Things are getting worse in Iraq, so give the UN a chance

By Will Day
(Filed: 16/06/2003)

Something in Iraq is going fundamentally wrong. At a time when we might
expect to see things getting better, they're getting worse. Care
International has been operating there since 1991 and we are both
baffled and disturbed by the current situation.

Did the coalition planners think things through? On the basis of what we
are seeing, we can only conclude that they didn't. They can't have. The
consequences were by no means unforeseeable.

It is now two months since the coalition forces swept away the old
regime with promises of a brighter future. At the moment Iraq is in
limbo. It is a country still waiting to be "saved", and in the meantime
there is a dangerous vacuum where there is no security, no law and
order, no visible way out of this chaos. Nobody seems to be in charge.

The reconstruction effort is being constrained by the lack of security
and the wider impact of the instability is grave. These days in Baghdad,
it is common to see bodies in the road and to hear the crackle of
gunfire as street fights break out. Many families are too afraid to
leave their homes, parents are too frightened to let their children go
to school. Classrooms remain practically empty. Children should be
taking exams now, but virtually all secondary schools are shut.

Nobody is safe. Aid organisations are targets, too. Care International
is not the only agency to have had its warehouses - once full of
humanitarian supplies - looted and its cars hijacked. Our staff have
been threatened and shot at as they try to carry out their work. Certain
parts of Baghdad and the countryside are off-limits, simply too
dangerous to visit. The humanitarian needs of such areas remain unknown.

If aid agencies are finding their activities restricted, how is life for
ordinary Iraqis? It is not only the complete breakdown in security that
is making their lives a misery, it is also the almost total lack of
basic services.

Iraq was already limping before the coalition arrived. Now, it's on its
knees. The supply of electricity is erratic and unreliable, clean water
is fast becoming scarce and rubbish is piling high in streets flooded by
sewage - an estimated 500,000 tonnes of raw sewage, at least, is being
poured into the river daily. In the soaring summer temperatures, this is
a recipe for disaster. How long will it be before we see this
contamination seriously affect the health of the population?

Erratic electricity supplies are preventing hospitals from functioning
properly and preventing water and sewerage systems from operating.
Doctors cannot carry out operations, keep medical supplies and drugs
refrigerated or keep their hospitals clean and hygienic. They are
running out of critical supplies of oxygen, of which there had already
been a chronic shortage before the war.

Without oxygen, many operations cannot take place and doctors are
reporting deaths related to the shortages. Iraq has several oxygen
manufacturing plants, but, without electricity, production in the two
that continue to function has dropped to just 15 per cent of total
capacity. This is happening across all industries and is affecting all
aspects of daily life.

At petrol stations, cars queue for up to 10 hours in the arid heat as
people wait to fill their tanks and jerry cans - and this in the world's
second largest oil-producing country.

For the Iraqi people, watching their country crumble around them and
finding themselves unable to carry out many of the most menial of daily
tasks, these are reasons for anger, for growing ill-feeling towards the
occupying powers, for dark wishes of a return to the way things were.

Expectations were, after all, so high. "We're coming to free you, to
give you what you haven't got," the coalition promised. Many ordinary
Iraqis might question this, given that there are more practical problems
now than before.

It must be remembered that Iraq was not a failed country. It had a
monstrous regime, but it had an effective civil administration. Children
went to school and got an education, the sick went to hospital and were
treated, and, at home, people turned on the taps and there was water.

And now? Significant layers of the administration have gone. Many of
Iraq's institutions are starting from scratch, with inexperienced staff
who know nothing of the decision-making process or how to manage

The coalition's apparent inability to restore and maintain law and
order, which one would have thought to be a core competence and which is
clearly an international responsibility, suggests that it is stretched
beyond its capacity.

A different approach is needed for the reconstruction of Iraq, based on
a UN-led civilian administration supporting the return of sovereignty to
Iraq's people.

Reconstruction efforts need to focus on reinstating the administrative
systems that were functioning before the war, not setting up new or
duplicate structures. However good or bad the standards were before, at
least they functioned. Today, there is an almost total vacuum and any
humanitarian efforts are severely constrained by this.

What is needed is action and it is needed soon. The opportunity to
improve the situation in Iraq, to assist ordinary Iraqis and gain their
support in a post-conflict structure, is slipping through the fingers of
the coalition.

The whole situation is made more complex by the swirl of political and
commercial aspirations and intentions. For those of us trying to
maintain our independence, it obliges us to be extremely cautious in the
way we operate and the partners we choose.

What is most disturbing and frustrating is the fact that this situation
is by no means unique and could have been avoided.

We know from first-hand experience elsewhere, such as in Afghanistan, of
the consequences of a failure to follow up on armed intervention. The
parallel is uncomfortable and telling.

Will Day is the chief executive of Care International UK