Monday, April 30, 2007

New SIGIR Report Outlines Reconstruction Challenges

As President Bush and Congress continue their stalemate over the 2007 supplemental spending bill, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) released its latest quarterly report today, stating in no uncertain terms that worsening security conditions, ongoing violence and far-reaching corruption will keep Iraqis from managing their country's reconstruction for the foreseeable future. The report echoes the recent sentiments of General David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, who admits that challenges still lay ahead in Iraq and anticipates "an enormous [U.S.] commitment" for some time to come.

The latest SIGIR report cites several trends in Iraq that are contributing to the setbacks in U.S. reconstruction efforts, chiefly:

* Corruption - The report notes that $5 billion is lost every year in Iraq due to fraud "which 'afflicts virtually every Iraqi ministry,' particularly the oil, interior and defense ministries." On a positive note, the report says that the Maliki government is making some strides toward ousting corruption within its ranks, so far weeding out eight ministers and 40 directors general, who are awaiting prosecution for the mismanagement of $8 billion in reconstruction funds.

* Violence & Unrest - Though the frequency of violent attacks seems to be down in Iraq, the scale of each attack has become more devastating, killing more people and crippling rebuilding efforts of desperately-needed public services. According to a BBC article, "The U.S. Defense Department says there are on average 1.4 attacks on critical electricity, water, oil and gas facilities each week." The SIGIR report adds, "Repair teams sent in after attacks continue to face threats, including kidnapping and murder." In a separate report, the State Department noted that in 2006 45 percent of the 14,338 terror attacks around the world took place in Iraq, an increase of 29 percent from the previous year.

* Poor Maintenance & Sustainability - The latest SIGIR report finds that, when projects are finally handed over to Iraqis, they "are not being adequately maintained." This is largely due to poor training and management. Take SIGIR’s evaluation of a hospital in Irbil, for example, where inspectors found that "a sophisticated oxygen distribution system was not used because staff did not trust it.” They also noted that needles and bandages were being tossed into the sewer system, causing it to clog, because the incinerator installed to deal with such waste was not in use. Why? Inspectors say it’s because no one on staff at the hospital was trained on how to operate the incinerator and, on top of that, no one had the key to unlock the incinerator door.

From a policy standpoint, what does the latest SIGIR report really mean? It further reinforces the importance of alternative solutions, pressing our leaders to reevaluate the United States’ current reconstruction strategy and urging them to seriously consider a new approach.

That's exactly what Congress and the White House have the opportunity to do with this year’s supplemental. By using this critical report and considering alternative approaches – such as those advocated by noted experts like Eric Davis and Lisa Schirch – Congress and the White House have the ability to fund a new strategy for peacebuilding in Iraq, leveraging a plan that could significantly and immediately improve the quality of life for millions of Iraqi families.

The challenge now is getting them to listen.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hope for Compromise

Tension continues to mount in Washington, D.C. as the Senate voted 51-46 today in favor the 2007 supplemental spending bill, which includes a goal for troop withdrawal set for next year. Today's Senate vote follows the bill's narrow passage in the House by a 218-208 vote. Both votes were divided largely along party lines.

Although the measure passed both chambers of Congress, the White House is reiterating President Bush's intent to veto. To override a Presidential veto, Democrats would need 67 votes in the Senate and 290 in the House -- much more support than was secured for this week's votes.

In the midst of all this contention, it is leaving some people to wonder if common ground on Iraq is even possible. The spending bill is crucial, as funds for operations in Iraq will soon run out. For example, U.S. funding for some critical development programs that support Iraqi civil society organizations is expected to run out in June. Which brings us to the question: Can the parties involved reach a compromise?

According to recent precedent, the answer is yes. After 9 months of reviewing all of the available facts and thoughful deliberation, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group was able to reach a consensus. Released on December 6th of last year, the 84-page report provides an honest assessment of the situation in Iraq and outlines key recommendations for a responsible way forward. For more on this report, check out our blog from last December.

Despite pledges from Congress and President Bush to "consider" the recommendations, the Iraq Study Group Report was quickly tabled by both sides. But in the midst the current debate over the FY 2007 supplemental, the report -- and particularly the attractiveness of its bipartisan recommendations -- has begun to resurface. As one barometer, here's a sampling of editorials and op-eds that have appeared on the opinion pages of the Washington Post and New York Times (including op-eds by both of the co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group report):

Standoff on Iraq
Washington Post editorial
Monday, April 16, 2007

A Partnership on Iraq
By Lee H. Hamilton
The Washington Post
Sunday, March 25, 2007; Page B07

A Path to Common Ground
The Iraq Study Group Plan Could Break the Logjam
By James A. Baker III
The Washington Post
Thursday, April 5, 2007; Page A17

Back to Baker-Hamilton
By David Ignatius
The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 4, 2007; Page A13

What About Those Other Iraq Deadlines?
By Leon E. Panetta
The New York Times
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Student at Baghdad University: "The sky was raining burning paper and body parts."

What defines a crisis as the type that compels media attention?

On April 17th, American and international media attention was riveted on the murders of 32 Virginia Tech students. The coverage was non-stop. It was impossible not to hear or read about what had happened that terrible day. Everyone knew about the massacre.

But did you know that since the end of January, more than 100 students, professors and education professionals have been killed at Mustansiriya University in Baghdad? This past January, Iraqi mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers mourned the lives of at least 60 people who were killed at Mustansiriya University. In February, families mourned again when a suicide bomber killed 39 students and 9 guards at that same Baghdad campus.

