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
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
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
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.
©REUTERS / KAREEM RAHEEM, COURTESY
Children, wounded in a bomb attack, receive treatment in a
hospital in Baghdad, 18 June 2008.
©REUTERS / MOHAMMED AMEEN, COURTESY
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
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
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.