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The Unenviable Paradoxes of Iraq!
These days, I feel increasingly more perplexed when writing about Iraq - and I am not alone either!...

27 November   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... Thomas Friedman, a leading New York Times journalist, wrote last week in his editorial Debating Iraq’s Transition that “his Iraq crystal ball stopped working a long time ago” and that he had “more questions right now than strong opinions”. I no longer hold a crystal ball on Iraq either, but the latest range of unstoppable lows has not helped alter my overall caution.

Let me share with you a few cases in point. According to the Iraqi Women’s Rights Association (WRA), it seems that male gynaecologists are now being targeted by “Islamists” for invading the privacy of women. In fact, WRA raised the alarm that those male gynaecologists who treated women patients were either being killed or warned off, and that many were therefore simply backing off in order to save their lives. The Iraqi Medical Association (IMA) also lamented that what was occurring in maternity centres and clinics such as those in the Karada district of Baghdad or other more northern provinces had led to an increased shortage of trained medical doctors.

But the IMA also warned that Iraq now faces another health ‘catastrophe’, with reports of cholera cases rising sharply as a result of a lack of proper sanitation and unsafe water supplies. To date, there are 22 reported deaths and possibly more unreported ones too. It seems that the Kirkuk province in northern Iraq has become the epicentre of the outbreak this year, whilst the neighbouring provinces of Sulaimaniya and Arbil have not been spared either.

On an equally humanitarian level, UNHCR estimated last week that 60,000 people are still being forced to leave their homes every month due to the continuing violence in Iraq. UNHCR also re-iterated that over 4.4 million Iraqis had already left their homes, some 2.2 million being IDPs while over 2.2 million fleeing to Syria and Jordan. In addition, and despite the relative lull in the violence in the past few weeks, at least 12,500 Iraqi Arab families (otherwise, roughly 75,000 individuals) have fled toward the Kurdish region in quest of some stability and economic sustenance. 

But I refuse to believe that all human nature is ugly or that all news is bad. There are sometimes snippets of cheerful news cutting through those deeply unsettling developments. One such encouraging example for Iraq lies in a district of Baghdad that remains largely untouched by sectarian killings. According to the journalist Patrick Healy, this is the centuries-old district of Bab al Sheikh that enjoyed its heyday during the Abbasid Muslim rule ten centuries ago. The Qailani Mosque in Bab al Sheikh, which takes its name from the 12th-century Sufi sheikh Abdel Qadr Qailani, has become an example of inter-faith co-existence. Today, Bab al Shaikh is a place where Sunnis, Shi’is, Kurds and Christians live together quite harmoniously - unlike other newer volatile and polarised districts that are largely populated by Iraqis who migrated into them after the oil nationalisation of the 1970s. One simple reason why such a neighbourhood stands out in contrast to say, a violence-prone middle-class neighbourhood in Dora in southern Baghdad, is that people in Bab al Sheikh have lived together for decades, their families know each other well and therefore still trust each other despite all the violence and polarisation.

But with such unenviable paradoxes manacling our collective hopes, I wonder again where Iraq actually stands today?

There is a measure of consensus among many pundits that violence has declined somewhat in Baghdad as a result of the US military surge. However, nobody is yet certain whether this ebbing of violence is a respite or represents a valid trend that could lead to greater stability and therefore coax Iraqi refugees to return to their homes. So much is at stake that US Democratic presidential candidates are no longer focusing solely on the failures in Iraq. Rather, they are now also reflecting on domestic concerns such as health care and the economy.

To my mind, the fundamental question to such a decline in physical violence - whether real or apparent - is whether it would create the space for political reconciliation amongst Iraqis or whether it would implode once Americans are no longer surging forward. Are Iraqis - and their chequered leadership - meeting the political benchmarks for such reconciliation, or have Americans become referees to a civil war? According to Lt Gen Ricardo S Sanchez, it is clear that there is no tangible evidence that Iraqis are working toward a peace accord despite the security gains - hence, his advocacy for an immediate drawdown of US combat troops and their ultimate withdrawal by December 2008.

Indeed, if one looks merely at the enactment of the long-awaited national oil law that centralises development and ensures an equitable division of the profits as a key benchmark of progress, it is not hard to infer that Iraqi officials still have limited interest in equity let alone reconciliation. Despite consistent statements, they have blithely ignored the fair partitioning of their oil revenues and are more interested in a grab mentality that does nothing to safeguard the overall national interests of all citizens. For instance, I learnt recently that Kurdish officials have simply taken matters into their own hands, signing lately nine legally dubious exploration deals with foreign companies.

Iraq stands again at a crossroads! With the West now turning their eyes toward Iran, as much as toward other hotspots such as Lebanon or Israel-Palestine (despite - or because of - the Annapolis meeting), it is high time for Iraqi Kurds, Shi’is, Sunnis and all minorities (who are often voiceless, or whose voices are muted forcefully) to re-define their goals together and move away from the blood-soaked brutality of indiscriminate and well nigh self-glorifying violence. Agron Ferati, the Iraqi director for International Medical Corps (IMC) was quoted last week as saying that if we want security to lead to long-term stability, then a humanitarian surge has to occur immediately.

Iraq, with its diverse factions, militias, governorates and regions, has still not begun the true process of gravitating away from violence. Indeed, James Glanz, the Baghdad bureau chief of The Times, said recently that “there is a sense of quiet on the streets that we have not seen for a long time in Baghdad, but there is also a big question mark in the shadows of every alley. We don’t know what is lurking back there, but we suspect, and evidence suggests, that it is the same set of problems that were always there.”

Male gynaecologists under threat, refugees and internally-displaced persons, squabbles over unfair or illegal oil transactions and cholera cases that could wreak havoc country-wide - these are some of the unenviable paradoxes challenging Iraqis today despite the reassurance of safe - almost anachronistic - neighbourhoods such as Bab al Sheikh.

If Iraqis harbour any vision for the future, or do not wish to be used for the interests of regional and global powers, they need to grow up fast, discard what the French philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy once called “the solipsism of self-demolition in the guise of self-interest” and face up to the fact that the alternative to reconciliation is self-destruction and the antithesis to life is death. But alas I fear - as I have done in previous SOMA articles - that lots of Iraqi politicians who are meant to lead their people are not heeding the warning bells. I also pray that we in the West will not be foolhardy enough to create new messes in the region when this one is still festering - so crudely and perilously.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   27 November


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