Compared to other situations, there has been a lack of awareness about the impact that violence has on the lives of everyday Iraqis. Where is the media coverage?

The more than 100 lives lost at Mustansiriya University this year shows that violence in Iraq significantly impacts the daily lives of Iraqi families, as places like schools and universities continue to get caught in the cross fire.

Iraqi Refugees in Jordan: The View from the Ground

Last Thursday, as I lunched in the stately dinning room of one of Northwest D.C.'s Victorian brownstones, I listened to a fascinating discussion of the refugee situation in Jordan. Sitting at the head of the table was Noah Merrill of Electronic Iraq, who just returned from Jordan, where he spent hundred of hours interviewing Iraqi refugees.

Although there are approximately one million Iraqi refugees in Jordan, the interviewees were not easy to locate, Noah told us. Despite the UNHCR estimated 50,000 refugees fleeing to Jordan every month, there are no refugee camps; newly arrived refugees disappear into the densely-populated urban landscape of Jordan's biggest cities.

The untraceable existence of these refugees has several worrisome causes. First among these is Jordan's ability to shirk the responsibility, mandated by international law, to recognize and protect refugees within its borders. Jordan never signed on to the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees for fear that in doing so, it would be committing itself to granting residency to the large numbers of Palestinian refugees within its borders. With 60 to 70 percent of the Jordanian population made up of these Palestinian refugees, Jordanians, who are the minority in their own country, view the influx of Iraqi refugees as a genuine existential threat to their country's national identity.

Refugees, therefore, are not seen by the Jordanian government as, well, refugees. To paraphrase as senior Jordanian official: "Jordan does not have a refugee problem; Jordan has an illegal immigration problem." Thus viewed as illegal immigrants, Iraqi refugees are prohibited from working. Forced by financial circumstances to defy this prohibition, Iraqis try their best to stay under the radar. If caught, they face deportation back across the border, into the lawless terrorist haven of Al-Anbar province.

Other factors also make the climate inhospitable to Iraqi refugees. For example, the UN Refugee Agency, under pressure from the Jordanian government, has stopped issuing refugee certificates to Iraqis, and instead grants them refugees cards with the largely hollow "temporary asylum seeker" status.

Also, Noah continued, the Jordanian government, echoing a similar threat it made last year, has stated that it will expel all Iraqi children from schools - public and private. Amelia Templeton, an Iraqi refugee advocate and former NPR correspondent, said that when she interviewed Jordan's Minister of Education, he cited the cost and pressure on classroom size caused by the refugee influx as the rationale behind such measures. Yet Jordanian officials have begun to shut down schools operating out of churches - independent, informal schools which have no presumable impact on public classrooms. Noah pointed out the devastating effects such measures are having on the Iraqis, a people whose culture deeply prizes education.

In order for Iraqi refugees to ensure that they will not be deported back to Iraq, they have two options: leave Jordan and flee to a more hospitable country like Egypt, or try to gain residency status. This second option is only available to Iraqis that have the ability to put a certain amount of money into Jordanian banks. Essentially, says Noah, the Jordanian government is following international conventions to protect one type of refugee: the wealthy refugee.

A final factor threatening many Iraqi refugees in Jordan is a virulent and "intentionally constructed" anti-Shia sentiment, says Noah. State-led propaganda campaigns spread the belief that the Iraqi Shia community is responsible for bringing Americans into Iraq and for the "assassination" of Saddam Hussein. As a result of these sentiments, Iraqi Shia refugees that try to form self-help communities are deported back to Iraq.

Noah Merill ended the discussion by saying that the refugee crisis represents a political problem. As such, humanitarian aid is necessary - but not sufficient - when it comes to dealing effectively with this problem. He says that a plan that helps get Iraqi refugees back into Iraq should be fundamental to any proposed solution. This is, he said, what the refugees he interviewed truly desired - to go home.

With American NGO participants just coming back into town from last week's UN-led conference to address the Iraqi displacement crisis, I am trying to track down any information about whether such a plan is in the works. But with the fragile security environment in Iraq constantly undermined by ongoing violence, I have to wonder what the prospects for such a plan really are at this point.

For more information on Iraq's refugee emergency, be sure to check out EPIC's interview with refugee advocate Sean Garcia of Refugees International.

Monday, April 23, 2007

An Update on Kirkuk

Following-up on a blog entry last week where I discussed the sensitive situation in Kirkuk, there has been yet another update worth checking out. Along with last week's ICG report, today's Washington Post has a piece that supports what Ignatius was saying last week. Al Kamen explains that:
"While everyone's been focusing on Baghdad as the key to getting things calmed down in Iraq, the situation in Kirkuk to the north is edging toward serious trouble."
The Arabs are a third party involved in the dispute over Kirkuk, which makes matters even more complicated. The history of an Arab presence there dates back to the Saddam regime, when he had them relocate from the south to occupy the oil rich city. Today, Kurds are worried about the impact the Arab vote will have on the upcoming referendum to decide who will control the city. Kamen explains that, "Arabs are being encouraged to go back 'home,' wherever that is. Kurds whom Saddam kicked out are coming back...and Turkey continues to be concerned about the large Turkmen population in the city."

