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Iraq after Saddam Hussein? - A Commentary
Every now and then, the full weight of reality slaps one in the face, and it is quite often a small thing that triggers it...

2 February   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... This happened to me earlier in the week as I read a despatch from Reuters Alert News . One of the pages consisted of a number of quotations that were compiled for the purpose of echoing the reality of everyday life in Iraq today.

I would like to share a few of those distressing quotations with you. They reveal the sad image of a suffering Iraq that has touched so many different facets of life in the country today and frustrated the hopes of so many of its decent people:

  • I can't live in Baghdad anymore. It's turned into a city for dead people and I'm not ready to have my children grow up as orphans - Asam Rifaat, a criminal lawyer who has decided to take his family out of Iraq.
  • This is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world - Refugees International President Kenneth Bacon to the US Senate Judiciary Committee on 16 January 2007.
  • It is difficult for some Iraqis to meet the definition of refugees at risk of persecution - Stephane Jaquemet, regional representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
  • It generally is easier to say no than to say yes - Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch, on US reluctance to take in Iraqis.
  • The situation is very dangerous and any person who speaks out against occupation or tries to write about the militias and government corruption is liable to be assassinated - Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana, in London since 1976.
  • I can breathe in Amman. In Baghdad I would go to sleep worrying that they will come after me - Iraqi refugee Abdul-Razzak al-Zobai, talking of Shi'i death squads.
  • I never felt I was working for the occupation. I was proud that I was helping Iraqis of all sects - Ahlam al-Jibouri, who fled after she was briefly kidnapped for working for a US-backed support group for former political prisoners.

>The war in Iraq - some pundits would probably correct me by pointing out that the war is being waged only in some parts of the country - has taken a heavy toll on most Iraqis. Yet, we sometimes talk or write about political initiatives or sit-reps whilst we neglect the human dimension of a conflict that has somehow been going on both before and after 2003.

For instance, I wonder how many of us truly realise that 34,000 Iraqi civilians were killed only last year. Do we also appreciate the significance of the fact that 1.8 million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes and almost 2 million more have fled to other countries - largely becoming refugees, and mostly to Jordan and Syria?

According to the US-based International Medical Corps (IMC), with its 300 staffers in Iraq, it is likely that an additional one million Iraqis would leave their homes in Baghdad within the next six months. The IMC further adds what many of us know already, in that the neighbourhoods of Baghdad are inexorably being re-shaped by the war along sectarian lines, and that they are consequently straining the 'already fragile economic and social fabric' of those communities that are hosting the displaced people. Moreover, there is a chronic shortage of medication, laboratory materials and X-ray films in the country whereby the ill-equipped health care centres are increasingly unable to cope with extra patients or extra pressures.

Last month, I wrote an article entitled The Rule of Law vs the Law of Revenge? in which I expressed my concern about the deplorable set of events that led to the cynical execution of Saddam Hussein. I wrote that the Iraqi government had perhaps seemed more interested in hanging the former president than in considering the legal and political consequences of their decision. I pointed out to the commentaries of international organisations such as Human Rights Watch which stated that there were serious flaws during the trial itself, as well as an eagerness by the appeals court to fast-forward Saddam Hussein to the gallows. In fact, the indecent triumphalism with which the witnesses or guards at the execution scene taunted Saddam and hailed the firebrand cleric Moktada al-Sadr were at the very least counter-productive and constituted perhaps an effort by the Iraqi government to placate, or perhaps even curry favour with, its Shi'i supporters.

Mind you, Saddam Hussein undoubtedly deserved no pity for his vile crimes and inhumane atrocities over long years, but his execution should have been handled differently, less shabbily in its procedure and less sloppily in its mix of law and politics.

