Iraqi officials still being killed
The New York Times, one of the few American newspapers left with full-time staff in Iraq, reported last week that 15 members of neighborhood governments in Baqouba, a city north of Baghdad, recently resigned because of fears they'd be murdered by Sunni jihadis.
The paper quoted the head of the Baqouba city council as saying the officials resigned “to save their family members’ lives because of living under threats from Al Qaeda and militants.”
They had good cause for concern. The official, Abdullah al-Hiali, told the paper that eight neighborhood representatives, known as mukhtars, have been murdered in Baqouba this year, and that half of the 100 or so mukhtars in Baqouba have resigned under growing militant pressure.
The Islamic State in Iraq, a Sunni militant group that describes itself as affiliated with Al Qaeda, has been seeking to reassert its presence in the cities it plagued during the height of Iraq's civil war. Local officials have long been targeted by insurgents in Iraq, and it's a problem that really never went away. How many have been murdered over the years? The number is almost certainly in the thousands, though it doesn't appear there's ever been a systematic effort to track assassinations of politicians and local government officials.
Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the US gave a contract worth up to $460 million to the Research Triangle Institute of North Carolina to set up neighborhood councils in a project that US officials said would build Iraqi democracy from the ground up. The results were different. Across Baghdad, the councils were devastated by murders and threats, and by early 2005, they had dissolved.
In 2004 I closely tracked two of the councils in Baghdad in what the Monitor hoped would be a series documenting progress building a new order in Iraq. At least five of the members of the councils I followed, who were generous with their time over the months, ended up dead, and many more went into hiding as Iraq's civil war raged.
Though no longer making the headlines, many of Iraq's problems remain unsolved. And it's not just coming from militants. Amnesty International complains today, in highlighting the sentencing of an elderly man for terrorism offenses, that torture remains a popular practice under the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and that Iraqi "justice" often appears to be of the same standard as under Saddam Hussein.
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Thousands of Iraqi refugees returning from Syria will face huge challenges reintegrating into a country with high rates of unemployment, dismal basic services and ongoing sectarian strife. “I think we will face a humanitarian crisis regarding this issue,” said Yaseen Ahmed Abbas, the president of the Iraq Red Crescent (IRC).
“You should expect pressure on everything in Iraq by having such a large number of people in a short time. It’s not easy.” More than 15,000 Iraqis have returned to Iraq in the past nine days, after unprecedented fighting in the Syrian capital Damascus, according to Deputy Minister of Displacement and Migration Salam Dawod Al Khafagy.
The government evacuated 4,000 by air, he said; the rest crossed by land. Tens of thousands of others have returned since the Syrian conflict started in March 2011. Elham was one of them. After seven years in Syria, she and her son returned on 3 July to Iraq, where she says she has nothing: “I am like a stranger here.”
After a few nights in a hotel, her money has run out and she is now staying with friends, she told IRIN. Her family home, abandoned years ago, then occupied, and now empty, is “not fit for living”, she says, and she has no capital to rebuild it. Her parents have since died and transferring the home into her name is another hurdle, she said.
She applied for the four million dinars (US$3,400) granted by the Iraqi government to returnees, but was told it would be more than a month before she received it. The threats that drove her out of Iraq years ago linger with her; she fears leaving the house: “The security situation here is bad.” She has a hard time envisioning her future in Iraq. “Until now, I am lost. I don’t know how I will manage.” Capacity to respond
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), she is not alone. “Most of the people have lost everything and came with very little,” said Aurvasi Patel, assistant representative of UNHCR in Iraq. “It’s going to be a huge burden on the state.”
UNHCR staff on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border have found some returnees lacking documentation, including cards giving them access to the government’s public distribution system and their national ID document (`Jensiya’); as well as shelter, food and cash.
Iraq’s government initially said it could handle the influx, but is increasingly asking for help. “The number of people coming is increasing by the day. We need support,” Deputy Minister Al Khafagy told IRIN. He chairs a new committee set up to coordinate the response between various ministries and international organizations.
Rich with oil revenue, the government has also promised his ministry 50 billion dinars ($43 million) to respond to the crisis, but it has yet to be transferred from the Ministry of Finance, he said. Until then, the Ministry of Displacement and Migration will use its own funds to prioritize grants to those Iraqis returning unexpectedly in the last week due to the fighting in Damascus, he added.
But even before the influx, the government had proven unable to quickly disburse the returnee grant, Patel said, “so for a bigger return group like this, it is inevitable that the delays are going to impact them.” UNHCR is planning to give out emergency cash grants of $400 per family to try to tide them over.
At the local level, governorates also have large budgets to work with, as well as a network of governorate-level emergency cells that have been trained to deal with such emergencies, said Daniel Augstburger, Chief, Humanitarian Affairs Office of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq.
But the government’s procedures are slow, bureaucratic and inefficient, aid workers said. “Where we may face a problem is the speed with which the government will respond. But the capacity is there,” Augstburger told IRIN.
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