The rate of Iraqi civilian deaths is dramatically down, 7% of the civil war high. However it has been stuck in a plateau since 2009. Indeed it slightly increased in 2011 over the preceding year by some calculations. This plateau is the result of changing trends in violence on the eve of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, some positive and others different but equally negative and dangerous. Flashpoints for conflict in the post-withdrawal environment include the foreign-origin questions of the Turkish and Iranian bombing of Iraqi Kurdistan, Camp Ashraf, and overflow of the Syrian crisis into Iraq. The main threat to Iraqi stability in 2012 however is not from without but rather from within, notably the still weak checks and balances in Baghdad.
Changing Nature of Domestic Violence
The full-fledged insurgency appears to be over. In 2007 3,800 individuals were being killed monthly. At the formal completion of the mission of U.S. troops in December 2011 the rate was less than a tenth of that figure. Nevertheless the killing of over 300 civilians a month is hardly stability. Moreover high profile targeted assassinations are on the rise.
Assassinations particularly target security officers, government officials, journalists and some protest organizers. The parties carrying out the attacks may be divided into two primary categories. The first are groups outside the parliamentary process attacking government targets. The second are members of various political parties within the parliamentary process either carrying out assassinations against members of other parties in the parliamentary process or independent non-violent critics from civil society.
Violence against journalists and protest organizers increased notably during the last year, despite the dramatic drop in the killing of Iraqi civilians in general since 2007. Indeed the assassination and attack rates increased by 50% and 80% respectively in the first half of 2011 over the monthly averages of the previous year. The rise in violence corresponded precisely with the period of the Iraqi Spring which sought peaceful reform of the government in general and the ruling coalition in particular. Practitioners of non-violent political criticism are also the particular targets of legal harassment by leading government figures using Saddam-era legislation, new legislation with troubling loopholes passed in the last two years, and executive orders. Legal harassment includes crippling fines for the ‘insult’ of leading politicians, the closure of publishing houses, and the non-issuing of permits to protest.
This timing and targeting therefore point to a worrying trend in Iraqi politics where members of government rather than random civil war violence are becoming the primary threat to freedom of speech and organization in Iraq. Moreover the three provinces under the semi-autonomous rule of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) witnessed rates of physical and legal harassment of practitioners of freedom of expression and organization just as high as the other 15 under Baghdad’s direct control. This fact casts doubt on the frequently made assumption that that the KRG’s far lower rates of overall violence than the rest of the country have led to far higher rates of respect for civil and political rights.
The clear assistance of government insiders at all levels of security breaches indicates the limits of much-improved state control, geographically and institutionally. Monthly prison breaks of high-value terrorists carried out with insider assistance are one example. The heavy use of government-issued IDs and silencer weapons, are among the continuing evidence of the assistance of ranking members of government in the wave of assassinations as well. Public evidence reached the level of provoking frank acknowledgement of the problem by officials ranging from the head of the Baghdad Operations Command, up to the Prime Minister himself in late Summer 2011. Indeed, in August, the Baghdad Operations Command formally announced that it had issued orders for all guards and police in Baghdad to turn in their Glocks because most of the assassinations in the capital had been carried out using government-issued guns. A crackdown in Baghdad following the scandalous revelations showed some signs of success. But it also pushed many of assassinations outside the capital into neighboring provinces.
Geographically, the brunt of violence overall will remain in the provinces with the heaviest ethno-sectarian mix and those containing the disputed territories.The last year’s distribution of violence and current political tensions support this contention. During the last year and into 2012 the nine provinces farthest north and south, half the country, represented a mere 4% of national violence. The three northernmost provinces making up the semi-autonomous KRG (Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniya) represented 1% of national violence. The southernmost six provinces (Basrah, Dhi Qar, Muthanna, Maysan, Najaf, Qadissiya) represented a mere 3% of national violence. Much publicized Iranian and Turkish attacks into the KRG have been limited to a slim strip of land by the borders themselves, which is mostly rural, leading to comparatively few deaths in reference to the rest of the country. By contrast the central provinces (the most heavily mixed provinces plus Sunni-dominated Anbar and the Shiite religious center of Karbala) continued to bear the brunt of national violence. The provinces of Ninawa and Kirkuk alone accounted for 25%; Anbar, Babil, Diyala, Karbala, Salahaddin and Wassit 34%; and Baghdad 37%. A look at the domestic and transnational political factors indicate why the above enumerated trends in violence are likely to continue into the near future.
