Back to Magazine

Desperate times for Iraqis


More than five years after the outbreak of the war in Iraq, the humanitarian situation in much of the country remains critical. Despite the improving security situation, living conditions continue to decline, leaving millions on the brink of despair.


In recent months, Iraq has seen a significant improvement in general security. The number of security incidents has dropped by 60 per cent compared with 2006 and 2007. However, fear and vigilance still rule the lives of ordinary Iraqis, who describe the situation today as one of ‘relative security’.

In Baquba, north of Baghdad, in the summer of 2007, I saw Layla Jaafar, a 35-year-old mother of two, mourning the death of her younger sister from cancer. She was crying and murmuring: “I envy her being rid of this life. She is lucky to have a grave and us to bury her.” Owing to the security conditions and limited movement, there was no proper funeral ceremony, no rituals for family and friends to pay their respects. The burial was hasty; everyone wanted it over with quickly. Few family members attended, which is totally out of keeping with the Iraqi way of saying farewell to their loved ones.

There has been no official toll of civilian casualties since the invasion in 2003. At the peak of the violence in 2006 and most of 2007, the figure of dozens a day was widely acknowledged and published in the media. Scores of unidentified bodies were dumped in the streets of Baghdad and other major cities; some were left to rot amid civilians’ fear and reluctance to approach or bury them. Special burial grounds have been established for the unclaimed bodies, while the remains of others are being uncovered in mass graves in and around the big cities.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men and women have seen the inside of a detention place. Those who have been released speak of the ill-treatment and cruelty they suffered, for instance in the Abu-Ghraib prison in Baghdad.

Deteriorating living conditions

While security has seen a ‘relative’ improvement, public services and general living conditions are on a downward slide. For a country that once boasted the best health system in the region, the current health situation is desperate, despite a 60-fold increase in budget between 2002 and 2005. Diseases thought to have long disappeared, such as tuberculosis and cholera, have staged a comeback, while drug addiction is on the rise. Chronic child malnutrition hovers around 20 per cent, and only 70–80 per cent of the population have access to clean water and public food distributions. These figures are not surprising given that only 40 per cent of the population is employed and more than 30 per cent is living on or below the poverty line.

The insecurity and a deliberate terror campaign of intimidation, kidnapping and killing targeting medical, education and other professionals has prompted a massive brain drain. The medical work force has shrunk by 50 per cent. According to various reports, up to 3,500 teachers have been kidnapped, killed or displaced, leaving their assistants to take on their teaching duties. Student enrolment and attendance have fallen considerably, with women representing around 70 per cent of those dropping out.

Even the most optimistic figures show an annual shortfall of 46 per cent in generated electricity, meaning that Baghdad has no more than two hours of power supply a day. The quality and timing of the power supply is outside the control of householders and what they get does not correspond to their needs. With power restricted to no more than 10 amperes, some electrical appliances have become obsolete, causing families to adopt alternative practices and leading to lower living standards. Some families buy electricity from private contractors to supplement the national supply, but the cost is around US$ 100 a week, putting it beyond the reach of most families.


The displacement of one-fifth of the Iraqi population, either internally or externally, is widely considered one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world. Living conditions for those who have sought refuge abroad are difficult, their lives a continuous struggle for survival. Few people are aware of or understand their plight and growing despair, and the assistance provided to them by the international community and their host countries falls short of their basic needs. Their health and education is suffering and their savings are drying up. Their skills and qualifications are growing rusty or at best are only partially used, while Iraq lacks professionals to fill key positions. The internally displaced are suffering as badly, with little or no access to potable water, electricity, food, health care, education and other basic services. The daily uncertainty has taken its toll both physically and mentally.

Recently, on a hot and dusty afternoon in Baghdad, Waleed Ahmed, a 42-year-old merchant, joyfully described to me his experience of the improved security, “I drove home safely with my wife and kids at 8.30pm after visiting relatives. During the 15-minute drive, we passed through four checkpoints. This is an achievement, as such a trip was unthinkable last year or the year before.” Taking a drink of water, he continued: “We have had no electricity or water for the past two days and no fuel to run the generator or the car.” After a short moment of reflection, he described his present situation as a “mercy from God”. Noticing my astonishment at his willingness to compromise so drastically, his next-door neighbour quoted an Iraqi proverb, “Show him death for him to accept a fever.”


Relatives grieve as they claim the body of a civilian, killed during clashes, from a hospital morgue in Baghdad’s Sadr City, 23 April 2008.



Children, wounded in a bomb attack, receive treatment in a hospital in Baghdad, 18 June 2008.





Continuous support

Present in Iraq since 1980, the ICRC broadened the scope of its operations in the country in 2008. Assistance to the civilian population affected by the conflict includes emergency relief, support to hospitals dealing with large-scale emergencies, efforts to improve health care for the population and the maintenance of vital water and sanitation infrastructure. The ICRC also supports physical rehabilitation centres in Iraq, assists displaced civilians and has initiated some livelihood-support programmes to help destitute people gain a measure of self-sufficiency.

Protection activities focus on people detained or interned by the multinational forces or by the Iraqi authorities; this includes helping them maintain family links, with the active support of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.

The International Federation has been supporting the Iraqi Red Crescent Society continuously since 1991. The cooperation has focused on rehabilitating health centres, community-based health in schools and communities including immunization campaigns, distributing wheelchairs, and large-scale relief operations for vulnerable Iraqis. Recent work includes strengthening the capacity of the National Society, and helping improve the visibility and transparency of the Red Crescent.


Nasir Ahmed Al-Samaraie
Nasir Ahmed Al-Samaraie is former Iraqi ambassador and ICRC advisor in Amman.



Contact Us