"For over a decade, Iraqi NGO’s were repeatedly warning both the US/UK governments... that the forced displacement of Iraqis was being exploited by criminal elements, which had resulted in the kidnap of children for use by terrorist organisations, while displaced poverty stricken women were being forced into the sex-trade."
Iraq has been in a near constant state of conflict for almost 35 years beginning with the Iraq/Iran War of the 1980s. This was followed by the original ‘Gulf’ War and then the US government’s war on terror.
These conflicts have led to immense civilian casualties and seen the development of a humanitarian crisis within the country, which has been particularly devastating for the most vulnerable members of society; women and children.
All of these conflicts have now been superseded by the formation of the Islamic State militant group, formerly called ISIS. This group began as a relatively small collective of Islamic extremists but has now grown in to a self-sustaining, serious threat to the region taking over numerous towns and villages, taking part in countless atrocities and causing serious issues for domestic and international security forces.
This current crisis looks set to escalate with the international community preparing for a series of air strikes in the region with several nations having already taken part in strategic bombings. This in itself has serious ramifications for the civilian population and it remains to be seen how drastically this new form of military intervention will affect the already devastated women and children of Iraq.
Hussein Al-Alak, a British Iraqi writer and editor of Iraq Solidarity News (Al Thawra) – the UK's leading English language news and information provider on Iraq, has recently written numerous blogs and academic pieces on the conflict in Iraq and is held as an authority on issues pertaining to the impact on women and children within the nation, in addition to the topics of genocide and the country’s history.
Hello Hussein. Before we start perhaps you would like to explain a bit about yourself, your personal connection to Iraq, and why it is you became interested in writing about issues relating to women and children within the country?
Hi Peter, and I’d like first say what an absolute delight it is to give this interview and with the mutual connection to the Safe World for Women, it’s a complete honour that we can have this discussion.
For me, my connection to Iraq is not just an association through friends and family, but one founded in politics, when in 1981, a few months after my mum returned to the UK, she joined the Committee Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq (CADRI).
Growing up within that period of time, CARDRI was explained in some detail at the Iraq Inquiry, when our former chairperson Ann Clwyd MP, highlighted the various political changes taking place before the collapse of the USSR.
During the 1980’s, Iraq was one of the main Middle Eastern countries, directly caught up in Cold War policy, which expressed itself through a variety of political methods, that included the Iraq/Iran war, the persecution of political parties and other organisations.
Iraq also witnessed other levels of repression, along with the use of chemical weapons, against both internal and external opposition forces. All of this needs to be really understood in context of the global situation of the time, when the world was more sharply divided between decisions taking place on either side of the Berlin Wall.
For me personally, my interest in women’s issues and the welfare of children, emerged out of a multiple of factors, including the role of women in organisations like the Iraqi Women’s League, who took an active and leading role in opposing policies of Saddam’s regime.
Going into the 1990’s and after the Kuwait invasion, women also bore the brunt of psychological trauma from the Iraq/Iran war and Gulf war, where Harvard University publicised the growing levels of PTSD, domestic violence, and economic inequalities upon women, which the UN sanctions had forcibly imposed.
The imposition of sanctions also had a dire effect upon Iraqi children where in an international effort to contain Saddam Hussain, the UN had created a situation where a number of life saving materials and medicines became banned under the Duel Use categories with devastating consequences, in particular for young infants and children.
Women in Iraq also saw a decline in living, standards as the economy collapsed under the international embargo and with the political isolation imposed upon Iraq, the absence of embassies and direct diplomatic relations, also resulted in a lack of clear political understanding of the changes that were taking place inside of the country.
The irony is that until after the Cold War, in 1991, and only until after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussain, neither the British or Americans had an active embassy or had diplomats operating inside of Iraq.
Being of Iraqi origin yourself, how have the repeated conflicts within the country affected you personally over the years?
What has been the most noticeable change for all Iraqis, is the growing number of casualties and injuries, among friends and families from various bombing campaigns and terrorist attacks.
From your personal experience, what would you say are the greatest consequences of the conflict on Iraq, particularly those for women and children?
For women and children in Iraq, the greatest disasters have been death and trauma, with the ongoing levels of violence resulting in an increase of widows and orphans, while the economic decline has resulted in huge levels of poverty.
One of the biggest failures of the US/UK occupation was its failure to push the Iraqi government to adequately provide for both orphans and widows, with consequences which allowed for a growth in the sex trade, human trafficking, drugs, and terrorism.
For over a decade, Iraqi NGO’s were repeatedly warning both the US/UK governments – of Bush and Britain’s Labour Party, that the forced displacement of Iraqis was being exploited by criminal elements, which had resulted in the kidnap of children for use by terrorist organisations, while displaced poverty stricken women were being forced into the sex-trade.
Do you think there can be a feasible solution to these ongoing conflicts both in Iraq and within the Middle East?
