Despite continual White House assurances in 2002 and early 2003 that “war is a last resort,” the key advocates of invasion in Washington gave a good deal of forethought to the US-led war with Iraq. The Iraq hawks had been considering the military option for years. the option became feasible after the September 11 attacks created a climate in which regime change in Iraq gained wider political appeal.

In the view of the attack-Iraq caucus, the primary goal of the war was to install an Iraqi government friendly tothe US. Several strategic advantages would result: increased long-term “energy security” lent by Iraq’s petroleum reserves, diminished US dependence on Saudi Arabia and the removal of a potential threat to Israel. For the most radical neo-conservatives, the invasion of Iraq was only the beginning of a grander design to reshape the Middle East. Plans were laid for a possible two-year occupation of Iraq while a new elected government was established. [1] Iraq’s oil money would fund reconstruction and major contracts would be granted to private international (mainly US) companies. Private firms would also have a role in redeveloping social services. Privatization of state-owned enterprises, even possibly the state oil company, would be a priority.

The war itself proved to be short and the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime rapid. But in the aftermath, it became evident that Pentagon strategists had glossed over the more detailed planning needed to fulfill the international obligations imposed on an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention. These include the provision of security and basic services to the occupied population. The removal of the highly repressive government of Saddam Hussein is undoubtedly welcomed by large numbers of Iraqis, but that regime has been replaced by an absence of administration and law and order. The occupying authority has proved slow to respond to people’s needs and often remote from and uncomprehending of the society and economy it is attempting to run. Many of the problems that had most affected people’s lives under sanctions — limited electricity, clean water and sanitation, high levels of dependence on food rations, severe and chronic unemployment, and failing health and education systems — still remain. Clearly, many of these problems will take a long time to resolve, but the initial response of the occupying powers, particularly the US, has raised increasing doubts about their goals and their competence.

The war of words between the deposed Iraqi regime and the US over the comprehensive sanctions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 may have blinded US officials to the fact that the majority of the civilian population in Iraq has lost considerable economic ground over the past 13 years. The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, may have assumed that the Oil for Food program put in place by UN Security Council Resolution 986 in 1996 had resolved the economic and humanitarian crisis caused partly by the sanctions in the early 1990s. [2] In fact, Oil for Food brought significant improvements only in the size and nutritional value of rations; improvements in health care and availability of medications have been limited. Pre-war reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the few NGOs working in government-controlled Iraq suggested that electricity, water and sanitation remained in a ramshackle condition. As a result, even though (unlike in the 1991 war) US-British bombardiers mostly avoided direct hits on power plants and water stations, the impact of bombing, not to speak of the looting that followed, was much greater than would have been the case had this infrastructure been more robust.


The actual outcome of the Iraq war differs from the rosy scenarios painted by the hawks and, indeed, from the worst-case scenarios of the invasion’s opponents. Those in favor assumed that the Iraqi leadership would surrender or die, but somehow leave administrative structures and the agencies of law and order intact. The scale of the breakdown was certainly beyond what anyone had publicly predicted, and the US-British response to disorder was described by Amnesty International in April as “shockingly inadequate.” The pre-war forebodings of anti-war forces, including NGOs working in Iraq — mass displacement, large numbers of civilian casualties, major food crises and the possible threat of chemical or biological attack — were not borne out either. But the emphasis in all their statements on the vulnerability of the Iraqi population, due to years of war and sanctions, remain valid.

The war, and the looting and sabotage that prevailed during the first 100 days after George W. Bush announced the end of major combat on May 1, have exerted a multiplier effect on the crumbling of weak links in Iraq’s infrastructure — especially electricity supplies and, consequently, clean water and sanitation. Electricity supplies, on which oil production and public services depend, suffered serious looting, including removal of valuable components like copper wire from cable, which is often stolen to order for export. Water pipes were already in poor repair, and, according to the UN, sprung additional leaks due to vibrations caused by bombing and the overhead passage of tanks. The UN estimated in June that up to 50 percent of Baghdad’s water supply was lost as a result of these water main breaks. Looters also broke pipes to obtain water to sell. Facilities once repaired were sabotaged again, and equipment once looted was stolen again once replaced. In July, CARE (US) reported such double looting of the computers at the General Corporation of Water and Sewage.

An Anglo-American research group, the Iraq Body Count, has estimated civilian deaths during the war at between 6,000 and 7,000. [3] To these must be added many more who have died in the day-to-day violence plaguing Iraqi city streets since the full-scale fighting ended. Their numbers are unknown, since with only a minimally functioning police force, there is no authority that can count and register these deaths at present.