The Prime Minister’s apparent disregard for the repercussions of measures easily read in a sectarian light – the recent crisis following his threat to remove all 9 MPs of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya Bloc (which won the plurality of parliamentary seats in the last election) including the two highest ranking Sunnis in government from cabinet (personally undertaken by the Prime Minister), the continuation of a politicized de-Ba‘athification process and arbitrary detentions (more generally undertaken by Baghdad) – is worrying given the continuing fragility of the democratic process in general. In specific, it is of concern given the importance of the return of Sunnis in particular to the polls after a 2005 boycott leading into the height of the civil war in 2006-2007.
A notable intensification of large-scale al-Qaeda type attacks immediately followed the provocative maneuvers. These were among the deadliest coordinated attacks in Iraq of the past year. This indicates the dangers of the violent alternatives when a large sector of society feels disenfranchised from the democratic process.
However if such measures are often given a sectarian reading in both popular Iraqi and international analyses, and by virtue of this perception alone can give rise to sectarian violence, the roots of the ‘sectarian’ provocations are as, if not more, justly seen as a piece of a larger pattern of equal concern -- the broken checks and balances in the federal government in Baghdad.
Broken Checks and Balances in Baghdad
In 2011, for the first time in several years, Iraq moved in a positive direction on international transparency indexes. Regardless of the move from 4th to 8th most corrupt country in the world, such a title remains a highly negative indicator of Iraqi governance.
Interior and defense ministers remain un-appointed 22 months after elections. Instead these key ministries are headed by temporary personal appointees, and loyalists to, the Prime Minister. These appointments entirely circumvent the parliamentary process since all ministers according to the Constitution should be confirmed by a parliamentary vote. Likewise, the Integrity Commission, a key check on government corruption, recently lost its latest head, who like all his predecessors, was either fired for investigating too deeply, or quit as a result of parties’ stone-walling of the Commission’s attempts at prosecuting well-connected members of government.
Federalization attempts, like the more extreme example of explosions, may be considered outcroppings of protest against the failings of the central government. Protesters and Provincial Council representatives in favor of federalization in Sunni-dominated provinces have frequently cited in particular patterns of arbitrary detention by federal security forces, in addition to feelings of disenfranchisement from a meaningful role in politics at the national level as reasons for desiring the status of region for their provinces. But provinces dominated by populations of the same Shiite Arab background as the core of the ruling coalition in Baghdad have also at various times put forward federalization proposals, many for the first time in Iraqi history. This indicates that the intense frustration with the central government is hardly limited to a single sect.
The sub-party level also indicates problems in the balances of power.Despite fierce interparty competition in the political (and indeed at times physical) realm, intra-party democracy is still greatly lacking. The law can and has allowed voters to modify the order of parties’ seat allocations, but cannot force the removal of leader. Intra-party disputes end more frequently in a splinter group than a vote.
The Disputed Territories and Erbil-Baghdad Relations
At the core of the dispute between the regional administration of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (the KRG) and the federal government at Baghdad, is the lack of a final division of legal authority over people and resources.Currently negotiations on the status of the disputed territories, a hydrocarbons law, a revenue-sharing law, provincial elections in Kirkuk and a national census are all suspended, leaving a legal vacuum regarding chains of authority on a range of political, legal and military aspects of conflict between Erbil and Baghdad.
The physical location where tensions between Erbil and Baghdad are most explosively played out on the ground is the Disputed Territories.These are the territories in the provinces of Kirkuk, Ninewa, Salah ad-Din and Diyala with substantial or historic Kurdish populations, authority over whom is disputed between Erbil and Baghdad.Many, notably Kirkuk, also contain the KRG’s only hope of meaningful hydrocarbon reserves. For the last three years, the four provinces which contain disputed territories have quite simply been the four provinces with the highest levels of violence per capita of all eighteen.
