Dispatch From Iraq

Report by Anita Sharma, Deputy Director of the Conflict Prevention Project. On a leave of absence from the Center, Sharma is currently working with the International Organization for Migration in Basra.

Jun 02, 2003

Winning the war is the easy part; it’s keeping the peace that’s difficult. When Colonel Conrad Crane said those words during a Conflict Prevention Project meeting held in February, the war in Iraq had yet to begin and it was uncertain what type of opposition the coalition troops would face. While the welcoming embrace of the Iraqis materialized slower than expected, the rapid assault and swift defeat of Saddam Hussein provides an opportunity for the international community to foster long-term security in Iraq and, hopefully, the Middle East region. Coalition forces, government agencies, the United Nations, and NGOs are attempting to implement key post-conflict reconstruction activities, including humanitarian assistance, security, reconstruction, governance and justice. As people get back to work, the markets reopen, and efforts begin to repair damages wrought from more than twenty years of tyranny, the situation in Iraq is slowly improving. Yet looting continues, people are afraid to leave their homes at night, many employees haven’t been paid or are looking for work, and a humanitarian emergency that everyone says is over still looms.

I have taken a six month leave of absence from the Woodrow Wilson Center to experience first-hand the nexus between policymaking and field work. My job with the Iraqi Transition Initiative, a project of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), will enable me to better understand the implications of policy made in decision-making capitals. The IOM, created in 1951 in response to the large number of displaced people in Europe, is now a United Nations affiliated agency with 98 member states and 33 observer states. Its mission includes migratory assistance, transfer of refugees, displaced persons, and third country nationals, and post-conflict reconstruction activities. The Iraqi Transition Initiative aims to bridge the gap between emergency relief and longer-term reconstruction with quick impact projects, while at the same time encouraging self-governance in Iraq by supporting activities prioritized by communities and empowering Iraqis in the decision-making process. We coordinate our activities with the United Nations, coalition forces, the Department of Defense’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), and NGOs to effectively meet needs, while avoiding duplication or creating parallel systems.

Before entering Iraq, I spent a month and a half preparing in Amman, Jordan and Kuwait City, Kuwait. For the past few weeks, I have been working in Basra, a city of more than a million and half people that is the second largest in Iraq. Basra was the scene of some fierce fighting during the short-lived war, and suffered terribly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War when an uprising against Saddam Hussein was brutally crushed by the Iraqi Republican Guard. All of Iraq suffered under Saddam Hussein’s twenty-year rule, the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and U.N. sanctions. But the Sunni regime was particularly harsh in its treatment of Basra, and the primarily Shiva south. Years of neglect and decay are evident—the once famous marshes were drained; schools and hospitals were unbuilt; and religious and press freedoms forbidden.

The extensive looting and destruction that followed the war compounded these already dire circumstances. In addition to tumbling statues, people also burned schoolbooks and Army hospitals, and destroyed government buildings. Anger soon turned to opportunism, as people looted all they could carry away. Many schools and hospitals we visited have lost all of their furniture, doors, and windows; electrical wiring has been pulled from the walls, and even tiles and cinderblocks have been stolen. Called “Ali Babba,” the looters are feared in Basra, and people prefer to keep valuables such as medical and school supplies in their homes where they can guard them at night.

Still, the spirit of the Iraqis in Basra remains resolute and determined. In the already oppressive heat, people are returning to work, rebuilding, and getting on with their lives. Yet life is not as good as they were promised. The security vacuum created by the defeat of the Baath party has been filled partly by coalition forces: in Basra, it is British forces, mostly from the 7th Armoured Brigade. Yet these are war-fighting forces, not peacekeepers or policemen, and their reach is limited in scope and function. The downfall of Saddam was welcomed in Basra, but many believe that he is still alive and plotting his return. If the security situation does not improve, they argue, he may stand a chance.

Furthermore, there is no functioning judiciary system in Iraq, so the captured looters are not brought to justice. And while guns are forbidden on the streets, the many shots heard throughout the night make a mockery of this rule. Lawlessness has enabled radical leaders to emerge as voices of stability, and has encouraged increasing conservativism. A recent edict called for women to be veiled and alcohol banned. The only two secular parties in Basra are the Iraqi National Congress and the Communist Party, neither of which are very popular.

Security is the number one concern and this refrain is heard at every coordination meeting, regardless of whether the topic is restoring the water supply, rebuilding hospitals or distributing public safety information. It is feared that places that are repaired will be looted again without enhanced security. The coalition recently put the traffic police back on the beat and more than 500 Iraqi policemen will soon join them. But confusion abounds about the payment of salaries, a wildly fluctuating dollar, and uncertainty as to who is in charge.

For instance, Dr. Yassin, the former head of the Iraqi Army hospital, was chosen after the war to become the Director General of Heath in Basra, only to be removed from his position by the new Iraqi elevated to this post in Baghdad by ORHA. This new health minister in Baghdad, Dr. Ali Shinan (whom critics accuse of corruption and diverting medical supplies at the expense of poor Iraqis) resigned after he failed to renounce the Baath party. After this, a demonstration of more than a thousand strong called for Dr. Yassin’s reinstatement. Rehabilitation efforts are hindered by this political musical-chairs.

Disorder also reigns in other areas, threatening the health of the Iraqi people. The queue for a tank of gas takes about six hours. Efforts by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF to encourage safe drinking and eating habits to combat an outbreak of cholera are confounded by the fact that people don’t have the gas to boil their water, and have little access to clean drinking water.

The problem of salaries is also persistent, as many people are unpaid, underpaid or unemployed. The ORHA emergency payment of $20 to public servants will soon increase to $30; however, the dollar is in free fall—it has dived from $1=2500 Iraqi dinar at the end of the war, to a rate of $1=950 Iraqi dinar. People are in search of more or better work. At the UN House in Basra, the resumes are piled high, and people gather in front of the building each morning with CVs and high hopes that they will be chosen for the few available slots.

It is hoped that when ORHA becomes fully operational in Basra, such concerns will be better addressed. Most who I have talked to welcome assistance by the international community, fearing that at this juncture the country would spiral into sectarian violence and further lawlessness if left to its own devices. Still, until individual and collective security is achieved, it will be difficult to successfully implement the other distinct pillars integral to post-conflict reconstruction: justice and reconciliation, social and economic well-being, and governance and participation. People need to feel secure to make the transition from short-term humanitarian relief to long-term sustainability and development.

Everyone is trying to make the best out of a difficult situation by meeting the immediate needs of the Iraqi people, and providing opportunities for rehabilitation and reconstruction activities. The ITI project will break ground on its first project, the rehabilitation of a secondary school, in the nearby port town of Umm Qasr. Though IOM was presented with a list of potential projects in Umm Qasr, the school billed for reconstruction was the foremost concern of the local community, and was thus deemed to be the highest priority. All goods and services for the reconstruction of the secondary school were obtained through the utilization of Iraqi professionals and local markets. The Umm Qasr secondary school is ITI’s first step towards bridging the gap between relief and development through the direct empowerment of local communities in Iraq.

For more information and updates on the situation in Iraq visit www.agoodplacetostart.org. This website is maintained by the Humanitarian Information Coordinator and housed with the UN Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, and is an invaluable resource for background materials, assessments, maps and new updates.


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