CAIRO, Egypt — It is sad these days to meet Iraqi academic and political leaders a full five years after the March 2003 American-led invasion and occupation of their country.
One cannot help being touched in heart and mind by their stories about witnessing death, destruction and despair on a scale unprecedented since the Middle Ages. Recently, I was one of those listeners moved by what they shared of their experiences.
When I admitted regretfully that I did not visit Iraq prior to the 2003 occupation (although I had travelled to its neighbor states), my Iraqi colleagues commented that if I had visited their homeland then, and gone back to see it now, I would be shocked at the low state of public security, the high death rates and the general malaise that accompanies the widespread destruction and misery of any prolonged war-zone.
All the Iraqi expatriates or exiles with whom I spoke emphasized that Washington’s repeated assertion that civil war will break out as soon as American and coalition troops leave, is a big propaganda lie. They were unanimous in their belief that Iraq’s own political authorities are capable of peacefully resolving their differences and that nothing would do more for national reconciliation than for the entire country to be free of America’s “liberation” forces.
In fact, the prevailing informed opinion of Iraqis both inside and outside their country is that the presence of occupation forces is the greatest single factor contributing to the incitement and proliferation of factional and sectarian violence. More than 80 per cent of Iraqis want the occupation to end, sooner rather than later; they are tired of seeing their country divided and shattered under an ineffectual puppet government. Among the remaining 20 percent are politicians exploiting the American occupation to enlarge their own wealth and power.
These conclusions are not merely anecdotal; they have been confirmed by experts such as Karen de Young in the Washington Post, when she recently reported on a focus group study done in Iraq and released in December 2007.
This survey, she wrote, "provides very strong evidence" that national reconciliation is possible and anticipated, contrary to what’s being claimed. It was found that a sense of "optimistic possibility permeated all focus groups and far more commonalities than differences are found among these seemingly diverse groups of Iraqis" from all over the country and all walks of life. This discovery of "shared beliefs" among Iraqis throughout the country is "good news, according to a military analysis of the results."
But here is the shocking contrast of some other numbers that America is trying to ignore.
More than one million Iraqis have been killed over the past five years, a large number of them civilians, especially women, children, the elderly and the ill. The British polling agency, Oxford Research Bureau, estimates the Iraqi death toll to be even greater, at 1.3 million.
Today in Iraq there are more than one million widows, most of them under 30 years of age, and a staggering five million orphans. Of these, 1.6 million are under 12. All of these millions are destitute and many are homeless as well.
An increasing number support themselves and their families through prostitution, according to beleaguered Iraqi humanitarian aid organizations, whose meagre resources cannot begin to address the scope of need.
The drop-out rate among school children is at an all-time high of 33 per cent. Urgently needed social services, such as mental health and therapeutic counseling for school-aged children –” some of whom have lost all members of their immediate families — is almost non-existent.
Even further marginalized beyond the reach of most relief resources are the estimated three million Iraqis with special physical and mental needs; many of them require constant medical care and are not receiving it.
Contrary to U.S. president George Bush’s claim that an influx of 30,000 more American troops last year quelled bloodshed, preventable deaths from all causes are in fact rising in Iraq. Deaths rose again sharply in February and early March of this year. New figures from the Iraqi government also indicate that civilian casualties in February 2008 were 33 percent higher than in January.
Internal and external displacement is another under-appreciated crisis that has ravaged Iraq over the past five years under occupation. More than 150,000 Iraqis languish in American military prisons, or in those of the puppet Iraqi government. Many of these prisoners are women and children, aged eight to 14.
Three million civilians have left their homes in and near conflict zones and moved to remoter parts of the country in hopes of greater safety. Another four million have become destitute refugees, mainly in Syria and Jordan. Their numbers have overwhelmed the aid resources of both countries, resulting in one of the worst –” and most under-reported — humanitarian disasters of recent history.
Unemployment has reached a staggering 90 percent and there is a crisis in skilled services resulting from the deaths of some 400 professionals, including doctors, nurses, professors and teachers. As a result, medical facilities are almost non-functional and no sustained care or treatment can be given to people with serious conditions, or illnesses such as cancer. Electricity available for only a few hours every day, and only 25 percent of schools and universities are even minimally functional.
Food staples, when available (and often, they are not) are distributed through monthly ration cards, while at the same time, Iraq’s oil resources are being robbed — literally from under the nation’s feet –” by American interests who are providing no fiscal accountability to anyone. Not surprisingly, Iraqis believe that the U.S. is financing its $3 trillion war against them by looting their oil.
Ironically, they can no longer afford to use their country’s only economic resource –” consumer prices for gasoline and other kinds of petroleum-derived fuels have gone up by an incredible 2000 percent since the American invasion, while other services (when you can get them) have risen 100 to 150 per cent above pre-occupation levels.
The fear and resentment of Iraqis are borne out by comments from Paul Wolfowitz who when Deputy Secretary of Defense, stated that much of the war’s cost could be covered by Iraqi oil revenues, since the country is after all, floating on “a sea of oil.”
Furthermore, Wolfowitz told a Congressional hearing: "To assume we’re going to pay for it all is just wrong." His statement did not address the human cost to America — 4,000 U.S. soldiers killed and more than 60,000 wounded –” much less the disproportionally greater loss of Iraqi lives and livelihoods.
American journalist Nir Rosen, who has witnessed death, destruction and misery in Iraq over the past five years, wrote in The Death of Iraq (an article appearing in Current History): "The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols, who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century."
My Iraqi friends in Cairo sadly agree.