The U.S. military withdrawal has a genuine chance of destabilizing the situation further because of this military’s particular and now discontinued role in the security frameworks in these territories, namely the trilateral patrols.Forces made up of elements of the federal Iraqi army, the local police forces and Kurdish peshmerga were assembled into joint patrols in 2009-2010 in the Disputed Territories with the aim of facilitating communications and providing early-warning between parties to the conflict. Such units have undertaken raids targeting insurgents’ hideouts and are deployed at 22 checkpoints across the Territories. They have widely been considered effective, and have witnessed nearly no internal conflicts in carrying out their coordinated missions. However their numbers are a fraction of the overall forces deployed in the disputed territories -- only about 1,200 persons overall. By comparison, the Iraqi security forces there number more than 600,000, and the peshmerga 100,000 under their respective, separate, command structures. Both political backing and even funding for the continuation of the joint patrols and their expansion are already suffering. Moreover there is little prospect of the acquisition of a comparatively neutral armed third party, such as NATO or a U.N. force, to serve as a monitor in joint patrols in the wake of U.S. withdrawal since both have already quite clearly declared they are uninterested in partaking in such missions.
Status of Forces: Statistics, Soldiers, and Contractors
Months of debate have indicated that while the Iraqi public was and continues to be strongly pro-withdrawal, many in the governing coalition had concluded that some U.S. and/or NATO troops should remain, though under a more diplomatic title such as ‘trainers’. Without being able to convince foreign governments, notably the U.S., to concede the immunity of their forces however, no agreement could be reached.
Nevertheless a considerable number of foreign security forces will remain, mostly as contractors. The U.S. Department of State demands at least 5,000 security personnel to guard the 16,000 civilians remaining as part of the U.S. mission in Iraq, the largest American diplomatic mission in the world. This is only 3% of the size of peak levels of foreign security personnel in the country since the invasion of 2003. Yet their indeterminate status is certain to cause controversy, if not violence. Security contractors are not regular troops (although the Geneva Conventions do have some provisions for ‘mercenaries’ as they are anyway termed in popular Iraqi political parlance). Their subjugation to a diplomatic mission makes little difference, legally or popularly. The massacre and ensuing scandal which made the security contracting firm formerly known as Blackwater, and the contracting business in general, household words were committed while that firm was working in precisely the capacity of diplomatic protection. Indeed Blackwater itself, having gone through a series of name changes seems set to return to win such contracts in Iraq personally.
Moreover figures such as Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of one of the most important ‘resistance’ militias in the country, have at various times declared that their forces will consider all private security contractors, like regular uniformed military, occupying forces and therefore valid targets for violent attacks.
At the same time contractors are limited from the more useful aspects of the former mandate of the army, notably the participation in trilateral patrols in the Disputed Territories, where security contractors will have no role.
Syria, Rebels and Refugees
With the death-toll of the Syrian Spring already over 5,000 individuals in a matter of months, the Syrian question has become a concern for Iraq on a geo-strategic as well as humanitarian level. The heads of the ruling coalitions in Iraq are nearly to a man heads of former underground resistance organizations to oppressive rule. They are therefore less than thrilled to be seen as directly supporting another oppressive regime. However geo-strategic considerations of the effect of attempts at regime change in Syria on the stability of Iraq have taken precedence in their actions.
Syria was not long ago a major transit point for insurgents into Iraq, particularly of a takfiri variety. It took both the political will and organization of the Syrian government to stop this trend. Iraqi politicians reasonably believe that any attempt at regime change (internally or externally forced) in Syria would increase the chance of ensuing chaos or civil war in Iraq because of Syria’s internal and regional dynamics. Whether deliberately as revenge on Iraq for pushing for regime change in Syria, or as a natural result of the Syrian government’s loss of control, the return of the Iraqi-Syrian borders to the previous porous condition they witnessed at the height of the Iraqi insurgency and civil war is considered a serious threat by the Iraqi government.
