Toll of war in Iraqis is disturbing

Monday, August 6, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:46 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Byron Scott: When it comes to the war in Iraq, we hear a daily count of civilian and military casualties. A report came out (last) week from Oxfam, the international humanitarian organization, and a national council of non-governmental organizations in Iraq with some new, equally disturbing numbers. This report is called “Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq.”

Here are some numbers that you may not have heard: 15 percent of the 4 million Iraqis cannot buy enough food to eat; 70 percent are without adequate water supplies; 28 percent of children are malnourished; 92 percent of Iraqi children suffer learning problems. More than two million people, mostly women and children, are displaced, and a further two million Iraqis are refugees outside the country, mainly in Syria and Jordan.

Tell us about this report and the startling numbers and why this story seems to have snuck up on us?

Ray Offenheiser, president, Oxfam America, speaking from a global poverty conference in Aspen, Colo.: Before the war started Oxfam had people in the country trying to assess what the humanitarian infrastructure looked like at that point in time. I think it is important to remember that Iraq had been under sanctions for some time, and there was a feeding program in place that was actually being run by the government with U.N. support. Other issues that were of concern to us were the infrastructure for water and sanitation, electricity and so forth, much of which was in serious jeopardy, owing to the fact that the country couldn’t get replacement parts. It was operating already at about two-thirds efficiency. What we tend to hear is that there has been a lot of investment in infrastructure, but somehow it doesn’t seem to be yielding the kinds of results we would presume. Really the rationale for producing the report was to try to drive these issues more up to the top of the agenda and make them much more central to what Iraqis and the coalition there were thinking about and what the news media perhaps would be reporting.

Scott: On Tuesday, the Washington Post readers, read your byline story in which you noted that living conditions in Iraq have deteriorated significantly. In the second sentence you talk about the contrasting pictures being painted by the Iraqi government and U.S. military.

Megan Greenwell, Baghdad correspondent, Washington Post, Baghdad: Every time you go to a press conference in the green zone here, you hear both from Iraqi politicians and from the U.S. military that everything is getting better, the number of violent incidents is declining, we hear that over and over again. And thus the corollary in their minds is that life is getting better for everybody. And I think this report shows very clearly that that’s not true.

Scott: What’s the view of this in the Arab world?

Khaled Al-Maeena, editor-in-chief, Arab News, speaking from Washington D.C.: When we spoke about sanctions the answer was it was the only way to get Saddam down. It didn’t get him down and the war planes came and now this misery. I spoke to many Iraqis and some of them long for the days of Saddam. We do meet people coming out, going to Syria, Jordan; some of them have come to the Arab gulf countries. These people can afford to get out. But for the masses who can’t, it’s living hell down there.

Scott: Is this a growing crisis or is this a chronic crisis?

Offenheiser: It is hard to imagine that things can get much worse, but I think that is potentially possible. I mean when you’re up to a situation when you have got 70 percent of your population without adequate water supplies, 80 percent of your population is getting two hours of electricity a day, you’re in pretty dire straits.

Scott: Is this a situation that the Arab world itself should be paying more attention to? Or is this a problem of the coalition of the willing, as we used to call it?

Al-Maeena: All of us as human beings, I think we are directly responsible. You cannot just shy away from this situation, but unfortunately this problem was caused by the war. I think, yes the Arab League should come in, international humanitarian organizations will help and also come in, but a lot of questions need to be addressed first.

Scott: I’ve read that some of the finished reconstruction projects that might contribute to improving the infrastructure have not yet been taken over by Iraqis for various reasons. Is this a problem based in security?

Greenwell: There are plenty of American forces trying to do the very good work to rebuild the infrastructure, but they are having serious problems. When they build something they have to devote a lot of energy to protect it because it is then a target for an attack of some sort.

Scott: Some of the biggest numbers have to do with displaced persons. Is this a question of the last Iraqi to leave Baghdad turn out the lights?

Offenheiser: What we’re seeing in Iraq is typically what you see in any situation where you have sustained conflict over this many years. You’re going to have a population of people who can afford perhaps to flee to a neighboring country and take up residence with relatives and others who are relying on the largesse of the neighboring states and humanitarian work. We’re hearing discussions about pull-out scenarios and how those will play themselves out and it is hard to imagine what sort of violence might ensue as that would take place and whether it might precipitate even more refugee movement across the borders and even greater numbers of internally displaced population.

Scott: Some say that if the Iraqis would just settle their own civil war that we could pull out and all these things could get rapidly better. Do you see the sense of that logic?

Greenwell: If you want to call it a civil war, the infighting going on between groups of Iraqis cannot be completely divided from the American presence in Iraq. If the Americans decide to withdraw, that likely doesn’t mean that infighting among the Iraqis will stop, but that also doesn’t mean it is entirely a problem between the Iraqis and the Americans are separate from it.

Al-Maeena: The American presence is the cause of tension. But if they leave it will have to be a gradual, well-studied withdrawal.

Offenheiser: If you actually achieve a withdrawal, you’re not going to get instantaneous peace. But with whatever the withdrawal plan is, we have to ask, how are we going to prepare for it and how are we going to be ready to manage the challenges that it will present to us?

afterword: This humanitarian crisis is in a class with Darfur. In part it is a consequence of continuing conflict. Posturing political statements or carefully parsed military ones won’t fix it. Will there be a Marshall Plan for Iraq? If so, who will lead and pay for recovery? That’s a topic for a future show.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students John Amick, Devin Benton

and Catherine Wolf.

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