The Middle East Channel

Deadly bombings hit Iraq on 10th anniversary of U.S. invasion

50 people are estimated to have been killed and over 150 injured in a dozen bombings throughout Baghdad on the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. At least 10 car bombs were set off in a coordinated campaign which targeted busy areas in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods including a market, bus stops, and the Green Zone, which houses government offices and foreign embassies. Additionally, a suicide bomber attacked a police base in a Shiite town south of Baghdad and three improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were set off in the northern region of Kirkuk. No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the Islamic State of Iraq, the Iraqi wing of al Qaeda, has carried out similar bombings before and has vowed to increase attacks on Shiite targets in attempts to undermine the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Violence peaked in Iraq between 2006 and 2007, but sectarian tensions and the political crisis have worsened since U.S. troops departed in December 2011. In addition to continued violence, economic conditions are deteriorating and an influx of Syrian refugees into the country has only increased concerns.

Syria

Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, elected a provisional prime minister in Istanbul on Tuesday. Thirty-five of the 50 coalition members chose Ghassan Hitto, a Western-educated and naturalized Syrian-born American citizen, to lead an opposition government tasked with providing services to rebel held areas of the war-torn country. Hitto, 50, is an information technology executive who lived in Texas until recently. He had been relatively unknown but gained recognition while delivering humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces have reportedly fired four rockets into Lebanon, hitting the town of Arsal near the border with Syria. However, it is unclear if Syria intended to hit targets in Lebanon. U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said the attack "constitutes a significant escalation in the violations of Lebanese sovereignty." In an unverified report, Syrian state media SANA news agency said rebel forces launched a chemical weapon in the northern province of Aleppo, killing up to 16 people and wounding an estimated 86 others. Syrian Information Ministers Omran al-Zoubi claimed it was the "first act" by the opposition government.

Headlines

  • In a video addressing the Iranian public marking the Persian New Year, U.S. President Obama said Iran must "reduce tensions" with the international community and work toward a "settlement of the nuclear issue."
  • Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu said Israel is ready for a "historic compromise" with Palestinians after a new government was sworn in Monday with several pro-settlement ministers.
  • Imprisoned leader of the Kurdish militant group PKK Abdullah Ocalan said he will call for a "historic" ceasefire on the Kurdish New Year Thursday, in efforts to end a decades long conflict with Turkey.
  • Bahrain has sentenced 17 men to 15 years in prison for the attempted murder of four police officers. The trail was criticized by human rights groups. 

Arguments and Analysis

David Frum, the Iraq war and oil (Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian)

"Wars rarely have one clear and singular purpose, and the Iraq War in particular was driven by different agendas prioritized by different factions. To say it was fought exclusively due to oil is an oversimplification. But the fact that oil is a major factor in every Western military action in the Middle East is so self-evident that it's astonishing that it's even considered debatable, let alone some fringe and edgy idea.

Yet few claims were more stigmatized in the run-up to the Iraq War, and after, than the view that oil was a substantial factor. In 2006, George Bush instructed us that there was a "responsible" way to criticize the US war effort in Iraq, and an "irresponsible" way to do so, and he helpfully defined the boundaries:"

Perpetual Recalculation: Getting Syria Wrong Two Years On (Bassam Haddad, Jadaliyya)

"The Syrian tragedy is just that. A tragedy of growing proportions by the week, as the state's and the social fabric of Syria is being torn gradually. We often lose ourselves in the strategic and analytical details while lives are constantly being lost. For all those with any consequential power, the problem is becoming one where it is increasingly difficult to know in what direction to push in order to serve one's interest. One thing is certain; the interest of the majority of the Syrian people is not likely to be served by nearly any group who wields power today, inside and outside Syria.

Analysts, including myself, are not absolved. We all participate in creating perceptions that shape reality and, sometimes, policy. Yet we are getting Syria wrong more often than not, and that is a direct consequence of pegging our interpretation on events as opposed to legacies, history, and a dynamic conception of the strategic playing field. But not all is foggy or unclear. 

Nearly two years after the uprising, the regime is neither as strong as it was before nor in complete control of more than half of Syrian territory, but it is standing. However, it has forever lost its ability to govern "Syria" as it once did, but not necessarily its ability to shape how Syria might be governed in the future, if cooler heads prevail among regime strongmen. At this point, it is in the regime's interest for cooler heads to prevail. The post-December 2012 period saw a resurgence of regime confidence and vigor politically and militarily as well as signs of serious trepidation among the regional and international supporters of the uprising. This situation will not last for much longer. So long as this window is open, the question is whether the regime will submit to such logic (which, for instance, might be the best scenario for preserving the `Alawi community's safety), or will the mixture of drunkenness on a legacy of decades of power and fear of extermination cause it to fight to the death? Will the Syrian regime consider the wellbeing of the now embattled `Alawi community which will be implicated, however unfairly, by decades of regime repression? Will it consider the larger fight against imperialism as the prize by preserving what it can of what is left of Syria? Will the Syrian regime try to protect Hizballah from the regional implications of its complete downfall? Most importantly, will it spare Syria and Syrians, as well as Syria's military capabilities, a fight to the death (of everyone and everything)?"