Refugees are a second fear. The Iraqi Government does not want to deal with a sudden return of the vast numbers of Iraqis currently residing in Syria, the host country to the largest number of Iraqi refugees in the world. They want far less to deal with a flood of Syrian nationals looking for refuge. A few have already arrived in Camp Walid in al-Anbar, but agencies such as the UNHCR are monitoring the situation without recording a significant jump in their numbers to date.
For a combination of these geostrategic reasons Iraq abstained from both the 12th of November 2011 Arab League vote to suspend Syria from the League and the 27th of November 2011 vote for sanctions against Syria, and then proposed itself as a mediator between the Syrian government and the opposition. It is simultaneously currently trying to push through legislation mandating much harsher punishments of illegal immigrants into the country, the manner in which most refugees cross borders. The Iraqi government’s conservative position regarding Syria therefore seems likely both to continue and cushion Iraq for the time being from major negative domestic repercussions of the Syrian crisis.
Turkey and Iran’s Bombings of Iraqi Kurdistan
Cross-border bombardments by Turkey and Iran into Iraqi Kurdistan, in pursuit of their respective armed Kurdish opposition groups who find a safe-haven in the mountainous borders between Iran Turkey and the Iraqi North, have left at least twelve civilian dead and thousands of persons displaced in the past year. The coincidence of the bombardments with the short harvesting season, destructions of dunums of land and hundreds of heads of livestock, have led to accusations that the bombardments specifically target civilians to clear the mountainous border areas where such armed groups operate. As such they are roughly consistent with years past and look to continue at similar levels into the coming year.
However the direction of the attack has changed as a result of the domestic policies of Iran and Turkey, with clear repercussions for Iraqi Kurdistan. Since its rise in 2002, the ruling Turkish party, the Justice and Development Party, has seen a more diplomatic approach to their Kurdish question as a desirable policy both allowing them to win a useful number, nearly half, of Kurdish votes in domestic election cycles, and as a necessary step in E.U. entry negotiations. But with the tangible benefits to diplomacy with Kurdish opposition in Turkey apparently nearing naught in recent years, as E.U. entry negotiations have ground to a halt and negations with the Kurds have themselves witnessed numerous setbacks, the ruling party will have to court the ultra-nationalist Turkish vote, and even a traditional popular base that is demanding a ‘hard’ response to increases in tit-for-tat violence between Turkish and Kurdish forces. The jump in Turkish state violence against Kurdish civilians and military targets at the borders with Iraq at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 has already strongly supported this trend. By contrast, the frequency of the bombardment of the Iraqi Kurdish North originating from Iran has decreased dramatically since early September 2011. At that time an agreement was rumored to have been reached between the KRG and Iranian authorities to tighten KRG border security in return for a lightening of Iranian bombardments, as well as an apparent cease-fire between Iran and the PJAK, the Iranian armed Kurdish opposition organization counterpart the PKK in Turkey. The durability of the PJAK ceasefire with Iran, and therefore the notable decrease in Iranian bombardment of their mountainous safe-haven in Iraq, is unclear. However, the annual intensification from the Turkish side is unlikely to reverse, indicating that this will be the origin of the main thrust of cross-border bombing violence against the Iraqi North into the foreseeable future.
The fate of the 3,000 inhabitants of Camp Ashraf has come directly into question with the U.S. withdrawal. International law stipulates that refugees whose lives could be in danger as a result of being returned to their country of origin should not be forcibly returned. The dissolution of the camp housing members of an until recently armed Iranian opposition group (the Mojahedin-e Khalq or MEK) present in Iraq since the I980s when they fought with Iraq against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, is a desire of Iran which the current Iraqi government has so far appeared more than willing to fulfill.
Residents and the UNHCR have called for extending the closure deadline to allow for the full processing of asylum claims and hoped-for resettlement of all former inhabitants. The Iraqi government has so far shown only lukewarm compliance. On December 21st, 2011, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced that the closing of Camp Ashraf would be delayed for six months if the MEK agrees to a Memorandum of Understanding for the relocation of the Camp Ashraf residents. However, a December 20th statement from the spokesperson of the camp, which also agreed to the transfer in principle, set out conditions that have not been agreed upon. Because of the impasse, the prospect still looms that force could be employed to close the camp.