During the almost 13 years of sanctions, there were many reports of the growth of a black market parallel to the formal sector, facilitated by familial, tribal and other networks from the leadership downward, and of the rising strength of criminal gangs. Armed robbery and carjacking, though hardly the norm, became more common. Since April 2003, these trends have escalated exponentially. Violence against US, British and allied forces occurs on an almost daily basis, but much less publicized is the scale of injury and death to Iraqis caused either by occupation troops or by shootouts among criminal gangs, random killings and the settling of personal scores. Furthermore, the entire society and economy is highly disrupted by the profound insecurity felt by much of the population trying to go about their daily lives. Women are reportedly experiencing particular constraints on their freedom of movement as the fear of violence has grown.

Over the summer of 2003, it seems likely that there will be a considerable number of excess deaths, especially among the very young and older people, due to the disruption of electricity supplies and the resulting impact on the dilapidated water and sanitation services. Health professionals, NGOs and UNICEF report concerns that systems for disease control have been badly damaged by the war. In June, the UN warned that health services were operating at 30-50 percent of the pre-war level. Pre-existing problems in the health services have been exacerbated by staffing problems (due to the danger of travel and general insecurity, and until June, the non-payment of salaries) and continued episodes of looting, damage and theft. A new hazard is posed, especially to children, by unexploded ordnance, including canisters from cluster bombs. [4]

Running the Occupation

Driven as it was by the Pentagon, US policy during and immediately after the war emphasized inflicting military defeat on the enemy and securing Iraqi oilfields. The war itself did not bring physical destruction on the scale many predicted, or prolonged street fighting in the major cities. The major unpredicted factors were the melting away of the army and the scale of looting, unchecked for several weeks, which left most ministries (except the Oil Ministry, which was guarded) and other public buildings, including hospitals and schools, wrecked. As the looting continued, attempts to restore order were hampered by insufficient numbers of US troops in Baghdad, and British forces in Basra and the far south, to patrol the streets in the absence of Iraqi police. More importantly, the front-line troops who had spearheaded the invasion did not have law enforcement training.

The power vacuum that followed should not have been a great surprise, given that several influential groups — not just those opposed to the war — specifically noted that any post-war administration should place foremost in its thinking a plan to deploy a force to handle civil security. [5] In Great Britain, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons wrote in its December 2002 report that “the establishment of the rule of law…in Iraq after a war would pose formidable challenges.… We recommend that, in its considerations, the Government bear in mind the necessity for countrywide peacekeeping, civil policing [and] transitional justice.” These recommendations seem to have been ignored.

Since May 1, debates on humanitarian needs and how to address them have focused on the functioning of what is now called the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). This nominally civilian organization was established in the Department of Defense before the war as the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA). On April 21, its director, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, moved to Baghdad. Its inability to bring the situation under control and restore basic services damaged its credibility, and the Pentagon rapidly replaced Garner. By May 13, L. Paul Bremer, a senior State Department official, was appointed to head up ORHA, which changed its name to the CPA in early June.

Bremer prioritized “de-Baathification,” the hunt for Saddam Hussein and his inner circle, and to a much lesser extent, the search for the still elusive weapons of mass destruction. Other priorities were to bring the oil industry back into production and to set up an Iraqi governing entity. Bremer ordered the removal of most of the three top grades of ministry officials, who were seen as too close to the old regime, and disbanded the army without pay, while efforts to restore the police and civil service were hampered early on by the lack of funds for their salaries. Meanwhile, the series of raids and military operations in the pursuit of Saddam Hussein and the “Saddam loyalists” allegedly behind guerrilla attacks have made affected parts of the country even less safe for civilians.

Progress after the first 100 days in restoring basic amenities, economic activity and security for the average citizen has been painfully slow, despite claims by senior Defense Department officials that its goals were being achieved, though at a slower pace than envisaged. [6] As of the end of August, security problems continue, while looting and sabotage are holding back repairs to the electricity and water systems, and critically, the export of oil. Fuel prod-ucts are also in short supply within Iraq. As the expansive pre-war promises of the Bush administration fostered high expectations among Iraqis, Washington and London are increasingly worried by the fact that for many people, daily life is actually worse than it was before the war. In the long run, popular discontent could derail the occupying powers’ political goals.

Aloof and Incompetent

Criticisms of the CPA relate to its status as a part of the Department of Defense, to its style of operation and to its apparent lack of a clear strategy for the recovery of Iraqi society. The relationships between the CPA and the Pentagon, between the CPA and the UN and between UN humanitarian agencies and international and local NGOs working on the ground all remain tangled and unsatisfactory. Those working in the humanitarian sector attribute the aforementioned delays and failures to the lack of strategic planning, administrative muddle, persistent interdepartmental rivalries in the Bush administration and the isolation of the CPA from the population at large.

