Tuesday, April 8, 2003

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The next phase of this war

For Operation Iraqi Freedom to succeed, military victories must be followed up with humanitarian victories. It's not enough to defeat Saddam's regime, there needs to be tangible evidence that conditions are improving. If not, then Arab satellite networks will simply replace footage of the (relatively few) civilians injured during attacks with footage of squalid living conditions in liberated cities.

The current situation in Umm Qasr -- the first city to fall in the invasion, and therefore the city we'd expect to be furthest along in receiving humanitarian assistance, is disturbing. The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), visiting the city, reported, "Humanitarian work in the port of Umm Qasr is currently not meeting the needs of the Iraqi people. Water shortages are critical and almost everyone is desperate for fresh drinking water."

One aid worker is quoted as saying, "The humanitarian situation here is very bleak. If after two weeks it hasn't been possible to bring aid to a town of 40,000 people what hope is there of getting aid to the 1.2 million people of Basra?"

Another volunteer said, "I have recently returned from Angola where I witnessed haunting scenes of poverty but I never expected to see the same levels of misery in Iraq, a country floating on oil." [Doesn't Angola also float on oil?--ed. Fair point]

If you go to CAFOD's main site, it's pretty clear where their sympathies lie, so one could argue that these reports are biased. However, this Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty report paints a similarly bleak picture:

"The clinic in Umm Qasr is a nightmarish scene, even for those working there. If you are a visitor, try to steel yourself at the door....

Inside the clinic, the doctor was far too busy to talk. Safaa Khalaf, a young bacteriologist, met me instead. He said no medicines had come from Basra, the usual source, since the war began 17 days ago. That compounded the already chronic shortages of the Saddam era. And no aid from the new British authorities or international humanitarian agencies had yet come, though assessment teams from both had visited and promised help soon.

Khalaf also said that over the weekend, looters had broken into the clinic, stealing the motorcycle the doctors relied on for communication with their staff and running errands. Khalaf described the theft this way: 'They broke in through the kitchen door. There, there was a motorbike that belongs to the hospital and they took it.'

He continued, 'Then, they went to a storage area and tried to break down the door and they broke into the nurses' storeroom, where they keep cotton, gauze, and other surgical dressing.'

Khalaf said the theft was a heavy blow to the staff's morale because the thieves were undoubtedly fellow townsmen. In the wake of the allied advance, looting has broken out all over southern Iraq, with mobs dismantling factories and breaking into some former government facilities at night.

The British Army has largely stopped the looting around Umm Qasr in recent days. But outside other towns, the highways are crowded with cars towing away all kinds of stolen goods, from machinery to cupboards to wooden beams. If no trailer is available, vehicles simply drag heavy objects like pumps and compressors along the asphalt, sparks flying on the pavement.

The hopelessness at 'The Mother of All Battles Clinic' underlines how little has yet changed in the lives of ordinary Iraqis since Umm Qasr changed hands early in the war. Despite U.S. and British officials repeatedly saying that they are determined to win the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds by quickly delivering humanitarian aid, that aid has not arrived at one of its most critical destinations: The town's only health facility.

British military engineers, however, have connected a water pipe from Kuwait to supply the town with clean water and they have restored electricity.

After 12 years of sanctions -- during which more than half-a-million Iraqi children under the age of 5 have died, mostly of malnutrition and diarrheal diseases -- many Iraqis tell journalists they welcome any change that will better their living conditions. But the delays in aid deliveries are now making some people skeptical that the newcomers will assist them as promised.

As the father of the 11-month old girl asked my interpreter, 'Have these people come to help us or just to take our oil?'" (emphasis added)

The Financial Times reports that the U.S. is sending a transition team to Umm Qasr to start building a post-war government. This Kuwaiti report indicates that the flow of humanitarian supplies is starting to increase (link via the Command Post). Hopefully these problems will be reversed quickly, and reports like these will fade in the next week as the stability returns to Iraq.

Make no mistake -- this phase of the fight is just as important as the military phase.

posted by Dan on 04.08.03 at 01:45 PM