Even without immediate closure many questions about the treatment of the camp’s inhabitants at the hands of the current Iraqi administration remain. Since the return of authority for guarding the camp from U.S. troops to Iraqi ones in June 2009, two violent incidents involving Iraqi security forces, in July 2009 and April 2011, have led to the deaths of more than 40 Camp Ashraf residents. Likewise allegations of torture have followed questioning of camp residents by Iraqi authorities.
Following the U.S. withdrawal, insurgency is far down. Bombardments from the Iranian side are at least for the mid-term comparatively quiet. State policy towards Syria seems to effectively be keeping Iraq out of the way of negative repercussion of the Syrian crisis for the time being. Turkey’s internal policy, over which Iraqi has little influence, is causing and looks to continue to cause an upward swing in cross-border bombings causing the killing and displacement of KRG civilians. The large and increasing force of foreign security contractors in the country is certain to cause controversy.
However overall international questions are for the time being far less pressing and less dangerous than internal ones. It is the domestic questions, notably the strengthening of checks and balances in Baghdad, and a final settlement with Erbil, that will be required to move Iraq out of the security plateau in which it has been muddling through for the last three years and the dangerous jump in violence in the first month after withdrawal.
To mark its 10th anniversary, NCCI is publishing a series of 5 op-ed interviews during each week in April. The interviews will be held with individuals who have worked closely with NCCI for all or part of the past 10 years. The following interview focuses on NCCI’s more recent history to give readers an insight into challenges, successes, and initiatives, and it includes interviews with:
Former Executive Coordinator (2005-2008)
Former Field Coordinator (2008-2011)
Former Executive Coordinator (2011-2012)
Former Information and Communications Coordinator (2005-2008)
Executive Coordinator (2012-present)
NCCI: In 2005, NCCI experienced a kind of reorganization, closing its Kuwait office, relocating its Baghdad support staff office to Amman, and rewriting its charter.
a) What was the reason for this major reorganization?
Former Executive Coordinator (2005-2008): There were multiple reasons and factors. Developing the Amman office was meant to [better] respond to all NGOs who relocated to Jordan for security reasons. Closing the Kuwait office was due to limited funds and a small presence of NGOs in Kuwait (most of them knew each other and didn’t need a heavy coordination mechanism). Maintaining Erbil was meant to link with many NGOs that relocated in the north. And, of course, maintaining Baghdad with all support staff relocated to Amman (communication, administration and finance etc…). But there was no immediate change in coordination teams and coordination mechanisms.
The Charter is a separate issue. NGOs decided to review the charter in order to open the doors to newborn NNGOs, to develop the advocacy and lobbying mandate in parallel to the coordination one, but also to include themes like capacity building, research and publications etc. One of the main reasons was also to re-affirm the principle of NGOs and, accordingly, NCCI.
There was also a hidden reason behind the new charter. In fact, between the departure of Philippe Schneider and my arrival, there was a gap in the management of NCCI. During this period, some non-genuine NGOs became members of the platform. It was easier to cancel all registrations and ask for re-registration, according the new charter and its principles. The best way to filter and get rid of some private companies registered as NGOs, or religious or political organizations with different agendas than the humanitarian imperatives.
b) How did this affect its ability to implement projects and coordination? What were the advantages and disadvantages?
Executive Coordinator (2012-present): There were several reasons for the re-organization set up in 2005:
- Limited funds available for NCCI operations after July 2005
- A huge setup; NCCI had at that time (5 offices in Kuwait, Amman, Baghdad, Basra and Erbil with more than 60 staff members)
- The allocation of the majority of humanitarian actors to Amman
- The UN took the lead again on coordination, due to easy access of everyone to everyone in Amman (compared to Baghdad’s security difficulties(.