The army is trying to deal with the potential problem, and has put forth a "request for information" from contractors and urban planners for "the design of the Kirkuk Master Plan" according to Kamen. This plan is meant to target problems concerning land use and "other developments." There is still no mention of conflict resolution strategies and as Epic has said before, there must be a diplomatic effort for real reconciliation to take place. It seems Kamen agrees that there is more to the problem in Kirkuk than just devising a plan that urban planners and contractors can address:
"'Other developments'? Well, unless the tensions can be defused, this might include congestion created by troop movements, tank routes and battery placements...Planners might want to widen streets for evacuation routes...But at least there'll be a plan."

Again, a diplomatic resolution is long over-due for the complex situation in Kirkuk. A diplomatic resolution will ensure that all parties can be content with the outcome, and that these tensions don't spill over into more destabilization in the country. Washington should be a leader in fostering that dialogue between all parties. "If a ray of hope shines through this dismal tangle, it is that all sides in Kirkuk currently seem to agree on the need for dialogue" (ICG 2007).

Thursday, April 19, 2007

GROUND TRUTH PROJECT UPDATE: Nadje discusses her latest book on Iraqi women

Nadje Al-Ali, EPIC’s first Ground Truth Project interviewee, is back in the DC area promoting her latest book. Tomorrow at DC's famous Busboys and Poets Bookstore, she will discuss her latest book, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories, in which she challenges the myths and misconceptions which have dominated debates about Iraqi women. In her Ground Truth Project interview, released last fall, she also touched on this theme, noting the historically dynamic role women have played in Iraq. In her book, she traces the political history of Iraq from post-colonial independence to the present day. Nadje delves into why there has been an increase in social conservatism, domestic violence, and prostitution following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Through it all, Nadje argues that Iraqi women are not passive victims; they are political players and discussion makers. If you are in the DC area, be sure to stop by Busboy and Poets and meet the amazing woman behind this powerful book.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Story of Saleh Khalaf

I've been interning here at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC) since late January, and the more I learn about EPIC's mission and work, the more excited I am about being part of the team. The organization has consistently worked to reduce suffering and conflict in Iraq since 1998, regardless of how bad the situation has become.

As EPIC's director tells us, it’s not just about ending the war. Our mission is also about protecting innocent civilians caught up in the conflict, and addressing those harmed by it, which brings me to the following story:

On October 10, 2003 a small Iraqi boy in Nasiriya was walking home from school when he spotted something shiny. Nine-year-old Saleh Khalaf picked up what he thought was a ball. His older brother Dia shouted, "Don't move, don't move!" and Saleh began to cry. Dia ran to Saleh to protect him, but he was too late. The bomb exploded, tearing into Saleh's abdomen, taking off his right hand and most of his left, and sending shrapnel into his left eye. Dia himself was killed.

Without immediate medical attention Saleh's mother Hadia and father Raheem knew they would lose their younger son too. But public hospitals were short on supplies. So Raheem rushed Saleh to the Americans at Tallil Air Base near Nasiriya. There the surgeon on duty was so impressed by Saleh's determination to live that he treated him despite overwhelming odds against his survival.

This marked the beginning of an international mission of mercy that eventually brought Saleh to Children's Hospital in Oakland. Over the past two years Saleh has undergone more than 30 surgeries and survived several close calls, earning him the nickname "Lion Heart." Today, Raheem, Hadia, and their four surviving children live in Oakland, where Saleh receives medical care.
To read the Pulitzer-prize winning San Francisco Chronicle series on Saleh, go here.

In 2005, EPIC Board Member Zaid Albanna sat down with Saleh's family to learn more about the hardships they've endured, and the community that has rallied to support them. The indomitable spirit of this young boy called "Lion Heart" and the international effort that saved his life inspired EPIC to contact our friends at the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC).

Right now, EPIC is partnering with CIVIC to support the passage of the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act (S. 594). Introduced by Senators Dianne Feinstein (CA), Patrick Leahy (VT), Bernie Sanders (VT), and Barbara Mikulski (MD) and co-sponsored by Senators Edward Kennedy (MA), Sherrod Brown (OH) and Maria Cantwell (WA), this bill would limit the use, sale and transfer of these deadly weapons to protect civilian lives. If you don't see your Senators listed above, then they need to hear from you! Ask your Senators to co-sponsor the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act (S. 594).

Dispute Over Kirkuk Could Lead to Further Destabilization

Today in The Washington Post, David Ignatius, calls attention to a threat that, if not adequately addressed, will pose yet another serious danger to the security of Iraq. Kurdistan, which had been viewed by many as one of the few successes the United States has had in Iraq, could now be the center of further destabilization in the country. According to Ignatius, historic tensions between Turkey and the Kurdish north have become heightened over the past year, and Washington's attempts to stabilize a potential confrontation may not be enough.

There are many factors that are contributing to this already sensitive relationship, one of them being the oil-rich city of Kirkuk that Kurds have claimed, but which Turks regard as a protectorate because of the large Turkmen population residing there. Both sides have made serious verbal threats recently:
"Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani warned that if the Turks meddled in Kirkuk, 'then we will take action for the 30 million Kurds in Turkey.' Turkish General Yasar Buyukanit responded that he favored an invasion of Iraq to clean out the militant Kurdish political party (PKK)."
EPIC, along with others, has supported a political solution to the dispute over Kirkuk. The December 2007 referendum on the future of the city, which Kurds are confident they will win, could be a catalyst for furthering anxieties on both sides if conflict resolution strategies are not an integral part of resolving the problem. Addressing the dispute is essential in the stabilization and reconciliation of Iraq, but it is a problem that has been neglected for far too long. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG) in a July 2006 report:
"Given the high stakes, the international community cannot afford to stand by, allowing the situation to slip into chaos by default. It needs to step-in and propose a solution that addresses all sides' core concerns without crossing their existential red lines."
Click here to read the rest of ICG's recommendations on Kirkuk.