Increasingly, well-placed figures question why the Department of Defense is running reconstruction and rehabilitation programs in the first place. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador to the UN, was quoted in May saying: “If the Pentagon runs the peace in Iraq, we’re in trouble.” [7] Greenstock’s bluntness found a softer echo in the report from John Hamre and his team from the right-leaning Center for Strategic and International Studies, who were commissioned by the Pentagon to assess the post-war rebuilding effort. “The US government has chosen to use a different model for postconflict reconstruction in Iraq,” the think tank staff wrote. “Not only is it being led by the United States, but it is being led by an institution — the Department of Defense — with relatively untested capacities.” [8]

Some international NGOs have identified the absence or inadequacy of planning for reconstruction as a key problem. Aid agencies have also been struck by the “failure by coalition forces to research or understand local political contexts and a lack of effective communication between local communities/organizations and coalition forces.” [9] Once in place, the occupation administration, first ORHA and then the CPA, failed to find ways even to announce their general intentions to expectant Iraqis. For the first month of the occupation, US-British officials did not have broadcast media at their disposal. Recently, CPA spokespersons are more frequently interviewed in the press and Iraqis do have some means of registering complaints. But now the CPA-backed media, insistent on finding “good news,” is not addressing the issues that concern most Iraqis, while at the same time skimping on facilities for those hired to promote the message. The first Iraqi media chief, Ahmad al-Rikabi, quit in frustration at these problems.

The CPA posts few staff outside its heavily guarded Republican Palace headquarters in Baghdad, meaning that its operations are opaque both to Iraqis and to other organizations working in the humanitarian sector. The CPA appears to be staffed largely by people with neither much understanding of Iraq nor much experience in reconstruction and rehabilitation on a national scale. Few US military or civilian personnel seem to speak or understand any Arabic. Most civilians are on short-term secondments, meaning that lessons learned are often wasted when an individual leaves. The CPA’s information on Iraq outside the palace walls comes largely through the military, with soldiers reportedly being asked to assess matters quite outside their competence, for example, which schools should be refurbished. The other source is the Iraqi Governing Council, appointed in early July, and other former exiles who returned with US-British forces. However, these groups also appear to be increasingly cut off from society at large as security risks increase.

Fierce infighting and a confused chain of command, harking back to pre-war squabbles over Iraq policy between the Defense Department and the State Department, contributed to the incoherence in the work of ORHA and, to a lesser degree, continue to bedevil the CPA.

Sweeping Away the Old Order

The wholesale removal of the top echelons of the Iraqi civil service in Bremer’s “de-Baathification” drive has drawn fire from many quarters. However desirable it might have been to remove those loyal to the old regime, the timing and method of the purge were highly destabilizing. Under Garner, for example, the Saddam-era minister of health was dismissed, but the man chosen to replace him was rejected by the ministry staff as equally corrupt. Once Bremer was in place, most personnel in the three top levels of administration were removed, without clearly specified criteria for deciding who should go. As a result, Bremer fired many qualified technocrats simply because Baath Party membership had been required for them to get their jobs.

Arguably, de-Baathification has seriously hindered the restoration of basic services. [10] Pat Carey, senior vice president for programs at CARE (US), has contended that the CPA failed to understand and engage with the established, centralized procedures that had existed to run major services, undermining efforts to deliver safe drinking water, for instance. “In such a system, you cannot expect the body to keep functioning if the head is cut off,” he told a Congressional subcommittee on July 18.

Iraq’s ministries are now run by teams of “advisers” imported by the CPA. Some are Iraqi exiles, who were given training in administration in the US prior to the war. The majority, however, are foreigners brought in mainly from the US and Britain on short-term contracts, which last as little as three months. Inevitably, whatever the skills and good will of these advisers, they can scarcely have been prepared for the chaos that is Baghdad. It is unclear to outside observers how the advisers relate to the remaining ministry officials who are now without their senior line managers. The work of already poorly paid public officials and technical staff has been made more difficult by security problems and, until June or even in some cases July, by the lack of salaries. Some civil servants continued to work without pay, but face many obstacles in performing their jobs, with lost records, vandalized buildings and stolen equipment. The Ministry of Education has reportedly lost three fifths of its staff, and its headquarters in Baghdad was completely destroyed.

