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A Ray of Hope in the Midst of Gloom! - The Iraq Case
Over the past four years at least, I have been constantly disheartened by the sad events unravelling in Iraq...

5 July   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... Some SOMA readers are perhaps familiar with my unrelenting quest for signs of hope in the midst of the pervasive gloom enveloping this country. But it has been quite hard to do so, not least when almost every story coming out spells chilling hopelessness and raw fear.

In the last month alone, for instance, we in the West have read many stories that make some of us wonder yet again whether Iraq as a whole will ever break out from this vicious cycle and manage to find peace with itself let alone with the outside world. A most recent example is the heinous attack in Amerli that claimed so many Shi’ite Turkoman lives. It is far too simplistic to say that Baghdad is the sole problem and that every other governorate or region is safe. True, the capital is the heart of a cruel insurgency as much as the epicentre of much bloodying violence. Besides, it is a hotbed of discrimination against many defenceless minorities (such as Christians in areas like Dora in Baghdad) and of kidnappings that are occurring regularly for the sake of exacting ransom money that would then be used to fund even more violence and mayhem.

So while it is true that Baghdad is facing formidable challenges irrespective of an American surge that strives to weed out those destabilising elements (most recently from Ramadi to Diyali), they in turn can also be found in Basra and elsewhere in the country. A Middle East Report #67 by the International Crisis Group (ICG) entitled Where is Iraq Heading? Lessons from Basra dated 25 June 2007 lends itself to eye-opening reading as it describes how this oil-rich city is descending into chaos.

According to the ICG, Basra is a case study of multiple and multiplying forms of violence. Describing how much of the violence is intra-Shi’ite, ICG then adds that these often have little to do with sectarianism or anti-occupation resistance. Instead, they involve the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighbourhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly intermingle with political actors. Should other causes of strife - sectarian violence and the fight against coalition forces - recede, the concern must still be that the fate of Basra will be replicated throughout the country on an equally chaotic and perilous scale.

Turning away from the south of the country and looking toward the north, things are not always too rosy in the Kurdish regions (such as Suleimaniyeh, Irbil or Dahuk) either. There have been reported cases of violations of both international human rights law and Iraqi codes, and the Kurdish cities are also feeling the brunt of the overall violence. For instance, there has been alleged discrimination against women to the routine torture of detainees by Kurdish Asayish (security) forces using systematic methods that include electric shock and holding them in overcrowded facilities without formal charges (according to a 58-page report Caught in the Whirlwind: Torture and Denial of Due Process by the Kurdistan Security Forces of 2nd July by the New York-based Human Rights Watch) to the urgent lack of medical supplies necessary for the treatment of patients. For instance, many of the 48 hospitals and 672 primary health care centres in the region lack the basic medicines and medical supplies needed to treat wounds or provide basic care, with specialists unable to travel to the region to provide essential training to medical staff.

However, there are also few encouraging but timorous signs of hope as Iraqis wade through this fog of this frightful uncertainty. One such sign is the recent court verdict that condemned Chemical Ali to death. The Iraqi Kurds cheered this verdict since Ali Hassan al-Majid personifies the unspeakable horrors visited upon them two decades ago when he unleashed the Iraqi arsenal on the Kurdish community. Mind you, with the Anfal trial now over, he is likely to follow his cousin in death by hanging (although his sentence would be reviewed on appeal). This means he will in all likelihood not be present at the Halabja trial later this year, and his absence will reduce the impact of the trial and may deprive the Kurds of information that could help them understand the circumstances that prompted the previous regime to order the devastating attack.

In one sense, therefore, this verdict means that his death will have been a source of deep satisfaction but not yet one of full justice. In this context, it might be informative to read a new book entitled A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja by Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.

Another sign of hope in Iraq can be found in the second round of negotiations for a Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) between the EU and Iraq that took place in Brussels on 25-26 June 2007. The objectives for this round were to discuss the aims of the agreement, its overall structure, including its scope, as well as the pace and modalities for the negotiations. The TCA should help to progressively strengthen the external relations of the EU with Iraq and integrate the country gradually into the global economy.

However, the most encouraging sign of hope, and a key political objective, is the Hydrocarbons Law that was approved at long last by the Iraqi cabinet and sent to parliament for immediate debate - since the current extended session of the parliament expires at the end of this month. In fact, the passage of this law (along with other pieces of legislation) is seen as vital toward curbing sectarian violence and healing deep divisions between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunnis in Iraq. After all, it is intended to ensure a fair distribution of the world's third largest oil reserves which are located mainly in the Shi'ite south and the Kurdish north of the country. Sunni Arabs living largely in central provinces have little proven oil wealth and have long feared they would miss out on any windfall should violence ease enough to revive the struggling industry.

The draft oil law was originally approved by the Iraqi cabinet in February but faced opposition from the local government in autonomous Kurdistan, which felt it was getting a raw deal, as well as from other political parties and forces who resisted any foreign involvement with the management of Iraqi oil wealth. However, this law is not only about deciding who controls those Iraqi oil reserves and setting up a new oil firm to oversee the industry, it law also aims to provide a legal framework for attracting foreign investment.

Today, Iraq finds itself once more at a critical crossroads. With so much violence - be it sectarian, anti-coalition, political or criminal - the future hinges largely on the dual task of resolving confessional confrontations as well as rebuilding a functional and legitimate state that could apply the rule of law. This might sound a distant objective for an embattled Prime Minister and a riven country - or even for most of us in the West who follow those events through our usual channels of information.

But no matter how arduous, it might still be possible to budge forward if Iraqis of all political shades and religious colours realise that they are simply not gaining anything by incessantly upping the ante, and so they rally instead around the future of their country - today broken, tomorrow perhaps restored a little more.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   5 July


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