UPDATE: ICG just released a new report called "Iraq and the Kurds: Resolving the Kirkuk Crisis."

Iraq Refugee Situation: A Brief Update

A couple times over the last three weeks I've mentioned a UNHCR conference was set to be held in Geneva yesterday. I wanted to post a couple links relating to the conference for you to check out. Interesting to compare the UNHCR goal of resettling 20,000 of the most vulnerable refugees this year with the US agreeing to accept 7,000 refugees. With 3.9 million displaced Iraqis, 2 million of whom are refugees, the UNCHR figure only represents one percent of refugees. Keeping in mind the daily-worsening humanitarian crisis that continues to cause the number of refugees to swell, the conference issued a call for Western states to take more responsibility for refugee resettlement.

Of particular concern among many is the lack of US visas being granted to Iraqi allies, such as the thousands of interpreters who have risked their lives to work with the US-led coalition in Iraq. Taking an important step toward rectifying this, the Senate last week passed a bill authorizing the issuing of 500 visas for such individuals and aimed at fixing the backlog that is currently stalling the visa process. Similar legislation is pending in the House. The introduction of these bills perhaps has something to do with the media ratchetting up the pressure on Congress to rectify America's abandonment of Iraqi interpreters. For a great example of this, check out this compelling editorial from today's NYT.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Good TV

Two documentaries relating to Iraq are set to air tonight as part of "America at a Crossroads," a PBS series that, according to their website, "explores the challenges confronting the post-9/11 world — including the war on terrorism; the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; the experience of American troops serving abroad; the struggle for balance within the Muslim world; and global perspectives on America’s role overseas."

Today the NYT published two articles covering tonight's documentaries, the first of which, "Gangs of Iraq," airs at 9pm. The second film, "The Case for War: In Defense of Freedom," airs right after at 10pm. Be sure to check your local listings for time changes.

Remembering the past and looking to the future

In mid-March, Georgetown University students held a candlelight vigil in memory of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war. EPIC's Director Erik Gustafson delivered a message of unity to the crowd that was brought together by the Arab Studies Graduate Program and the College Democrats. He said, "Many people forget the human cost of war. A life lost, whether it be an Iraqi civilian or American soldier, is a life cut too short."

Vigil Organizer and EPIC member, Marwa Alkhairo, echoed Erik's sentiments in Georgetown's The Hoya, "Pain of loss, pain of death…pain of losing a loved one is blind to religion, blind to race, blind to ethnicity. Tears of an Iraqi mother are the same as tears of an American mother."

This vigil marked the beginning of Iraq Remembrance Week at the University. The goal of the week-long events was to educate students on the effects of war, putting a human face on suffering. Events included film screenings and panel discussions with active government officials and scholars.

EPIC friend and Ground Truth Project Interviewee, Laura Poitras, screened her Oscar-nominated film, My Country, My Country. While the film played, Laura and I grabbed coffee and discussed her up-coming project on Guantanamo Bay's detention camp. She told me about her experience interviewing several detainees and learning the heartbreaking stories that brought them to the camp. Laura hopes to complete this film in 2008.

Monday, April 16, 2007

2 Years After Her Death, Marla Ruzicka Remains an Inspiration

I mentioned in a post last Thursday that today is the anniversary of Marla Ruzicka's death. Marla dedicated her life to ensuring compensation for the families of innocent victims of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than once, she risked everything to gain a firsthand perspective on the impact of U.S. military operations abroad, traveling to the frontlines of active combat. But for Marla, the information she would bring back and the legislation it inspired were worth the risk. These risks that she so bravely faced eventually took her life, as she and her colleague Faiz Ali Salim were killed by a suicide bomber in 2005. Marla was 29 years old.

Though her life was cut tragically short, her legacy lives on through the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), an organization founded by Marla herself. According to CIVIC Associate Marla Bertagnolli
, "CIVIC started in 2001 when Marla Ruzicka traveled to Afghanistan and realized that the families of innocent victims of U.S. and coalition actions were not being helped financially by the U.S. She collected information and began working with Senator Leahy to get the funding to provide these victims with compensation. In 2003, she went to Iraq and brought back information to Leahy. Following her death in Iraq on April 16, 2005, Congress established the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund. This fund gives money to small, community-based projects that help families who have been directly affected by U.S. and coalition actions."

CIVIC continues actively working toward smart and compassionate policies for war victims. "CIVIC is pushing for the military to create an effective compensation system that provides a larger condolence payment than the current $2,500 compensation," says Bertagnolli. "CIVIC is currently working with Senator Leahy on legislation to standardize payments to families harmed or caught in the cross-fire of U.S. military operations. A standardized system would ensure that the families of victims receive payments immediately after the death of their family member."