As for the change in the charter, in 2003, and the time of NCCI’s creation, many NGOs joined NCCI. NCCI had high levels of activities in terms of quality and quantity and the period witnessed the emergence of many active Iraqi NGOs. Due to all of this, there was a need to develop the charter according to: a) Iraq’s working environment, b) lessons learned during NCCI’s first year of working. To the best that I know, there was a need to review NCCI’s charter before 2005. However, and due to the high turnover in the Executive Coordinator position, this was not possible. After February 2005, NCCI had a strong leadership who started lobbying amongst members for necessary amendments in the charter.
NCCI: How did this affect its ability to implement projects and coordination? What were the advantages and disadvantages?
Former Information and Communications Coordinator (2005-2008): The reorganization affected a lot of the coordination. Imagine you go from a $1 million USD budget per year to $0. However, the change of charter enabled us to focus only on genuine humanitarian members, and also to open up to NNGOs. Therefore, to become stronger in front of adversity or to defend principles, as we all really stand on the same side.
NCCI: In what ways did the newly elected and formed Iraqi government facilitate or limit NCCI’s coordination activities? How did members (or the organization in question) reform their goals to adapt to the major political changes?
Executive Coordinator (2012-present): There is no doubt that when a government starts working, coordination of the humanitarian efforts in this country will be the responsibility of this government. However, INGOs and other actors will need time to build trust with this government in order to join the governmental coordination mechanisms. NCCI’s coordination activities were indeed limited in Iraq after the formation of the new government, but this wasn’t due to this reason rather than the relocation of the majority of humanitarian actors to the neighboring countries.
The election of the new government didn’t change a lot of the reality of the humanitarian situation on the ground. However, the political overview (at national and international levels) adopted another direction. The international community welcomed the idea that “Reconstruction is Going Well in Iraq” while it was not going well and Iraq awoke in the beginning of 2006 to face one of the worst periods of sectarian violence and displacement in its history.
NCCI: In May, 2005 NCCI started having more interest in having NNGOs as members. Was this one of the reformed goals?
Executive Coordinator (2012-present): Indeed, NNGOs started to be important actors in humanitarian operations in Iraq. The deterioration in the security situation pushed the majority of international humanitarian actors out of the county and those who stayed in Iraq were hosted in high security compounds with very limited access to the field. Being out of the country or hosted in secured shelters forced humanitarian actors to start new management systems and to act through local partners (NNGOs). NCCI’s charter was reformed to welcome the new actors in the humanitarian field, as during NCCI’s establishment there we very few NNGOs who were mainly based in the KRG.
NCCI: During the period of the formation of the government (2006-2008), a civil-war was also taking place.
a) How did NCCI navigate the volatile political and security landscape during this period?
Former Executive Coordinator (2005-2008): Like most Iraqis, we were observing, analyzing, networking, collecting information, and acting according the context, location, timing to insure our security and to survive as human beings. Politically speaking, Iraq was strongly fragmented and having a global understanding of the situation needed additional research, understanding etc… to provide a coherent and consistent independent reading of the situation to our members in order to survive as an institution.
Our neutrality, our principles, our transparency, our network and our constant effort to explain who we are and acting according our principles helped us navigate the specific context described in your question.
b) What were the challenges and in which areas of its initiatives did NCCI excel?
Executive Coordinator (2012-present): Security analysis, incident anticipation, good contacts in the field, overview about the situation for the new comers to Iraq were the main elements of NCCI’s added value for NCCI for those who are stationed out of Iraq. Connections with other actors, links to the field, and information about who is doing what and where were very much appreciated services by NCCI’s members.
NCCI: How has NCCI’s registration as a Swiss NGO and Jordanian and Iraq INGO changed its role in Iraq’s humanitarian context and relationship with its members?
Former Executive Coordinator (2011-2012): By creating a legal presence in all three countries, NCCI is now better positioned to advocate on behalf of its members at an international level about the situation in Iraq. For example, we were able to gain ECOSOC status (something that would not have been achieved without our Swiss presence) enabling NCCI to bring humanitarian and developmental issues in Iraq to various UN fora, the European Union and significant donors. This is hugely important given the reduced attention for Iraq amongst international communities.
