Archive for the 'Commentary' Category

Why do Iraqis like pollsters?

Wednesday, October 18th, 2006

Among the heavy coverage of the Lancet mortality figures by bloggers (see Tim Lambert for some of the best), this take, by “UK Polling Report” is particularly interesting:

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.

But what about the roads?

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

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.

International Compacts, flavour of the month

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

Has anybody worked out what to make of the International Compact with Iraq, a deal with the IMF, the World Bank and the UN for “Iraq’s economic transformation and integration into the regional and global economy“.

This compact is being railroaded pretty quickly: meetings and plans are emerging quickly, the Compact has the blessing of a Security Council resolution, as well as support from the EU, US, UK, and just about everyone else.

Who is doing the railroading? Naturally, the documents give the impression that the initiative comes from the Government of Iraq. So George Bush says that Nouri al-Maliki is “working to develop what he’s calling an international compact“, the FCO talks about “a chance for the world to line up behind the new Iraqi government“, and the Afghanistan Compact which was launched earlier this year. Are ‘Compacts’ just the currently popular framework for the IMF and World Bank to strongarm countries into economic liberalization?

And more trivially, why does something this important have to be explained to the world by means of a jumble of powerpoint?

Attack on Ramadi

Friday, June 16th, 2006

Below the attention of the British press, something nasty is happening in Ramadi. Dahr Jamail reported on Monday that a major Coalition assault on Ramadi is beginning:

the US military has been assaulting the city for months with tactics like cutting water, electricity and medical aid, imposing curfews, and attacking by means of snipers and random air strikes. This time, Iraqis there are right to fear the worst - an all out attack on the city, similar to what was done to nearby Fallujah.

It looks as though he’s right. The US military have given the kind of semi-denial which all but confirms something is happening. According to a Pentagon spokesman discussions of large-scle offensive “may be somewhere off the mark” - but when George Bush himself has spoken of an offensive in Ramadi, “off the mark” likely means little more that that there will be more focus on putting Iraqi rather than American troops in the front line. The Americans, with 1500 troops recently brought from Kuwait to Anbar, will simply be “helping them do that with our own military forces and our forces that operate as embedded trainers and in other ways”.

However it is spun, this offensive has already dramatically harmed Ramadi, and we can only expect the news to get worse. It’s probably best to ignore the claim that some 300,000 Ramadi residents have fled their homes this past week - but the more credible figure of 10,000 is bad enough. And we’re seeing use of the same tactics which were widely condemned when they were used in Fallujah, Tal Afar and elsewhere.

The city is now virtually cut off, with Al-Jazeera reporting that the roads are blocked, and .”a giant wall of sand has been piled up around the perimiter”

As we have documented in previous campaigns water and electricity supplies have been cut off, possibly as part of an illegal US tactic of denying essential amenities to besieged cities. One report talks of “outages in the water, electricity and phone networks”. Dahr Jamail has been told that “Ramadi has been deprived of water, electricity, telephones and all services for about two months now”, and former governer of Anbar province has said that:

“The situation is catastrophic. No services, no electricity, no water”

So, all in all it seems we’re going back through the same mistakes and crimes seen in a half-dozen previous cases.

[edited to reduce the refugee count to something more plausible]

Iraqi mothers and newborns suffer health collapse

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

Save the Children has just published its annual State of the World’s Mothers report.

The report emphasises the low financial cost of many improvements to maternal and neonate health, and the success of many developing countries in improving survival rates. But it also reports the disastrous effects of conflict, citing today’s Iraq as an example:

In Iraq, years of conflict and international sanctions have damaged the health system and taken a serious toll on the well-being of mothers and babies. Maternal mortality has more than doubled, rising from 117 deaths per 100,000 live births in the late 1980s to the current 250. Infant and child mortality have also risen sharply. The current war has disrupted food distribution and damaged electrical, water and sewage systems, creating even more difficult conditions.

With newborn mortality at 59/1000, Iraq now has the highest newborn death rate of any middle income country, and the 4th highest of any country, equal with Sierra Leone. Only in Afghanistan and Liberia are more newborn babies lost.

Almost a quarter of Iraqi mothers receive no prenatal care, and there are no skilled personnel present at 28% of births.

Only 10% of Iraqi women are using modern contraceptives, compared to 28% in Syria and 41% in Jordan. As Save the Children writes, ‘Effective use of family planning methods can help save the lives of mothers and babies by enabling women to avoid pregnancy when they are too young or too old, and to space their births at intervals that are healthy for them and their babies.’

These figures illustrate why civilian death estimates such as Iraq Body Count show only a limited part of the picture. Iraq Body Count does a great job of counting civilian deaths attributable to the conflict which are reported in the media. However, the childbed deaths of mothers and babies rarely if ever feature in news reports, however preventable they are. Rising maternal and infant death rates are included in the ‘Lancet Report’, which is one of the reasons why its civilian mortality estimate is so much higher.

Playing blind

Monday, May 8th, 2006

Long-time IAG friend Colin Rowat has just written an interesting article in the (Lebanese) Daily Star, attempting to interpret Iraqi politics by means of game theory.

According to Colin, one of the reasons for political stalemates in Iraq is a lack of information. No politician yet knows the strengths of the parties and positions, so they can’t bargain effectively. In particular, the lack of good information makes political actors believe themselves to be stronger than they really are. The perception of widespread electoral fraud lets the losers believe that they could have won in a fair election.

