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Monday, December 5, 2016
On the brink of war: Caritas report on Iraq
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 Introduction From 21 through 26 October a delegation of Caritas Internationalis visited la Confrérie de la Charité/Caritas Iraq on a "Mission of solidarity with the people of Iraq". The women, men and children of Iraq, still scarred by the effects of two major wars and profoundly weakened by twelve years of economic sanctions, are now likely to face a new catastrophe. At risk are thousands of innocent Iraqis who will lose their lives if there is a war. With the present threat of war, the purpose of this fact-finding visit was first, to provide the basis for advocacy actions which Caritas Internationalis and its members might initiate, second, to offer advice and assistance to the Confrérie de la Charité (Caritas Iraq) as it sets in place a disaster preparedness plan, and third, to discuss how, together as Caritas, we will be able to respond to this humanitarian crisis. The group was headed by CAFOD director, Julian Filochowski. He was accompanied by Sir Maura O'Donohue (medical/nutrition), Livia Leykauf (communications), Paul Sherlock (water and sanitation), Jean Kors (logistics/Caritas North-Africa Middle-East), Carlos Reyes (photographer), and Jacques Bertrand (advocacy/Caritas Internationalis). The Caritas team met with several Iraqi government officials, among them Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, Health minister Oumid Medhat Moubarak, and senior officials from the Iraqi Red Crescent Society and United Nations officials from UNDP, UNHCR, UNOHCI, UNICEF and WHO. There were also a number of encounters with ordinary Iraqis specially during visits to Caritas centres in Baghdad, Al Najaf, Kirkuk, Qaraqosh, Mosul and other places. This visit to Iraq was hosted by the Chaldean Patriarchate and His Beatitude Raphael 1st Bidawid, to whom the delegation would like to express its warm gratitude. The Iraqi people are already suffering and the international community is largely responsible for it Caritas has first-hand experience of the suffering of the Iraqi people, with la Confrérie de la Charité working for more than ten years with the poorest and most vulnerable of the Iraqis. In its medical centres in Baghdad, in the North and in the South, Caritas Iraq provides help to babies, pregnant women and nursing mothers. It supplies food aid, and medical care, teaches people about nutrition and hygiene, and provides access to clean water. Last year more than 20,000 children benefited from the "well-baby" programme of Caritas Iraq. The suffering imposed upon the people of Iraq has been described in the Caritas Europa report, "A People Sacrificed: Sanctions Against Iraq", published in February 2001. Under the United Nations/Security Council trade embargo Iraq cannot do business with the rest of the world. Its imports of goods and products as well as its exports of oil have to go through an exceedingly complicated process controlled by the UN Office of the Iraq Programme and the Security Council. It is a process that has been marked by inflexibility, delays, and profound injustice. The result has been disastrous for the economy and for the people. Since 1990 the country has experienced a shift from relative affluence to massive poverty. The shortage of food at affordable prices has put the population at risk. Malnutrition is widespread and chronic among children and infants. According to UNDP, 49% of families do not earn enough money to meet their basic needs. Iraq's ranking in UNDP's Human Development Index fell from 96 in 1990 to 126 in 2000. Shops are glittering and bustling today in Baghdad, and those with money can buy anything they want. Yet the results of sanctions are visible everywhere, especially in the poorer areas of Baghdad, in the hospitals and in the nutrition centres. Children are being forced into the workforce due to family need. UNICEF Iraq says that there is "a visible rise in the number of children selling goods on streets, and in the number of child beggars, a recent phenomenon". The sanctions regime changed in 1996 with the introduction of the Oil for Food Programme to try to improve the dismal situation of the population. Even as modified in May 2002, this sanctions and embargo regime represents a fundamental denial of people's most basic aspirations and needs - in a country which has the world's second largest oil reserves. Under this modified programme it is now easier for Iraq to import medicines than before. Contracts for medicines no longer have to go through a UN committee in New York (the "661 Committee") in order to determine whether the drug or treatment has a possible military purpose ("dual use"). In such cases of 661 scrutiny which still include medical equipment, the requests may need additional months to proceed and run the risk of being rejected. This has happened in the past, we were advised by UN officials, with blood bags, computers, laboratory supplies, ambulances and many other products. Although contracts for medicines now proceed more quickly, it can still take up to nine months for the medicines to arrive in Iraq and reach the clinics. The head of the World Health Organization office in Baghdad, Dr Ghulam R Popal, categorically told