I do believe that there are feasible solutions to both the Iraq conflict and to the entire Middle East but for a long term peace to be found, and solutions to be put into place, there needs to be a mixture of political maturity and perspective. For many years, people of the region have had to listen to lectures on democracy, and freedom, but the first thing the US/UK failed to do when they entered Iraq in 2003 was to secure the borders, which allowed the free flow of foreign fighters into the country.
The Western lack of maturity and perspective in Iraq also allowed the introduction of the de-Bathification laws, which effectively made redundant everyone who held a job under Saddam’s regime. For the majority of Iraqis, it was seen as insulting, as those who were seen as making all decisions in the post-invasion Iraq, had all lived in Iran or the West since the 1960s and 1970s, and only returned to Baghdad with the protection of British and American soldiers.
The reasons why I emphasize such points as these, is because they both illustrate the lack of skill in the greater view of nation-building, but also illustrates the lack of clarity needed when it comes to finding resolution to modern problems. Iraq is a lot like Britain, in the sense that both countries have moved on a lot, since the swinging 1960s and the disco’s of the 1970s.
With regard to the rise of the Islamic State, do you think this kind of extremist grassroots uprising was inevitable, or even predictable within Iraq, given the huge amounts of Western intervention over the years?
There is a big misconception that ISIS have just “emerged out of nowhere”, when Al-Qaeda was first introduced to Iraq back in 2003. And was then lead by the Jordanian Abu Mussab Al-Zarqawi.
It’s important to remember that ISIS in its present form, was only introduced to Iraq en masse, as we saw with Mosul, through support it obtained by sections of the Baath Party. While the Baath Party itself is native to Iraq, both Al-Qaeda and ISIS are non-native elements, which we in Europe have also seen through its need to recruit so many foreign fighters.
For many of Iraq’s natives fighting for either the Baath Party or for ISIS, their motivations are varied and often quite complex, which range from discrimination and unemployment suffered under democracy, to the Iranian influences over current government officials and various militias, which is viewed by many as fueling the flames of sectarianism.
Where the Iraqi government got it wrong, and essentially isolated itself, was its belief that democracy just comes through a ballot box. For a democracy to function, it needs security and inclusion to allow a modern country to develop, to give room for open debate and for policies to be scrutinized.
The Iraqi government has learned that it is the proverbial boy who cried wolf, that when policies went wrong, or when people disagreed, they fell back on what is viewed as the tired mantra of blaming Saddam Hussain.
So if the question is, 'Was it inevitable?', then the answer is no, because the Iraqi government has had a decade to change their direction, so that an uprising of this scale, would neither be inevitable or predictable.
It is my understanding you recently wrote a piece for a conference in Leicester on the issue of genocide within Iraq, having previously written about the possibility of ‘gendercide’ within the country; do you think there is a new and serious threat of these risks coming to fruition?
The threat of gendercide is as real today in Iraq, as its possibilities are anywhere in the world.
Gendercide is born from ignorance, mismanagement, and a belief that one group is not worthy of life. I was recently at a conference on the Holocaust, when somebody raised the question, 'Where was God in the concentration camps of NAZI-occupied Europe?'
And the response was simple, 'Where was man?'
It is evident that women and children are immensely vulnerable in times of conflict; from your experience in writing about this issue, do you think there are any effective safeguards or measures that should be taken to try and protect them?
The best way to protect and safeguard people in times of conflict, is to take advice from friends and heed a warning before it gets to the point of conflict. All too often in the Middle East, we talk about protecting people once the conflict has started, but very rarely do we hear debates on conflict resolution.
Women and children are immensely vulnerable at times of conflict, which is even more reason to make every step available, so that it doesn’t get to the point which we saw in the 1980s, 1990s, 2003 and now.
Safeguarding rights essentially needs people on the grassroots level to enshrine a person's rights under law and to preserve basic dignity, which is desperately lacking inside of Iraq, but this also needs a functioning government and civil service, which is providing for everybody's needs – irrespective of ethnicity or religion.
If the Iraqi government is able to provide for one section of Iraqi society but then completely fails to provide for the needs of others, then it becomes a pointless exercise to discuss safeguards, as in 10 years' time, we will be having the same discussions as we are now.
For those who hold an interest in these issues, in addition to your blogs and work for Safe World, are there any other sources you would recommend to further people's knowledge on the subject of Iraq and the conflicts effect on civilians?
For people who are interested in learning more about what grassroots work is taking place in Iraq, then Facebook has a number of organisations who are doing some truly amazing work and includes the Baghdad Women’s Association, NO2ISIS, and Iraq Solidarity News (Al Thawra).
Other news agencies out there, besides Iraq Solidarity News (Al-Thawra), also includes the fantastic Niqash, Al-Monitor, along with a variety of Twitter-based news feeds which provide regular and breaking news from respected journalists from around the world.
I’d also recommend that people also go back to some of the old classic books on the Middle East and rediscover the lives of T.E.Lawrence and Getrude Bell, along with the exciting works of Thesiger and Younge. All too often, such situations, are often met from outsiders with despair but in many respects, that now needs to be replaced with the renewed desire to learn.
It’s far too easy to think, the crisis we are now facing has always been there.