What accounts for the torturous pace of the reconstruction? One view is that Bremer is purposely refraining from restoring ministries to full operating capacity until the Iraqi Governing Council has begun to function more effectively. The Council, composed disproportionately of formerly exiled politicians who made up the notoriously fractious Iraqi opposition sponsored by the US in the 1990s, has so far proven incapable of substantive decisions. Bremer is said to be reluctant to pressure the Council to move quickly, presumably for fear of deepening the existing rifts between its members or creating new ones. However, the urgent need to have a functioning administration is rapidly becoming apparent. Furthermore, as the scale and ramifications of the task of rehabilitating Iraq grow increasingly evident, funding is becoming a serious issue. A comprehensive reconstruction plan is now seen to await the October 2003 donors’ conference in New York.

Who Will Pay

The Bush administration and CPA now face costs for the occupation that far exceed the public predictions of Washington war planners. Security problems seem likely to require maintaining larger than anticipated numbers of troops in Iraq for two years and possibly longer. After sabotage of pipelines and pumping stations in July and August, oil revenues and Iraqi frozen assets are unlikely to be sufficient to cover rehabilitation costs, as planned before the war, at least in the next fiscal year. According UN Humanitarian Coordinator Ramiro Lopez da Silva, Iraq will need $20 billion in 2004 just to keep basic services running. With oil revenues forecast to be some $15 billion, international donors will need to gather at least $5 billion simply to keep the lights on in Baghdad. The full cost of the reconstruction of Iraq and the rehabilitation of its economy could amount to more than $100 billion, according to Bremer. [11] Later, Bremer broke down that number, estimating that restoring potable water could cost $16 billion over four years, and restoring power generation could cost $13 billion over five years, just part of overall reconstruction costs that are “almost impossible to exaggerate.” [12]

The strong preference in today’s Washington to “go it alone” may not survive these practical difficulties. Congress is proving unwilling to shoulder the extra costs — particularly after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted that the military presence in Iraq by itself is draining almost $4 billion from the US Treasury on a monthly basis — and is newly enamored of burden sharing. Despite US attempts to strongarm allies into sending soldiers to relieve American troops, at press time these countries, even those like India and Pakistan with strong desires to curry favor with the White House, were refusing to do so without a new UN resolution.

But the Pentagon, perhaps backed by others in the administration, is holding out against greater UN involvement in reconstructing Iraq — unless the UN acquiesces to complete US control over major decision-making. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that while the administration “would welcome any resolution that would make it easier for countries to contribute peacekeeping troops,” he would be “very concerned” about one that would “put limitations on what Ambassador Bremer and our people can do in Iraq.” [13] The negative attitude of the CPA toward the UN is exemplified by the joke heard in its corridors that “UN stands for unnecessary.”

The UN has played a limited role in Iraq since the war. Resolution 1483, passed on May 3 and drafted by the US with British and Spanish support, lifted sanctions and empowered the US and Britain, rather than the UN, with executive authority. The resolution used such terms such as “facilitating,” “promoting” and “coordinating” to describe the UN’s tasks and assigned UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello to supervise this ill-defined mission. De Mello, whowas killed in the August 19 bomb blast at UN headquarters in Baghdad, was said to have pushed his mandate as far as he could. He was proactive in seeking a range of Iraqi opinion, in contrast to the inward-looking CPA, and was said to have some influence with Bremer. He stressed, however, that sovereignty, rather than security measures, would most effectively defuse resistance to the CPA in Iraq. [14]

Security Council Resolution 1500, passed on August 14 at the behest of the US, “welcomed” the Iraqi Governing Council, but made no mention of a wider UN role, something which a number of states, and NGOs on both sides of the Atlantic, have advocated. The resolution had little practical impact on the running of the occupation.

The bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad, and the subsequent bomb blast in Najaf that killed Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and more than 100 others, have made it much more difficult for the Bush administration to continue marginalizing the UN. There is now pressure from within the US, as well as from other states, for a compromise in the Security Council. However, there is a danger that the UN could end up with more responsibility in Iraq, but with authority still resting in the hands of the US military. In this case, the UN could remain as much of a target as the US, while having its effectiveness curtailed.

Humanitarian Dilemmas

International NGOs, particularly those from the main belligerent states, have faced a number of dilemmas with regard to Iraq since early 2003. The first was the legitimacy of the war itself. On this question, a number of NGOs, including several members of the international Oxfam family as well as the pacifist Quakers, stated openly that they disapproved of the pending invasion. Others took the well-trodden path of warning of potential consequences of conflict and stressing the necessity of planning for the population’s needs after hostilities began.