What’s the solution? Colin talks about how elections improve bargaining by giving solid information on who is popular. For some reason he doesn’t talk about the more usual ways of spreading information: by media, by independent research from academics, government and NGOs, through opinion polls. Maybe even sites like this can provide a little help from the sidelines.


Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

Since the bombing of the Samarra mosque, nearly 1000 Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes every day. I’ve just added a report from the IOM, which sources these figures, and gives an (incomplete, but still interesting) breakdown by region and cause of migration.

As Rachel wrote recently, this is part of a change over the past few months, which has deeply affected the country in all kinds of ways.

People are refusing to carry their identity cards: the cards give their names and hence hint at their creed, and have been used by gangs to choose victims for execution. 30% of children are absent from school, largely because parents are too frightened of the violence to let them leave home, but also because schools are becoming ever more divided on religious lines.

I don’t think we yet have a good understanding of what’s going on here - but much of the information is available, just waiting to be pulled together. Some questions I’d like to see answered:

  • How regionally-limited is this? Examining the figures in the IOM report above would tell us something
  • How much public support is there for the militias among different communities? We might be able to find this out from opinion polls
  • Who is conducting the executions, and why? Analysts with more of a military background than IAG have already devoted a lot of effort to answering this question
  • Can we blame this all on the bombing of the mosque in Samarra, or did that event just exacerbate a trend that already existed?

And then there’s the money question that nobody has an answer to:

  • How can the violence be stopped?

NYT Article on Sectarian Violence

Monday, April 3rd, 2006

I’m wondering whether IAG should put some mind- and research-power into looking at this current development in Iraq? I for one feel under-informed, as the media reports are not usually in-depth enough and I have a feeling that, at least in the UK, the general public sense of what the issues are in Iraq has not caught up with the reality of civil war or impending civil war.

For example, an article in yesterday’s New York Times indicates that American military casualties have been significantly sinking as Iraqi casualties shoot up: I had not been aware of quite how dramatically USA army casualties had gone down recently, and I sense that most people in the UK have not perceived quite what a shift there has been in the last six months in how the coalition fits in to the violence in Iraq. The NYT article makes the following point:

“the debate [about whether Iraq is in civil war] could increase the political pressure that President Bush is facing at home to draw down significantly the force of 133,000 American troops here. Even if American deaths keep falling, polls show the American public has little appetite for engagement in an Iraqi civil war.”

If we might potentially face a situation in which the Coalition withdraws with the rhetoric that Iraq is in civil war and that this is nothing to do with the Coalition, how would this affect IAG’s mandate of scrutinising UK policy in Iraq? Could IAG usefully look more specifically at the nature and extent of the US/UK role in the new intersectarian violence in Iraq (as opposed to violence clearly directed at occupiers)? E.g. how far the coalition is to blame for aggravating sectarianism, exactly what role they are playing now? I wonder (aloud - or rather - online) if we might have the capacity to think about a briefing on this. At the least, maybe we should put a priority for a while on fleshing out the IAG site in terms of information on sectarian violence in Iraq.

Permanent US bases in Iraq?

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

BBC news reports today that the Pentagon has requested significant extra funding for its military bases in Iraq, further stoking the suspicion that the US does intend, despite Bush’s assurances to the contrary, to maintain permanent bases in Iraq. According to the report, “much of the 2006 emergency funding is earmarked for beefing up security and facilities at just a handful of large airbases in Iraq” and the US House Appropriations Committee “has demanded a “master plan” from the Pentagon before the money can be spent”.

The report goes on to describe one of the air bases in Iraq which might be in line to become a more permanent base. The implications of this are interesting, this request for extra funding coming at the same time as the US allocation to reconstruction funds is rapidly dwindling with many projects, particularly in the electricity and water sectors, either not yet completed or not yet begun (compared to the targets the allocated funds were supposed to cover.)

Also, the UN mandate for the US to be in Iraq right now rests absolutely on the premise that they are there on the request of the Iraqi government, so that the moment the Iraqi government asks them to leave, the UN Mandate technically speaking would no longer cover US presence there. If the US really is setting up permanent bases, this weakens the UN Mandate even further, as the gesture towards any Iraqi agency in the continued presence of the US is rendered virtually meaningless. It’ll be interesting to see what happens on the 15th of June, when the current UN Mandate for the Coalition Force comes up for renewal - unless the Iraqi governments requests its revision before then.

UK cost of war

Thursday, March 30th, 2006

The treasury have kindly provided me with an update of the breakdown of the special reserve allocations, which I’ve incorporated into Table 2 of the briefing. There are three things that strike me as notable:

  • The cost of Iraq is increasing, albeit slightly. It’s not entirely clear why - the large extra capital expenditure I think is for new equipment to replace the old that had expired, but not sure about why the normal expenditure increased.
  • The total amount allocated to departments last year is GREATER than the total amount allocated to the Special Reserve. What does this mean? Presumably that money is being taken out of general reserves in addition, though it’s not clear (when I asked the treasury this they didn’t seem to know or care much themselves). But this means the amount allocatd to the Special Reserve may become an UNDERestimate of the total spent in Iraq
  • The amount allocated to the GCPP still remains pretty high (although even taking this away from last years reserve allocations the above point still holds), and certainly bigger than the £200million that Brown allocated in the budget for next year. But god knows what this means, as no-one seems to know much about it, and I haven’t really looked at it since it’s not Iraq. But it seems a bit fishy to me that if this is being used for general peacekeeping activities it’s coming out of the reserves rather than department budgets.