To honor Marla’s legacy, EPIC has partnered with CIVIC to build public support for the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act (S.594). Introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA), S.594 seeks to limit one of the world's most indiscriminate and deadly weapons: cluster bombs. In addition to Sen. Feinstein, the bill has found support among the following 6 co-sponsors: Senators Patrick Leahy (VT), Bernie Sanders (VT), Edward Kennedy (MA), Sherrod Brown (OH), Maria Cantwell (WA), and Barbara Mikulski (MD). If your Senators are not among these cosponsors, please take action today to ask them to cosponsor the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Shatha Hassoun on Star Academy

I just wanted to let you know about an interesting article from the WaPo last week that deals with the hope for reconciliation brought to Iraq by the success of an Iraqi singer, Shada Hassoun, on an American Idol-esque show:

"'For those who don't know the Iraqi people very well, they think they are extremist Shia and extremist Sunni and Kurds. This is not the reality. I have been confident that the Iraqi people yearn for a secular government and that the religious movements are weak. The masses, deep inside, are secular. And none of the politicians understood what I was saying until [Shada Hassoun won this television contest]."

If you are having trouble viewing this video, please click here to download FlashPlayer.

Towards Compensating for Lives Lost

Yesterday, the Department of Defense released documentation of 500 instances describing how the US deals with compensation for families of innocent victims of US actions in the Iraq War. Hopefully, with the release of these cases will come increasing public awareness of the human element in this war.

This New York Times article about the civilian compensation offered by the military tells tales that are, like so many of the narratives of this conflict, heartrending:
"In another incident, in 2005, an American soldier in a dangerous Sunni Arab area south of Baghdad killed a boy after mistaking his book bag for a bomb satchel. The Army paid the boy’s uncle $500."
But looking deeper into the content of the article, there is some hope and something to admire. And that's the work done by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict -- CIVIC for short. CIVIC was founded by Marla Ruzicka (pictured above), a humanitarian whose life was eventually cut short by her efforts to bring a little bit of justice into the lives of innocent victims of this war.

Before being killed by a car bomb on an Iraqi road in 2005, Marla was instrumental in getting legislation passed that established the funds from which civilians are now compensated. Prior to this, the families of Iraqis accidentally killed by the US actions, the victims of which were usually were men - the traditional breadwinners in Iraqi society - received no support from the US government, despite having their main sources of income taken away. Even though the release of the documents is a huge step towards improving the compensation system, there is still much work to be done:
“These documents seem to show that the US military’s compassion is random,” said Sarah Holewinski, director of CIVIC. “All the civilians harmed in these cases deserve recognition and redress. While some received condolence payments, many received nothing at all.”

It is imperative that all efforts be made to expeditiously improve the compensation system, but its existence alone is a testament to the fact that there are people who care about the well-being of Iraqis and will go to great lengths to advocate on their behalf. With Congress' return from spring break this coming Monday set to coincide with the second anniversary of Marla Ruzicka's death, next week is an ideal time to contact your representatives and senators here in Washington -- and let them know that you also care about the people of Iraq and want to see more US policies that show it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

New ICRC Report on Iraq

The International Red Cross Committee just released a report produced over the last three weeks about the worsening humanitarian crisis in Iraq. Here are some excerpts:

'''Once I was called to an explosion site,''' it quotes, Saad, a young Baghdad humanitarian worker as saying. '''There I saw a 4-year-old boy sitting beside his mother's body, which had been decapitated by the explosion. He was talking to her, asking her what had happened.'''

"The plight of Iraqi civilians is a daily reminder of the fact that there has long been a failure to respect their lives and dignity."

''Humanitarian aid is clearly not enough when it comes to addressing the immense needs of Iraqis in the present disastrous security situation.''

The beginning of the report briefly mentions the reliance of many families on government distribution and reported food shortages. Refugees International, in a policy brief released yesterday, documents the decrepit public distribution system and how several problems, including a lack of integrity among Iraq's politicians, are contributing to food shortages, particularly in the Kurdish north.

You can read "Civilians Without Protection: The Ever-worsening Humanitarian Crisis in Iraq," the full 8-page Red Cross report here.

#1 Challenge: Create Jobs

At an on-the-record event at USIP this morning, Iraqi government spokesman Dr. Ali al-Dubbagh gave some insights into the interaction of politics, economics and violence in Iraq.

The violence in Iraq can be split into three categories, says Dr. al-Dubbagh. Ending the first type of violence -- political violence -- involves a process that must begin with the help of Iraq's neighbors. By continuing to build on the diplomatic groundwork laid at last month's regional summit in Baghdad, the Iraqi government hopes that at next month's international summit in Egypt, it will be able to convince its neighbors to sign on to a collective regional security treaty that respects the sovereignty of Iraq and thereby obligates neighboring states, particularly Iran, to refrain from any actions that undermine the Iraqi government.

Iran's interference is adding more cracks to the the fissions in Iraq's populace. The Iraqi people, says Dr. al-Dubbagh, are moderate and not prone to extremism; this current wave of sectarianism is being perpetrated, with the aid of Iran, by a very small minority of Iraqis. Diplomacy between Arab states will hopefully stop Iran's Shia-led government from their attempts to bring Iraq's Shia majority further into their grasp. This trend needs to reversed because it is harmful to both regional stability and Iraqi national reconciliation.