However, by being sentenced for the Dujail massacres of 1982 alone, he was neither held accountable nor received punishment for his other heinous crimes. What about the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980's (where 200,000 Kurds were killed in Halabja and elsewhere, including the wholesale destruction of Qala Diza and Qasr-i-Shirin and the creation of mujama'at / concentration camps for women and children)? What about the assault on the Marsh Arabs in the 1990's and the draining of the marshes, or the slaughtering of the Kurds and Shi'is who rose against him in 1991 after the first Gulf war? Or, as Dalal al-Bizri wrote in a powerful editorial in al-Hayat , what about the scores of ordinary men and women who were also gaoled, raped, tortured or killed during his reign but did not receive any justice or even any attention?

Yet, despite the execution of this malevolent tyrant, the violence continues at such a dizzying rate that we in the West have almost become numbed by its sheer enormity. We are told that the surge by American troops would usher in the elusive victory - or at least the graceful exit - of the US Administration. However, both Houses of Congress are in their majority opposed to this surge, concluding seemingly that the whole episode was a failure of foreign policy. Besides, the majority of Iraqis today - of all colours and persuasions - also consider the invasion as another act of imperialism by a western power.

I have constantly - perhaps even tediously - repeated the self-evident mantra that military might on its own would not yield any positive results in Iraq. For any chance to move forward, even if only slightly, military force should go hand-in-hand with a planned strategy for the improvement of the daily lives of Iraqis. But this has never materialised in any real sense - either at the beginning of the invasion, or since then. Not only have the infrastructure or public services and utilities such as hospitals and schools in Iraq deteriorated in their capacities, and not only is electricity still at a rare premium for a country that sits on huge oil-wells, but ordinary Iraqis are being kidnapped, tortured and even murdered with unfathomable frequency and brutality. Today, sectarian relations between the different communities have become so insecure that Iraqis have by and large lost hope and are fearful for their lives as much as for the piece of bread they must place on the family table.

This week, a bleak 90-page report by the National Intelligence Estimate about the future of Iraq expressed (in its declassified portions) deep doubts about the abilities of Iraqi politicians to hold an increasingly balkanised country together, (Those estimates provide a consensus of the 16 agencies that make up the intelligence community in the USA). Yet, in the midst of such political maelstroms, with nobody seemingly able to stem the violence, I cling to one hopeful outlet - perhaps a last chance saloon for Iraqis. It focuses on a fresh Arab League initiative that would strive to bring together Iraqi politicians from different hostile parties. After all, the Arab League did just that in Lebanon 17 years ago when its diplomacy put an end to a conflict in which tens of thousands of Lebanese men, women and children also went to their deaths. Such an initiative might work because the Arab League is in fact Arab, and so can count on a level of trust amongst suspicious Iraqis that the USA lost long ago. Mind you, Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, cannot offer miracles given the volatile situation. But he should mediate in the conflict with the hope of achieving political stability and national reconciliation.

I would like to conclude with one additional quotation from Samir Ibraheem, an 11-year-old only Iraqi boy who studies at the Mansour Primary School in Baghdad. It mirrors for me human reality and daily suffering at their sharpest levels:

Lately, I have been feeling very lonely in my class. This week, I was the only student in class because all my classmates didn't come to school for various reasons. Since last September, three of my classmates have been kidnapped and two have been killed. One was murdered with his family at home and the other was a victim of a bomb explosion a month ago. The others have either fled to Jordan and Syria with their families or their relatives have prohibited them from coming to school for fear that something might happen to them.

The only thing that makes me afraid is that if they kidnap me, I know I'll be killed. My family has no money to pay a ransom. We don't have a house, a car or any other goods to sell. So for sure I could be another victim of the terror that we live with but I have faith that God will protect me.

Most of our teachers have left the school. I heard that some of them have travelled abroad and others stopped working for security reasons on the insistence of their families. I miss them all. I miss the days when we used to run in our school and go home on our own, not worried by the violence. We were 21 students and today I'm the only one in class.

As ordinary people strive to make sense of the situation in Iraq today, I would suggest that politicians in the Arab World, let alone in the USA and Europe, owe it to Samir Ibraheem - and many other young kids like him - to put aside their vested interests or sectarian designs and extricate the country from this crippling stasis.

Is this my cry in the wilderness? I pray not!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   2 February


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