the delegation: "I blame the very complicated sanctions regime for the shortages (in the hospitals). There has been no mismanagement or diversion of medical products by the government of Iraq. With our computers I can tell you from the beginning of a programme where every tablet has gone. Everywhere we distribute we have a plan." The difficulty in getting medicines and medical supplies, and, more broadly, in sustaining the quality of the Iraqi health care system, has been a major factor in the death of thousands of children over the last decade. It is worth noting that not all indicators are negative. Acute malnutrition of children under five peaked in 1996-1997, at the shocking figure of 11.4%, but this has been reduced by nearly half in the past six years and now stands at some 5.9%. Of course, before 1990, the figure was much lower, at around 3%. Provided there are no interruptions it will take five more years to bring this down to 3% again. In the end the sanctions regime has proved to be totally ineffective and yet it is being maintained. It has ruined the economy and thrown most of the middle class into poverty. Before sanctions the Iraqi people enjoyed the best health care services in the region. Lack of money for basic needs At the moment a serious problem for the Oil for Food Programme is the lack of funding to cover approved humanitarian contracts. October 22 data from the UN's Office of the Iraq Programme indicate that 1,528 approved humanitarian supply contracts, worth about $2.84 billion, are without available funds. Other sectors are also affected, among them: agriculture ($538 million), food handling ($506 million), health ($316 million), water and sanitation ($284 million), education ($229 million), and food ($19 million). This shows how difficult the situation is. And of course, under the embargo, the government of Iraq is not permitted to borrow from foreign lenders. Although it is true that restrictions have been lifted and that Iraq can theoretically sell through the UN all the oil it wants to increase revenues, in practice it cannot do so easily. Iraq has been producing an average of one million barrels a day in the current phase of the programme (we are in Phase Twelve of the Oil for Food Programme; phase Thirteen should start 25 November). Iraq's sustainable capacity is calculated today at 2.2 million barrels per day, with possible (but non sustainable) peaks of 3.5 million. Recently, small buyers of Iraqi oil have been hesitant about buying from Iraq for a number of reasons including speculation on changes in prices, disagreements between the government of Iraq and the UN Sanctions Committee on pricing mechanisms, Iraqi interruptions in oil production, and the overall broad political environment. This has limited oil sales in the recent past. Even though, when we talk, in toto, of billions of dollars of Iraqi contracts the money amounts appear impressive, UNOHCI indicates that the Oil for Food Programme, in reality, delivers very little when divided by the number of people (23 million) in the country. It amounts to 170 dollars per person, per year. The poor are going to be the first victims of the coming war Not enough people outside Iraq know how fragile and vulnerable the Iraqi people have become in the past twelve years. Their income level has crashed. Almost every Iraqi receives a monthly food entitlement that provides him/her with 2,200 kilo-calories per day. Some immediately sell it for cash; others sell part of it to be able to buy some protein (meat) or other basic needs from the grocery store. Nevertheless UNOHCI told us they estimate that between 14 to 16 million Iraqis depend solely on these rations for their survival. This is two thirds of the population of Iraq and involves the distribution to them of 300 thousand tons of foodstuffs per month. This distribution of food currently functions well, but the whole programme risks being paralyzed the minute bombs start to fall. Under war conditions bridges, roads, warehouses and electrical power generators will be destroyed. Personnel responsible for food distribution will inevitably be dispersed. The once-a-month food distribution system could collapse. "(A new war) would be a major catastrophe for the people", one UN official told us. "We may have 16 million people, the poorest and most vulnerable of the Iraqis, knocking at our door searching for food." The CI delegation's nutrition specialist shared these concerns. When the electricity goes off, water treatment plants and sanitation installations will gradually break down if not already disabled by bombings. This happened in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. La Confrérie de la Charité/Caritas Iraq is well aware of the enormous problems this will create; la Confrérie helped rehabilitate some of these water plants, notably in Mosul in the North and in Al-Najaf in the South, a city visited by 1.5 million Shiite pilgrims every year. During times of war, having good water and water sanitation systems is more important than ever. "If power goes down people may find themselves without water for weeks, even months", warns the delegation's Paul Sherlock. "Furthermore, sanitation installations will clog up and lavatories become unusable. Diseases will inevitably spread and add to the list of victims of the