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Remembering Iraq's displaced

Looking at the past 10 years of Iraq's history through the lens of displacement reveals a complex -- and sobering -- reality. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, humanitarian agencies prepared for a massive outpouring of Iraqi refugees. But this didn't happen. Instead a much more dynamic and complex form of displacement occurred. First, some 500,000 Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had been displaced by the Saddam Hussein regime returned to their places of origin. Then, in the 2003 to 2006 period, more than a million Iraqis were displaced as sectarian militias battled for control of specific neighborhoods. In February 2006, the bombing of the Al-Askaria Mosque and its violent aftermath ratcheted the numbers of IDPs up to a staggering 2.7 million. In a period of about a year, five percent of Iraq's total population fled their homes and settled elsewhere in Iraq while an additional 2 million or so fled the country entirely. It is important to underscore that this displacement was not just a by-product of the conflict, but rather the result of deliberate policies of sectarian cleansing by armed militias. 

The internally displaced were the most vulnerable -- and perhaps the clearest sign of the success of sectarian cleansing as entire neighborhoods were transformed. Sunnis and Shiites alike moved from mixed communities to ones where their sect was the majority. And while the displacement of Sunnis and Shiites was massive, proportionately the displacement of religious minorities was even more sweeping in effect.

Those who couldn't find shelter with families or friends, or without the resources to rent lodging, occupied public buildings and built informal settlements (slums) on the outskirts of Baghdad and throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi IDPs lived -- and continue to live -- in these informal settlements where living conditions are harsh and the threat of eviction is constant. This large-scale internal displacement also increased the pressure on the Iraqi government to provide basic services such as health, education, sanitation, electricity, food, and shelter.

As of September 2012, Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MoDM) reported that there were still over 1.3 million IDPs. (However, if the earlier figures of 2.7 million were correct, one wonders what has happened to the other 1.4 million. Have they all truly integrated into their new communities or moved elsewhere in the country, or simply slipped further under the radar screen?) One of the few international agencies still monitoring displacement in Iraq, the International Organization for Migration, reports that few of today's IDPs expect to ever return to their homes. In fact, the percentage of those expressing a wish to return to their homes has dropped from 45 percent in 2006 to six percent in 2012, mostly because of the lack of security. And the sectarian dimension remains alive and well. Provincial political leaders view potential returns of IDPs through a sectarian lens, seeing returns of particular groups in terms of their impact on the communitarian makeup of their province and the balance of power between different communities.

For those who do want to return to their homes, the complex and extremely bureaucratic question of getting their property back is complicated and will, in the best of cases, take years. The Iraqi MoDM wants to "close the displacement file" by finding solutions for those displaced and has offered cash enticements to encourage people to return to their communities. But finding durable solutions for IDPs isn't so easy in Iraq, particularly given the difficult economic conditions. As the former Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of IDPs, Walter Kaelin, said two years ago, resolving displacement in Iraq is a political imperative, a development challenge, and a vital issue for reconciliation and peacebuilding.

While IDPs face difficult and uncertain living conditions inside Iraq, Iraqi refugees seeking safety in neighboring countries have faced their own vulnerabilities. With the exception of Palestinian Iraqis, the Iraqis who fled to neighboring countries have not lived in camps, but are dispersed within communities. This has made it difficult to accurately estimate their numbers, assess their needs, and deliver assistance. The Syrian government estimated that a million Iraqis had crossed into its territory and Jordan reported that it was hosting half a million Iraqis. However, the number registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and receiving assistance was far lower. Host governments have been generous in allowing the Iraqis to enter their countries but those policies have been ambiguous and the Iraqis have never had formal refugee status. (None of the governments hosting large numbers of Iraqis is a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees.) Some of the Iraqis are legal residents. In some countries, they are registered but not allowed to work. Many Iraqis have gone back and forth to Iraq in circular migration patterns -- for example, to check on property or collect pensions.

The latest figures, based on government estimates, are that there are 1,428,308 refugees of Iraqi origin in Jordan and Syria of whom only 135,000 receive assistance from the UNHCR. Since the numbers peaked in 2009, some Iraqis have returned to Iraq. According to the UNHCR, an estimated 550,000 Iraqis returned to the country between 2008 and 2011, but most weren't able to return to their homes and instead joined the rank of IDPs. And some Iraqis have been resettled outside the region: more than 85,000 Iraqi refugees over the past decade -- 72 percent of whom have gone to the United States. Surprisingly, more than 3,000 Iraqis were resettled out of Syria last year -- a testament to the courageous UNHCR staff in Damascus and to the desperation of Iraqis wanting to escape the conflict in Syria. Refugee resettlement has worked, but it has been a lengthy and bureaucratic process; in some cases the enhanced security procedures have led to delays stretching for years.

Today Iraqi refugees throughout the region face dwindling donor support, particularly as the needs of Syrian refugees increase. For the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who remain in Syria, the situation is particularly dire. Some have been displaced within Syria. Some Iraqis have moved to other countries in the region (though they have faced an uncertain welcome by governments facing new inflows of Syrians.) Many -- perhaps 100,000 -- Iraqis have chosen to return to Iraq in the past year (though given the violence in Syria, it is hard to see this as a voluntary decision). Those that have returned to Iraq have either congregated in a hastily-constructed camp along the Iraq-Syrian border (which has often been closed) or have simply become IDPs.

Most of those who fled from their homes in Iraq -- whether because of the atrocities of the Hussein regime or the violence of sectarian conflict -- left their homes quickly. The journeys to other Iraqi towns or across borders to neighboring countries took hours or days, or in some cases, a few weeks. Many expected that the displacement was temporary and when things settled down, they would return. It's now been 10 years -- six years since the mass displacement triggered by the February 2006 bombing -- and solutions, safe and lasting solutions, appear as distant as ever. And there is little international pressure or attention on the Iraqi refugees and IDPs anymore. Perhaps 3 million people -- 10 percent of Iraq's population -- remain displaced. And forgotten.

Elizabeth Ferris is senior fellow in Foreign Policy and co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images