Once the problem of external meddling has been dealt with, Dr. al-Dubbagh says that Iraq's leaders can move on to mending the divisions that contribute to political violence. Some remedies will come with consensus about revenue sharing, federalism, and a de-Bathifacation commission. An efficient, non-sectarian national army is also needed to reclaim the legitimate use of force from militias like the Mahdi Army. And since an army requires troops, and troops require training, Dr. al-Dubbagh does not see the Americans, who are responsible for training these troops, as able to leave anytime in the foreseeable future.

The second type of violence is economic violence. The Iraqi government's most important challenge of 2007 will be to create jobs in the South. According to Dr. al-Dubbagh, Iraq has $14 billion dollars -- $10 billion in budgetary surplus and $4 billion on loan from Japan -- that it plans to use to create half a million jobs. While he didn't go into details about how jobs will be created, I can only presume that Iraq will re-start their state owned factories, making good on a promise to heed President Bush's call.

Why is this a good thing? Because with an unemployment rate of 50%, militias and other extremist groups have found a golden recruitment opportunity: exploiting a sense of anger and frustration among breadwinners who are no longer able to provide for their families. Job creation means a diminished role for the militias, which in turn means more security and greater economic strengthening as private sector investors feel more confident putting their money into Iraqi markets and industries. This self-perpetuating cycle offers one of the best hopes for stabilizing Iraq, and it all starts with giving people jobs.

Going beyond providing income for the people of Iraq, their government is planning on building 10 new hospitals throughout the provinces, as well as 200 new schools, construction which they plan to finance through Japanese loans. Dr. al-Dubbagh said that Iraq needs more loans like the ones granted by Japan so that it can continue rebuilding infrastructure until oil revenue reaches higher levels, such as the projected $75 billion annual revenue by 2010.

Invite an Iraqi Refugee Family into Your Home

Our friend JennyJo, a filmaker and producer at Democracy Now!, has a family she would like to introduce you to.

She met the Al-Khamisi family earlier this year. They are Iraqi Sabeans who follow the teachings of John the Baptist. They once lived in the "city of peace", the proprietors of a Baghdad jewelry shop. Now they reside in the shadows of Amman, Jordan. Once you know their story, learn about their terrible loss, and allow their words to reach your heart, you will not be able to forget them.

According to some estimates, there are more than 700,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan -- roughly 20% of the population. For the United States, that would be the equivalent of 60 million Iraqi war refugees!

But I'm not asking you to open your doors to so many: just one. One family. One story. Invite the Al-Khamisi family into your home. Invite them into your workplace. Share their story with loved ones and colleagues, and help awaken America and the world to the urgent needs of Iraq's war refugees.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The 100,000s of War Refugees Outside Speaker Pelosi's Window

Defending her trip to Syria and dinner date with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed she was "assessing the ground truth" to inform spending decisions made by Congress. If that is the case, than how could Speaker Pelosi spend a day and night in Damascus, Syria without noticing the 100,000s of Iraqi refugees right outside her hotel window?

On some days, the queue of Iraqi refugees waiting outside the UN Refugee Agency's Damascus office extends for city blocks. While it is true that many of these refugees are urban ghosts -- trying to keep a low profile out of fear of deportation -- Pelosi could not possibly have spent a day and night in Damascus without learning of the crisis.

The Iraq conflict is generating the worst refugee crisis the Middle East has seen since 1948. More than 10,000 war refugees flee Iraq every month. For those lucky enough to make it across the border, the most likely destinations are Jordan and Syria. Some make it as far as Lebanon, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Some of these nations are trying to tighten their borders against the flow of war refugees, fearing the political repercussions of increased competition for scare jobs, housing and resources. In Damascus and Amman, the pressure of 100,000s of refugees have raised housing costs and diminished resources in cities that already have struggling economies.

Despite these challenges, the solution is not tighter borders or deporting families who desperately need a safe harbor from the storms of violence from which they have fled. For especially vulnerable refugees, return to Iraq is virtually a death sentence. Their fears are real. They have lost fathers, sons, and even children. They have received death threats. They have been forced to pay ransoms. They are fleeing from death squads or insurgent extremists who seek to kill them simply for belonging to the wrong sect or tribe. No, the solution is not forcing their return before it is safe. The solution is U.S. funding and international assistance for Iraq's war refugees and the countries that are stuggling to host them despite their difficulty in meeting the needs of their own populations.

While all of this goes on, the stories of Iraq's war refugees receive far too little attention in the mainstream media. The coverage they have received in the New Yorker or by CBS's 60 Minutes has been welcome, powerful, and extremely helpful. But in the realm of 24-hour-news-cycles and partisan feeding frenzy of the blogoshere, the world's fastest growing refugee crisis is hardly a blip on the screen.

Of course, responsibility does not only rest with the media and self-obsessed lonely girls of the blogoshere. It also rests with Speaker Pelosi who's honest assessment of the "ground truth" in Damascus can inform Congress regarding the Emergency Spending Bill for FY 2007, ensuring that host nations like Syria and agencies like the UNHCR receive the assistance they need to help Iraq's war refugees. Her assessment of the deteriorating situation in Iraq can also inform emergency humanitarian funding for Iraqis who have fled violence for safer parts inside Iraq.

