Humanitarian Tsunami Sweeping Across Iraq

The United States cannot solve the crisis in Iraq and beyond unless it takes responsibility for the unprecedented humanitarian crisis it has created in Iraq.

Imagine 1.5 million Canadians being killed and another 6.5 million either forced to flee Canada or displaced internally. That's about what has happened to the Iraqis.

Up to 1.2 million of them, out of a population of 21 million, may have been killed since 2003. And one in five Iraqis has been displaced.

Two million, maybe more, have fled to neighbouring nations, and another 2.2 million have been displaced internally. Of the latter, the world knows the least, and for a reason.

Foreign media representatives have been confined to Baghdad's Green Zone. And Iraqi journalists, covering the news from across the country at great personal risk, have been reporting mostly about the daily bombings and killings.

Only the UN agencies and NGOs based here in Jordan, or in Kuwait - and co-ordinating relief operations inside Iraq through the Iraqi Red Crescent and other local groups - have kept close watch on the movement of people inside Iraq.

About half the internally uprooted Iraqis predate the 2003 invasion - victims of earlier upheavals: the 1980-'88 Iraq-Iran war (in which the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein); his post-1991 Gulf War suppression of the Shiites (who rose up on the say-so of the first President Bush, George H.W., only to be abandoned by him - he having gone fishing the day the crackdown began); and Saddam's "Arabization" of the Kurdish region through forced settlements.

But more than 1 million have been displaced since the U.S. invasion.

About 200,000 were uprooted by U.S. military operations in Falluja (twice), Najaf, Ramdi, Haditha, etc.

But the real upheaval began after the February 2006 bombing of the Shiite shrine at Samarrah, by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Besides triggering Sunni-Shiite warfare, it marked the point when the U.S. and allies lost control of the country.

Not every upheaval since is explained by the sectarian warfare. Militants have been killing army and police recruits or anyone working for the allies, as well as Iraqi professionals, regardless of sect.

"As one group began to dominate a certain area, it'd force others to leave," said Daunia Pavone, an aid worker who has focused on Iraq's internally displaced persons for the past three years.

In Sunni areas, they would force the Shiites out, and vice versa. In mixed neighbourhoods, they'd target the minority. They'd spread terror by killing a prominent person, or leaving threatening notes or sending emails and text messages.

In the initial stages, a family at least had time to sell its property or arrange an exchange in another area. But as anarchy spread, and criminals began eyeing properties, the ultimatums got shorter - in many cases, less than 24 hours.

Many provinces have placed restrictions on the entry of the displaced due to overcrowding or shortages of food, water and other essentials, or because of fears that terrorists may slip in with the masses.

Some provinces demand that new arrivals show cash or proof of a local sponsor. Yet others let the homeless in but do not give them access the Public Distribution System of subsidized food, gasoline and other rations, principally because ration cards also confer voting rights. New arrivals threaten upsetting the Arab-Kurdish or Shiite-Sunni power balance.

The net result is that tens of thousands of Iraqis are roaming from province to province looking for a safe haven.

Said Sara, an Iraqi who does not want her last name used: "In Saddam's time, you knew how to protect yourself: `Don't get involved in politics.' Now you don't know how to protect yourself. You may be killed going to the bazaar. It's a tsunami that has hit Iraq."


(c) Copyright Toronto Star 1996-2007

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