Further to my post of last week, it turns out Riverbend was one of the last Iraqis able to escape to Syria without a visa. Syria used to allow any Iraqi to stay six months without a visa, but in the last few days imposed restrictions which mean that most Iraqis must apply to the Syrian embassy in Baghdad for visas before crossing the border. Jordan imposed similar restrictions two years ago. Syria is struggling to cope with the estimated Iraqi 1.4 million refugees living there. Puts the UK’s ‘refugee problem’ into perspective.
Riverbend, author of the Baghdad Burning blog, has left Iraq. Astonishing that she stayed so long, I guess. Goodbye Riverbend, and good luck in Syria.
One of the breathtaking nuggets in the Iraq Study Group report is the following:
“All of our efforts in Iraq, military and civilian, are handicapped by Americans’ lack of language and cultural understanding. Our embassy of 1,000 has 33 Arabic speakers, just six of whom are at the level of fluency.”
How did that happen? One explanation is bureaucratic closed-mindedness:
The pathetic language skills at the embassy are as I understand it largely a side-effect of the security clearance process. Anyone who has spent time in an Arabic speaking country outside the framework of military or diplomatic service is generically excluded, leaving only those trained stateside at DLI and similar institutions, whose pedagogical techniques are basically back in the 60s.
This isn’t unique to the Baghdad embassy; the FBI, coincidentally, also has only 33 Arabists of its own - and again, one reason cited is that “it is easier to get a security clearance if you don’t have any interaction with foreigners”.
I can only hope that competent linguists are hired to work on a contract basis - because the idea of America’s Iraq policy being run almost entirely by people who can’t communicate with Iraqis is frightening.
I realise I shouldn’t obsess over numbers, but whenever I stop reading Iraq news for a few weeks, it’s the numbers that bring home the scale of things, and how much worse they’re getting.
The annual budget for Iraq’s health ministry is $1.1 billion, according to This article, compared to just $22 million in 2002 - not to mention the sanctions back then. Yet infant mortality has risen over that time (130 deaths per thousand now, compared to 125 then). Meanwhile 7,000 doctors have left the country, at least 455 medical staff (including hospital guards) have been killed, and entire lorries of medical equipment are vanishing.
I’m not sure where all those figures are coming from (is that $22 million figure plausible?), but before the war I’d hoped this was an area that would improve just through Americans throwing money at it. Obviously I was wrong.
Also, up to 1.6 million internally displaced Iraqis (425,000 of them fleeing home since February), and about as many again living outside Iraq - so say UNHCR.
Firstly, the turnout is unbelievably high. The report suggests that over 98% of people contacted agreed to be interviewed. For anyone involved in market research in this country the figure just sounds stupid. Phone polls here tend to get a response rate of something like 1 in 6. However, the truth is that - incredibly - response rates this high are the norm in Iraq. Earlier this year Johnny Heald of ORB gave a paper at the ESOMAR conference about his company’s experience of polling in Iraq - they’ve done over 150 polls since the invasion, and get response rates in the region of 95%. In November 2003 they did a poll that got a response rate of 100%. That isn’t rounding up. They contacted 1067 people, and 1067 agreed to be interviewed.
Does anybody have an idea of why this would be the case? Are Iraqis just desperate to be heard by the outside world? Is this a hangover from the Baath era, with people telling officials whatever they want to hear? Perhaps they’re just less bored of polls than the rest of us? I’m baffled.
It won’t be publicly available until Thursday, but The Lancet is about to print an updated version of the 2004 Iraq mortality estimate. At the time, they estimated that there had been around 100,000 excess deaths because of the war. Now, according to the Washington Post and New York Times, their current estimate is about 655,000 excess deaths, of which 600,000 were caused by violence.
Since then, things have been steadily getting worse. Now the IOM estimates that there are 190,000 internally displaced Iraqis. The Iraqi Ministry of Migration puts the figure higher: they say some 9,000 Iraqis are registering as refugees each week, and the total number is around 240,000
Dividing Iraq up into (usually) three separate units is a favourite project of pundits, particularly in the USA. What I’ve not seen is any thorough consideration of what that would involve in terms of changes to the country’s infrastructure and communications systems. How would power and water supplies be disrupted by administrative changes, for example? How many disputes would be caused by having power stations in one region providing power to another? Would the existing road system prove totally inappropriate?
In case you were wondering: yes, I do think breaking up Iraq would be an extremely bad idea for all kinds of other reasons. I just think it would be interesting to see what would happen in practical terms, as well.
Am I too cynical in thinking that the crucial sentence is this one:
In addition to the government’s blessing, Mr. Rishawi said, the tribes also wanted weapons and equipment to confront the Qaeda-backed insurgents.
Asking for weapons from the government isn’t a sign of loyalty - it’s about getting yourself the equipment to defend yourself against anybody - government, American, jihadi, whatever - who attacks you.
Every Iraqi grouping with an ounce of sense wants to keep itself heavily armed at the moment - and if the kit comes with a vague government permission to use it, so much the better.This isn’t any different from the militias that were incorporated into the various security forces, or the employment of tribes to guard oil pipelines.
Or am I being too cynical?