NCCI: With the decrease in violence and end of the civil war, how did NCCI and its members reorient themselves to new and developing needs of Iraqi humanitarian and civil society?
Former Executive Coordinator (2011-2012): Despite the fact that Iraq has always had a very strong sense of the need for civil society and a civil society itself, it became very clear in the past 5 years that existing civil society organizations needed a lot of support and training if they were going to have any real impact. NCCI started to focus more closely on Iraqi NGOs as potential members and indeed board members, in an effort to closely link NNGOs to INGOs and other international agencies. This has had quite an impact on NCCI's work as it is currently the first organization that an international agency will contact when aiming to be linked with civil society groups and NNGOs. This is a vital service for Iraq given the established lack of access in the field due to a continuing unstable environment.
NCCI's members started to re-orientate projects towards the emerging long term developmental needs. They did this also using more and more Iraqi NGO partners, also training NNGOs how to implement such projects. Consequently, NNGOs started to skill up in certain areas.
NCCI: How did projects change in response to Iraq’s post-civil war status? What role did NCCI have in rebuilding?
Former Field Coordinator (2008-2011): Since its inception, NCCI has been one of the major actors in prioritizing needs and setting the agenda for civil society in Iraq. NCCI continued highlighting the needs within the Iraqi context whether relief-oriented or development-oriented, by means of its field-based networks and nation-wide partnerships with different stakeholders. NCCI initiatives designed and implemented its activities in light of its awareness of the constantly changing needs of the humanitarian context in Iraq. Therefore, NCCI's projects varied from needs assessments, coordination of assistance provision, and relief delivery, to more developmental projects of civic education, capacity building, peace building, and community involvement in the democratic process at large.
Syrian refugees have been entering Iraq at inconsistent rates. While Kurdistan has maintained a generally open policy toward refugees, most of whom have been Syrian Kurds, Baghdad has remained fickle regarding its stance toward evacuees. After opening the border for a brief stint between July and August, Baghdad closed its al-Qaem border on August 16th, only to reopen it again on September 18th with some improved humanitarian conditions, yet generally insufficient provisions, such as a lack of hygienic supplies, low quality and quantity food, as well as inadequate medical assistance. Various reasons were given for closing the border concerning both camp capacity and domestic security. In Kurdistan, some younger male refugees have been welcomed and provided with military training.
On August 16th, when Baghdad decided to close al-Qaem border in al-Anbar province, two reasons were given, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. The first reason was to wait for UNHCR to improve the camp and prepare for more refugees. The project included additional shelter, medical supplies, food supplies, and a plan to expand the water quantity to 470,000 liters. After the project, the camp was to be reopened (al-Qaem city council cited this as the main reason). The other reason, however, was security. The same HRW report states that “Iraqi authorities have announced that they will re-open the border after expanding the capacity of a camp at al-Qaem, though an official at Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration told Human Rights Watch on August 27th that the ministry had not recommended closing the border and described the decision as purely a ‘security measure.’”
Baqer Jabr al-Zubaidi, a former finance and interior minister, who is now a parliament member from Mr. Maliki's coalition was also quoted saying “[i]f al-Qaeda succeeds in toppling the regime in Syria, then the Shiite government in Iraq will be next."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari further supported al-Zubaidi’s assertion in a separate statement: "The flow of refugees, the entrenchment of terrorist organizations, the veil of a fundamentalist regime, all this could impact us," Zebari told Reuters. "We are trying to take an independent position. Based on our national interests... Things are not black and white."
Although there is no evidence whether closing the border actually contributed to Iraq’s national security and prevented infiltrators, it certainly had not stopped shelling and other threats from across the border. On September 7th, 3 shells were launched into Iraq from the Abu Kamal district in Syria, killing 2 civilians, one of whom was a 5-year-old girl, and injuring 5 others. And while the official rhetoric focuses on preventing a “Sunni” threat, the rockets were Russian Katyusha rockets, which were most likely used by the regime.
