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Invaders and Allies Ignore Iraq's Humanitarian Crisis

by Haroon Siddiqui

Those who were most gung-ho about the invasion and occupation of Iraq have been the least helpful in mopping up the mess there. Those least enthusiastic have ended up bearing the greatest burden.

The United States and Britain have accepted only a handful of the 4.2 million displaced Iraqis. Ditto Kuwait, which was the most bellicose of America's pro-war Arab allies. Ditto Saudi Arabia, that other staunch American ally. It has shut its border with Iraq, and plans to fortify it with a $2 billion fence.

Stephen Harper, who as leader of the opposition agitated for Canada to join the war, has been silent as prime minister about admitting Iraqi refugees to Canada.

On the other hand, Syria and Jordan, which strongly opposed the war, have accepted 2 million Iraqi refugees, and done so gracefully.

Jordan (population, 5.7 million) has taken 800,000. That's the equivalent of France welcoming 8 million Iraqi refugees, Germany 11 million and the U.S. 40 million.

Syria (population, 18 million) has taken 1.2 million Iraqis. That's like Canada taking 4.9 million refugees.

Jordan and Syria are feeling the strains on their infrastructure and social services, from water supplies to hospitals to schooling.

Syria is particularly hard-hit, since it has had little international help, principally because the U.S. and its allies consider it to be a "rogue nation."

Sweden, which also opposed the war, has accepted tens of thousands of Iraqis, 20,000 this year alone, the most of any Western nation.

The humanitarian crisis in Iraq is the worst in the Middle East since 1948. Whereas there's disagreement over the number of Iraqi dead since 2003 (between 75,000 to 1.2 million), there's broad agreement over the number of Iraqi displaced: more than 2 million abroad and more than 2 million internally.

The situation is only getting worse. The American troop surge that George W. Bush credits for lowering violence in Baghdad has, in fact, led to "a surge in refugees and displaced people elsewhere," says Alastair Campbell, Middle East director of the British defence think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute.

"When U.S. troops conduct operations in a certain area, the insurgents invariably move elsewhere and transfer their violence and intimidation further afield," Campbell told me recently.

Shiites are still fleeing Sunni areas, and vice versa. Sunnis and Shiites are also fleeing their own sectarian neighbourhoods to escape inter-Sunni and inter-Shiite militia and gang warfare.

Minorities are also vulnerable. The well-to-do among the 500,000-strong Christian community are being targeted for ransom. Yazidis, followers of an ancient sect, suffered a gruesome massacre in August. Small pockets of Roma and Turkmen are also being harassed.

In addition, about 50,000 non-Iraqis whom Saddam Hussein had granted asylum are being targeted (as outlined in my Thursday column). Many have taken refuge in camps along the borders with Syria and Jordan - camps that can become "fertile ground for recruiting sergeants from radical, extremist organizations," warns Campbell.

In fact, given the widespread death, dislocation and despair, all of Iraq can be a haven for terrorist recruiters.

Yet Britain has admitted fewer than 500 Iraqis. Washington promised to take 7,000 this year but in the 13 months since Oct. 1 last year (when it began tracking Iraqi refugee admissions), it has admitted only 2,084. Canada has taken fewer than 3,000 since 2003.

The U.S. and Britain, in particular, "should set an example and accept without hesitation those whose lives they have put directly at risk," says Campbell.

The invasion and botched occupation of Iraq was criminal enough. Not taking responsibility for its disastrous impact on a whole people is worse. The former speaks to the arrogance bred by unbridled military power, the latter to the deeper disease of moral bankruptcy.

Haroon Siddiqui is a columnist for The Toronto Star.

© Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007

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