One Picture Sits Over Differing Surveys

BAGHDAD — The two surveys, one following the other, told quite different stories about Iraq. But Iraqis did not need to look at either to know what their own story is like.

The Sunday Times of London published the results of a survey Mar. 18 carried out by the British firm Opinion Research Business that claimed that most Iraqis prefer life under the new government to life under Saddam Hussein.

Another published the same day, sponsored by USA Today newspaper, the ABC news channel in the United States, BBC and the German television network ARD, found that six in ten Iraqis thought their lives were going badly, and only a third expected anything would get better in a year’s time.

But Iraqis were not looking at the surveys – they do not need to. Life around them tells its own story.

“Our government and its American friends don’t know much about us,” 35-year-old teacher Razzaq Ahmed from Ramadi told IPS. “All they care about is their war against al-Qaeda.”

And residents say the government seems to care little about the rights of Iraqi people, their right to life itself. One event after another drives home that message to people.

The killing of 18 boys at a football field in Ramadi last month has left Iraqis fuming. Ramadi, 100 km west of Baghdad, is capital of the restive al-Anbar province.

The United Nations Children’s Agency UNICEF said in a statement that “the loss of so many innocent children at play is unacceptable.” A statement from the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the killing of the boys “a brutal act” that “reveals the ugly face of terrorists.”

The killing of the boys at the football field was bad enough, but confusion arising from several contradictory statements infuriated people further. By one account the boys died after a car bomb was detonated near them. Another report said the U.S. forces set off an explosion near a football field to get rid of some material.

There is no evidence that U.S. forces were responsible for killing the boys, but the confused reports inflamed anger against them nevertheless.

“Americans say it is al-Qaeda that did it,” Suha Aziz, mother of a four-year-old boy killed a year ago in U.S. military fire told IPS. “But it is their responsibility to maintain peace in Iraq, no matter who does what.”

Surveys differ, but most Iraqis seem agreed now in their opposition to the U.S.-led occupation. That includes many leaders from al-Anbar who negotiated with the U.S. military earlier.

“They were only fishing for collaborators through the so-called negotiations,” a Ramadi tribal chief told IPS. “The security situation is getting worse and worse and if the Americans do not kill us, then it is for sure that they cannot protect us.”

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, an occupying power has a duty to ensure public order and safety in the territory under its authority. The duty attaches as soon the occupying force exercises control or authority over civilians of that territory.

International law also stipulates that the occupying force is responsible for protecting the population from violence by third parties, including newly formed armed groups.

Occupation forces have under the law the duty to ensure local security, which includes protecting persons, including minority groups and former government officials, from reprisals and revenge attacks.

U.S. troops are having a hard time protecting themselves. Al-Anbar has seen some of the strongest resistance against U.S. occupation forces. Security operations in the area, including two massive assaults on Fallujah, have done nothing to calm down the uprising. U.S. bases near Fallujah regularly face mortar attacks.

“The situation in al-Anbar province is still as bad as ever with so many players who are all armed and dangerous,” Shakir Ali from Haditha, 200km west of Baghdad, told IPS. “The new militia formed by the U.S. and Iraqi authorities are trying to prove their power at the expense of our citizens.”

Officials continue to paint an upbeat picture. Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, the U.S. commander in charge of Baghdad’s security told reporters Mar. 20 that residents were pleased with new measures taken.

“Security has been improved, and people can get back to the business of life and not have to worry about getting in and out of their cars, going to market,” Fil said. “But we’ve got a ways to go and we’re really just on the front edge of this thing.”

(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)