bombardments." Psychological trauma War and rumours of war also have a deep psychological impact on all people. During the week spent in Iraq, delegation members heard accounts of individuals postponing their wedding or selling off possessions to raise cash, wondering what might be a safe place for their children, not knowing what the next month might bring. Iraqis hear and read about sanctions and war on a daily basis. They are well aware the next crisis will be even harder to cope with than the 1990-1991 Gulf War or the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. They know it will be nothing like the bombardments taking place sporadically in various places across the country by US and UK aircraft patrolling the "no-fly zones". There are hundreds of scenarios of how a war might be waged. Some estimates by reputable think-tanks talk about 10,000 deaths, others speculate even ten times that figure. When a staff member in the office of Caritas Iraq read the first draft of the present report, her facial expression changed in disbelief: "All this could happen in Iraq? Why would they do this to us? You know, when we hear a plane fly over Baghdad, we always have fear that they are starting to bomb us. I can't speak more about it or I start to cry." A huge humanitarian catastrophe Every United Nations official with whom we spoke predicted a major humanitarian disaster should war materialise. It is feared that the streets of Baghdad would be the scenes of bloodshed because in many cases military posts are within populated civilian areas. Even the best of "precision bombing" is never 100% reliable and totally innocent people are very likely to be hit. It also has to be borne in mind that a very large number of households in Baghdad and elsewhere have firearms for self-protection. This will add greatly to the complexity of any fighting on the streets. We picked up everywhere a strong sentiment of hostility towards the intentions of some western governments. Many Iraqis blame them and the sanctions regime for the poverty and the misery in which they find themselves. Based on what we heard it is a mistake to think - as is sometimes assumed outside Iraq - that the Iraqis are waiting with open arms for an invasion force. Any war also creates masses of displaced persons and refugees. A military intervention could easily displace a million people, depending on the type of attack and the possibility of fighting among certain groups of people. The 1991 Gulf War saw over two million Iraqis flee across borders. Jordan, Iran and Turkey have announced they will close their borders and not take refugees in. Many individuals voiced to us their fear that a military intervention resulting in the fall of the current regime and a subsequent security vacuum would create chaos and civil unrest on a dramatic scale. In such circumstances both ethnic and religious minorities would be at great risk. UN officials and diplomats also told us they are absolutely convinced that a military intervention would have enormous consequences not only for the survival and future of Iraq but for peace and stability throughout the Middle East region. Conclusion It is obvious that an attack against Iraq will create a humanitarian catastrophe, yet we seem to be moving inexorably closer to war, with a focus on the person of Saddam Hussein, whilst millions of poor Iraqis, who will suffer most, are left out of consideration. All peaceful avenues to resolve this crisis over weapons of mass destruction must be explored, re-explored and explored again, rather than the current drift or rush to war that in the end will surely bring shame on the world community. We believe it is essential that the United Nations be involved in finding a solution, but a United Nations resolution will be helpful only so long as it does not, a priori, make it impossible for Iraq to comply with its demands. Heavy bombardments and the use of military forces will have incalculable consequences for a civilian population that has already suffered so much. It would be difficult to imagine a single, more effective way of wreaking devastation on an already devastated country and creating a major humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands of innocent victims. We express our full solidarity with la Confrérie de la Charité /Caritas Iraq and our gratitude for their invaluable help in organising this visit. Supporting their emergency preparedness efforts must be a number one priority for the Caritas Confederation. Actions proposed: We urge Caritas Internationalis to mobilise its membership and its advocates to urge their governments to oppose the resort to war and continue doggedly to pursue peaceful solutions to the present crisis. We believe weapons inspectors must be allowed into Iraq and be offered proper time and be provided with the necessary conditions to complete their work. We urge Caritas Internationalis to promote a prayer action for peace in Iraq and the whole Middle-East region every Friday until the crisis passes. The Synod of the Chaldean Bishops taking place during our visit expressed its fervent desire for peace and prayers to that end. We should encourage every national and diocesan Caritas to involve itself in a weekly focus of prayer in the weeks and months ahead.
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