Eventually, al-Qaem was reopened on Tuesday, September 18th, with increased security, which, as of September 24th, prevents single young men from entering the camp, allowing only women, children, and elderly or sick people. Between September 19th and the 23rd, a total of 618 Syrian refugees were granted entrance into the Iraqi territories, averaging 123 people per-day.
Tying up humanitarian issues with national security is not new; nor is prioritizing national security over human rights. However, the way by which al-Zubaidi and Zebari generalize the identity of Syrian refugees and link their migration with al-Qaeda, while placing them in opposition to the “Shiite government in Iraq,” distances officials from a responsibility for fundamental humanitarian matters. By conjuring the al-Qaeda threat, real or imagined, and associating it with an influx of a population in need, the Iraqi government can, and has been able to, justify almost any policy on the basis of an identity.
Conversely in the north, the KRG hosts their (mostly Kurdish) refugees very differently. As of September 28rd, the KRG hosts approximately 28,074 refugees distributed throughout Domiz camp in Dohuk, as well as host communities in Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah. There is also a new camp under construction in Kasak, Mosul. Syrian Kurdish politics and their relationship with the KRG have created new regional dynamics, while the lack of international aid has generated domestic tension.
Syrian Kurdish identity in the KRG, as it relates to armed resistance, functions on several levels. By providing arms and military training, the KRG and various Kurdish political parties are offering a solution to Syria’s uprising, which would simultaneously provide “protection” to Kurdistan and offer a new instrument for Syrian Kurdish autonomy. However, the overall goals of the new militia are ambiguous.
Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) external relations chief, Hayman Hawrami, said that they provided military training to many of the young men “so they can be a main supporter of the Syrian opposition and a main supporter of the positive change in Syria.” Furthermore, although the training has been viewed as an aggressive measure, both by Baghdad and Ankara, Kurdish officials, such as Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, maintain that it is “for the purpose of protection” and not explicitly to fight in Syria.
There are also opportunities for conflict. Although Iraqi Kurds have already established an autonomous region and maintain a distinct heritage, part of their culture is still intrinsically tied to Iraqi Arab culture because of their converging histories, governments, customs, and even ethnicities. This is analogous to Kurds who live/lived in Syria and their relationship with Syrian Arab identity. Syrian Kurds may experience inequality for a number of reasons because they are “visitors” and have entered into a reciprocal relationship with their Iraqi Kurdish comrades. They may even face conflict if they support the PYD, a rival faction of the two ruling parties in the KRG and believed by some Syrian opposition websites to be supported by the al-Assad regime. Many Syrian Kurds are still fighting for their own autonomous region in northeast Syria and do, in fact, support the PYD. And although it is entirely possible that conflictive politics will be avoided and cooperative politics will prevail, this depends on how the factors above are publicly addressed and the ways by which conflicts are resolved.
Furthermore, international aid has also been a key concern for the KRG. The KRG has petitioned for additional and necessary aid from various sources to provide refugees with vital assistance during the upcoming months as winter approaches and more refugees enter Kurdistan. It has not yet received a sufficient sum, nor comparable to other host governments. Shakir Yasin, the Kurdish official who is in charge of Syrian refugees in the KRG, mentioned his petition to the EU. “Their reply was that the number of refugees should be at least 15,000 to qualify for financial aid. The number reported by the Kurdistan Region has exceeded 27,000 so far, and still nothing has happened.” While it is unclear if other governments are directly funding Kurdistan, the KRG has recently allocated $10 million to support Syrian refugees within its borders. The KRG has not placed any limits on refugee capacity as yet. Therefore, without significant international financial assistance, the strain and limit on the KRG’s resources will be felt by many.
The KRG maintains a volatile relationship with almost all of its neighbors, including Turkey, Iran, and Syria, as well as Baghdad. The mass influx of Syrian refugees into Iraq, combined with the KRG and Baghdad’s different reactions, creates new opportunities for opposition and conflict. Political and regional alliances, as well as demographic shifts are occurring, which will consequently inform and affect how NGOs operate in Iraq.