Every reader of this blog -- especially you -- can help raise the alarm. You can become one of the blips on the radar that awakens our national conscience and alerts the world to the humanitarian emergency of more than 3 million displaced Iraqis -- many of whom desperately need our help and protection. Call the Congressional switchboard at 202-224-3121. Ask for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Tell her the "ground truth" about Iraq's war refugees, including the ones she may have passed in the streets of Damascus without knowing. They need our help.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Looking Back at the Fall of Baghdad

The toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue at Firdaus Square remains a defining image of the Fall of Baghdad, which occurred four years ago today. The first to swing a sledgehammer against the stone base of the statue was Khadim al-Jubouri, a burly man who had been imprisoned for a year and a half in the 1990s for criticizing Saddam's regime.

In today's Washington Post, Sudarsan Raghavan tells Jubouri's story and asks him what he thinks today, four years later. His answer is a testament to far Baghdad has fallen since then.

"It achieved nothing," Jubouri says now. "We regret that Saddam Hussein is gone, no matter how much we hated him." ...Under Hussein, he never faced day-to-day corruption, Jubouri said, but now he must pay bribes just to get a license or file a police complaint. "I feel lost now," he said.
Four years ago today, I remember where I was and what I was doing. I had spent the entire night reading news accounts of the fighting in Baghdad to compile a dispatch for EPIC's members. At the time, EPIC's website was receiving 100,000s of hits each day, and EPIC's staff and I worked overtime to provide a clearinghouse of accurate news reporting about the war, especially its impact on ordinary Iraqis.

Like the regrets of Jubouri today, a fuller account of the Fall of Baghdad complicates the picture perfect toppling of Saddam's statue. While I too welcomed the end of Saddam's tyranny, my organization was alarmed by the collapse of the Iraqi state and the humanitarian consequences of the U.S. administration's failure to be prepared for the "day after" Saddam.

The following is an excerpt from the dispatch I sent EPIC's members in the early wee hours of April 9, 2003:

Baghdad, a city of more than 5 million, remains a combat zone. On Sunday a U.S. 3rd Infantry armored division rolled through the capital city, leaving thousands of Iraqi defenders dying in its wake (Reuters 4/7/03). On Monday, a column of 130 U.S. tanks and armored vehicles pushed again into the heart of Baghdad. Heavy fighting engulfed the al-Rashid hotel, nearby military parade grounds, and Iraq’s Ministry of Information. Upon reaching the west banks of the Tigris river, U.S. 3rd Infantry captured the Sijood and Republican Palaces (NYT 4/8/03).

Yesterday, in another day of bloody urban warfare, 3rd Infantry fought to take control of central Baghdad. Backed by strafing A-10 Warthogs, 3rd Infantry repelled a counterattack by Iraqi defenders. The pitched battle lasted for over 6 hours. U.S. warplanes, artillery and tanks pounded government ministries and other official buildings (NYT 4/8/03).

From the east, units of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force crossed the Diyala River, captured the Rashid air base, and fought to take control of the east banks of the Tigris River (Wa Post 4/8/03).

Civilian casualties have increased dramatically since U.S. ground forces arrived in the capital last week. NPR’s Anne Garrels reports: “The emergency room at Baghdad’s al-Kindi hospital was covered in blood. A father carried in his four-year-old son. He was pronounced dead on arrival. His 12 year old daughter was also killed when a bomb hit the modest carpentry shop the family called home. His wife lay in a gurney. Her beige sun dress drenched in blood from the waist down. A doctor said she too would die and left to treat someone else. The hospital is understaffed as doctors and nurses can’t make it to work through the fighting (NPR’s All Things Considered 4/8/03).”

Taleb Saadi, a doctor at Baghdad's al-Kindi hospital, said 30 to 35 bodies arrived yesterday at the hospital and as many as 300 wounded were treated at its emergency ward (AP 4/8/03). Due to a shortage of medical supplies, some surgeries and amputations are being performed without adequate anesthetics. Other hospitals report a similar flood of casualties (ICRC 4/8/03). According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), there is now a permanent wave of mass casualties.

Over the past 48 hours, five foreign journalists covering the battle have also been killed and at least 4 others wounded. On Tuesday, a U.S. M1 Abrams tank fired a shell into the 15th floor of the Palestine Hotel, killing two cameramen with Reuters and Spanish television (BBC 4/8/03). Later that same day, a correspondent with al-Jazeera, was killed when U.S. missiles hit the station’s Baghdad bureau. Abu Dhabi television said its bureau was also hit. Consequently, some journalists are asking to be safely evacuated, reducing the presence of foreign journalists in Baghdad.

Much of Baghdad has had either no, or only intermittent, power and running water since last Thursday (Reuters 4/3/03). Water supplies are in further jeopardy following the failure of the Qanat raw water pumping station in the north of the city (ICRC 4/8/03). Severe water shortages plague Basra and other cities in Southern Iraq as well.

U.S. military officials say Baghdad is now free (LA Times 4/9/03). There are reports of widespread looting and celebrations in Baghdad and Basra (NPR 4/9/03). U.S. and British forces appear unable and unwilling to restore order.
Even before the statue came tumbling down, it was already clear to war correspondents in Baghdad that the Bush administration was not prepared for the war's aftermath. Four years later, U.S. service members and Iraqi civilians are still paying the price.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Gates: Under US Redeployment, Ethnic Cleansing Likely

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates underscored a dire consequence of the redeployment of U.S. troops in Iraq:
"One real possibility is, if we abandon some of these areas and withdraw into the countryside or whatever to do these targeted missions, you could have a fairly significant ethnic cleansing inside Baghdad or in Iraq more broadly."
U.S. actions in Iraq have served as the catalyst for the collision of many underlying, dangerous elements of Iraqi society. One of these elements is corruption; coming of age under Saddam's regime, many in the current generation of Iraqi politicians use their political clout to advance their own group's agendas rather than the well-being of all Iraqis. Another element is sectarianism, with the major political parties defining themselves along sectarian lines. As a wartime sense of criminal immunity propels sectarian violence, and political parties back militias that "cleanse" neighborhoods until they are entirely Shia or entirely Sunni, the chances for large-scale ethnic cleansing in parts of Iraq are high.

