CHALLENGES 2007-2008: New Year Begins Unhappily In What Was Home

WASHINGTON — The end of 2007 produced a telltale indication of what the New Year seems likely to bring to Iraq.

“We the Iraqi members of parliament signing below demand a timetable for withdrawal of the occupation forces (MNF) from our beloved Iraq,” 144 members of the 275-member parliament, a clear majority, wrote in a declaration April 2007.

Despite this the Bush administration, and the Iraqi government led by U.S.-installed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, pushed a resolution through the UN Security Council to extend by another year the legal cover for foreign troops to operate in Iraq.

The move Dec. 18 violated both the Iraqi constitution and the resolution passed earlier this year by the Iraqi parliament.

Many Iraqi lawmakers say that any renewal of the UN mandate not ratified by parliament is illegal. The move almost guarantees an increase in violence, and a deepening of sectarian tensions.

“Bypassing the Iraqi parliament and continuing to undermine the Iraqi political process will push more Iraqis to choose armed resistance instead of political non-violent resistance,” Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant at the Public Policy Office of the American Friends Service Committee in Washington, an independent peace group, told IPS.

“The U.S. role in supporting the unpopular and unelected Iraqi cabinet will increase violence and undermine Iraqis’ plans to achieve national reconciliation,” Jarar said. “The best way to support reconciliation in Iraq is to stop supporting a minority of Iraqi separatists against the majority of Iraqi nationalists.”

The policy of building up armed Sunni militias is already leading to Sunni divisions with Shia groups, and with the Shia dominated government.

“One can only wonder, now that the United States has ‘liberated’ Iraq from Saddam Hussein, just who will liberate Iraq from the United States,” Jarrar wrote in a recent article.

One of the more troubling aspects of what 2008 may bring Iraq remains the massive refugee crisis. Despite the fact that in recent weeks tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Syria have been returning to Baghdad after a decline in violence in the capital, the number is still small compared to total refugee numbers.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of December 2007, 2.4 million Iraqis were internally displaced, and at least another 2.25 million had fled the country.

A UN official in Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity, had told IPS last summer that UNHCR figures for Iraqi refugees were “consistently far below the real numbers,” and did not accurately reflect the “catastrophic reality of the refugee crisis which has been generated by the occupation of Iraq.”

The Iraqi government has announced that 46,000 refugees returned in October. But a UNHCR report released in November said that “only 14 percent of respondents said they were returning to Iraq because they believed the security situation had improved, as opposed to 70 percent who cited financial and visa reasons.”

The majority of the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, as in Jordan, have never been allowed to work legally. With the price of basic commodities and rent continuing to increase, many who have used up their savings are now unable to stay any longer.

Many who have returned have found their homes destroyed, looted, or occupied by strangers.

The government is offering each returning family one million Iraqi dinars (about 900 dollars). “This amount is not enough to buy furniture for two rooms,” said Ibtissam, who has returned to live now in her brother’s house.

The Iraqi government is airing offers on state television of free bus rides from Damascus to Baghdad. This is despite official acknowledgement that the country is not safe, and that it cannot absorb the large numbers of refugees who wish to return home.

Another crisis that seems certain to deteriorate in 2008 is the Turkish military assaults in the Kurdish north. Shelling and air strikes targeting the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have led more than 4,000 people to flee their homes during the last weeks of 2007.

All of this is against a backdrop of 50-70 percent unemployment within Iraq, 70 percent inflation, and on average less than seven hours of electricity a day.

More than 50 billion dollars has been paid out to western companies in Iraq thus far, but the infrastructure remains in a shambles, and is far worse than under the regime of Saddam Hussein, even through more than 12 years of economic sanctions.

But construction continues at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the largest embassy anywhere in the world. Construction also continues at U.S. military bases.

In May 2007 Tony Snow, former spokesman for U.S. President George W. Bush announced that Bush would like to see a lengthy U.S. troop presence in Iraq as in South Korea, where the U.S. has had thousands of troops for 50 years.

“The Korean model is one in which the United States provides a security presence, but you’ve had the development of a successful democracy in South Korea over a period of years, and, therefore, the United States is there as a force of stability,” Snow told reporters.