “you are unleashing certain things in a human being we don’t allow in civic society, and getting it all back in the box can be difficult for some people.”

So as Iraqis welcome 2008 CE- or the new Muslim Hijri year 1429 - it is perhaps helpful to remind everyone of those macabre figures in order to help minimise further any future bloodshed. Today, it is an unmovable fact that the Iraqi ex-president Saddam Hussein is dead, just as it is an equally unmovable fact that the US troops are in Iraq to stay for the moment. Those facts can be given different spins by different factions depending on their constituencies but they remain immutable no matter the bedlam. Yet, there is now perhaps a real opportunity to re-build the country in such a way that all its communities - including the beleaguered minorities living with deep anxiety in the country - can begin to co-exist [together], build up their country [together], re-discover the fertile resources and potential wealth of their country [together], re-populate the country [together] and therefore put the wild excesses of the past years behind them [together]. All this needs serious goodwill, and the violent and vociferous agendas of minorities should not be allowed to wreak havoc upon the majority of Iraqis or disenfranchise them further.

But alas, it is a fact that much of the patriarchal, power-centred and well nigh dynastic Middle East impedes the emergence of visionary and democratic figures like Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Jimmy Carter or Shirin Ebadi. With pluralism and grassroots empowerment almost at bay, the few reconcilers who do emerge in these societies are brutally swept away, and we end up with black holes of popular discontent where free-lancing mercenaries step in, claim to fight for justice and exonerate their felonies with warped lashings of religion. But such people - including in Iraq - are not fighting to right wrongs in the decent names of Islam or Arabism; they are making wrongs even more reprehensible with their wanton destruction. Their violence depreciates the sanctity of life, and it is nothing more than a pablum to equate with true freedom the literal or figurative squashing of fundamental human rights.

Today, as we usher in 2008, it remains my wish for all Iraqis that the studies at the end of 2008 would bear more glad tidings than those of WHO, IBC and certainly Johns Hopkins University.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   17 January


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