But what is stopping it? Ironically, it seems to be the presence of U.S. troops. In a January hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Cornyn and the Secretary Gates pointed to the role that U.S. forces are playing in maintaining a fragile level of peace--and, as a result, warding off large-scale ethnic cleansing:

SEN. CORNYN: "What would be the humanitarian consequences [if US forces in Iraq are redeployed]? What would be the likely outcomes in terms of loss of life to innocent men, women and children in that region if some of these dire consequences do occur?"

SEC. GATES: "I think one of the consequences -- we're already seeing some internal immigration and to a limited extent ethnic cleansing. And I would suspect that one consequence would be a fairly dramatic increase both in internal immigration, the number of displaced persons, but also ethnic cleansing. Sir, clearly in my mind there would be additional increased murders, sectarian violence. I don't know how much, but certainly a large increase in that..."

SEN. CORNYN: Well, if I could just say in closing that many people in this country are justly concerned about the genocide in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands of people have died. And I've -- with others who've traveled to Iraq -- I remember traveling with the chairman to Iraq in 2003 and standing on the edge of a mass-grave site where the United Nations said in that and similar sites 400,000, perhaps, Iraqis lay dead at the hand of Saddam Hussein, and perhaps a million more people had simply exited the country during his regime in order to avoid a similar fate. So I hope that we will focus a little bit more on the consequences of failure in Iraq. And that will fuel us and encourage us to at least try to heed the advice of the president's most expert military advisers, present company included, to try to avoid that failure, because I agree that the consequences of failure are simply unacceptable."

In all of the political posturing and agenda-advancing taking place in Washington over the president's request for a $100 billion funding bill, our leaders must not lose sight of the need to protect Iraqi civilians. With 3.9 million displaced Iraqis clinging to a hope that normalcy can be restored to their fractured lives, childhoods being destroyed as children are used as decoys in car bombings, and dozens and dozens of sectarian-motivated murders taking place every day, the U.S. must do everything it can to protect civilians and care for those who have been affected by this war.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Forgetting Our Friends

"Betrayed," a recent article by George Packer of the New Yorker tells the stories of several Iraqis who believed so strongly in the US mission in Iraq that they took unimaginable risks to be part of that mission. Most worked as interpreters for the Americans, discreetly going about their work—covering their faces as they worked, using pseudonyms, and daily altering their routesto avoid detection by the militias that were literally out for the heads of anyone who they branded as an aameel— an “agent" for the Americans.

As the threats against them mounted, these Iraqis sought protection from their American bosses. When that protection never materialized, many of those collaborating with the US were forced to flee the country. To this day, thousands remain in bureaucratic limbo--waiting for asylum or resettlement in places like Syria, Egypt and even still in Iraq, wondering why the Americans that they trusted so much would leave them hung out to dry:

"Ali initially worked the night shift at a base in his neighborhood and walked home by himself after midnight. In June, 2003, the Americans mounted a huge floodlight at the front gate of the base, and when Ali left for home the light projected his shadow hundreds of feet down the street. 'It’s dangerous,' he told the soldiers at the gate.'Can’t you turn it off when we go out?'

"'Don’t be scared,' the soldiers told him. 'There’s a sniper protecting you all the way.'

"A couple of weeks later, one of Ali’s Iraqi friends was hanging out with the snipers in the tower, and he thanked them. 'For what?' the snipers asked. For looking out for us, Ali’s friend said. The snipers didn’t know what he was talking about, and when he told them they started laughing.

"'We got freaked out,' Ali said. The message was clear: You Iraqis are on your own."

As dishonorable as America's abandonment of its Iraqi friends is, the article tells another story that is in some ways more shameful: America's disregard for the advice of Iraqis. Locals are the ones most able to understand the cultural nuances and long-term needs of their societies. The article has a poignant example of how America failed to heed their best sources of advice, the Iraqis:
"One day, Firas accompanied one of Bremer’s top political advisers to a meeting with an important Shiite cleric. The cleric’s mosque, the Baratha, is an ancient Shiite bastion, and Firas, whose family came from the holy city of Najaf, knew a great deal about the mosque and the cleric. On the way, the adviser asked, 'Is this a mosque or a shrine or what?' Firas said, 'It’s the Baratha mosque,' and he started to explain its significance, but the adviser cut him short: 'O.K., got it.' They went into the meeting with the cleric, who was from a hard-line party backed by Tehran but who spoke as if he represented the views of all Iraqis. He didn’t represent the views of many people Firas knew, and, given the chance, Firas could have told the adviser that the mosque and its Imam had a history of promoting Shia nationalism."
Check out the whole article here. Also, NPR interviewed Packer a week or so ago about the article, and 60 Minutes did a story on this same topic in early March; here is the link to the NPR story
and one to the 60 Minutes segment.
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