There were concerns about how closely NGOs from potential belligerent states could be seen to associate with the military and with the funding agencies of their own governments — a long-standing dilemma from previous conflicts, but one which was particularly sharp in this instance. Some NGO networks with member organizations in the the US and Britain stated at the beginning of the war that they would not take funding from belligerent governments. [15]

Efforts to plan effectively for humanitarian needs before the war were hampered by a political atmosphere in which those who did not want to see a war happen felt reluctant to put forward plans as if the invasion were already a fait accompli. The states most involved were also reluctant to share information with NGOs. In Britain, NGOs initially found the Department for International Development, the government department which provides funds in emergencies, constrained by the government’s political position of support for the Bush administration. The UN Secretariat kept its plans under wraps until a conflict was imminent, for fear of appearing to give support to one party to the clash in the Security Council.

Few NGOs were operating in Iraq before the war, and most pulled out their international staff two weeks before the Bush administration’s ultimatum expired. The UN withdrew all its international personnel once the UNMOVIC weapons inspectors left on March 18, and the Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq relocated to Larnaca in Cyprus. During the heavy fighting, there was a virtual standstill in aid efforts, except in northern Iraq. NGOs that wanted to keep a distance from the allied forces based themselves in Amman, rather than with the military in Qatar or Kuwait. In the field, it was left to the military to conduct ad hoc repairs of water pipes and electrical lines, and to dole out rations from the back of trucks — a practice that most NGOs regard as not only inappropriate but inefficient.

The 1990s saw a progressive change in the climate of operations for international NGOs, and an erosion of the multilateralism to which at least the majority of European NGOs subscribed. The launch of Bush’s “war on terrorism” after September 11 accelerated this trend. The UN was increasingly marginalized in military operations, first in Kosovo and then in Afghanistan, and new humanitarian actors appeared — the military and paramilitaries, and private providers, including commercial companies. [16] Even in 1991, during Operation Provide Comfort in northern Iraq, aid agencies worked with coalition forces to repatriate, as quickly as possible, those Iraqi Kurds who had fled to the Turkish border.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 represents the first instance where not only was the war fought over the heads of the Security Council, but the belligerent states decided to oversee post-war rehabilitation, refusing the UN a leading role despite its experience in this area. The clear intention of the Defense Department to control all operations in Iraq disturbed a number of US NGOs. InterAction, a coordinating body for US NGOs, commented in an April 2003 statement: “The Department of Defense’s efforts to marginalize the State Department and force non-governmental organizations to operate under Department of Defense jurisdiction complicated our ability to help the Iraqi people and multiplies the dangers faced by relief workers in the field.” In a letter written to Bush on December 20, 2002, InterAction had urged the White House to place responsibility for relief activities in Iraq under civilian control, advice that Bush and the Pentagon plainly disregarded.

Many aid agencies, including those in Europe, receive a significant portion of their funding from governments. But this instance, US and British aid agencies, in contrast to continental European NGOs, face the difficulty that their governments constitute the occupying power in Iraq. The larger US NGOs receive on average half or more of their funding from the US government, mainly through the US Agency for International Development. [17] Furthermore, US NGOs are under heavy pressure from the “new right” to conform to, and even promote, the government’s agenda if they want that funding to continue. Andrew Natsios, administrator of USAID, argued at an InterAction conference that aid agencies and for-profit contractors “are an arm of the US government” and should make much clearer to beneficiaries that assistance came from the US. He threatened to tear up the NGOs’ contracts and find other partners if they did not toe the line. A further subtext in this drive to increase beneficiaries’ awareness that their well-being is funded by the US is that private
companies are more likely to publicize this fact.

Risks in the Field

The number of NGOs now operating in Iraq, according to UN figures released in June, has expanded from less than ten international and 20 Iraqi NGOs (mostly operating in the Kurdish-controlled areas) to about 100. Those working in the field are dependent on the military — the US in the north and center, the British in the south — for security information, and for access to risky areas. In May and early June, when NGOs first moved back into the country, Baghdad rapidly became dangerous, even for aid workers familiar with the country. An aid worker from CARE International, which had worked in Baghdad prior to the war, commented: “The expectation was that we would go [back to Baghdad] and…assist, but the situation deteriorated so rapidly in those first few weeks in May. I didn’t expect that, and nobody did.” [18]

Until the end of August, however, most NGOs have not suffered severe harassment, or been compelled to cease operations. Carjacking and robbery is a definite hazard for aid workers, especially those traveling in conspicuous vehicles, and during this period there were several deaths and injuries, primarily of staff from ICRC and the UN World Food Program. Some areas of the country remain inaccessible, especially in the so-called “Sunni triangle” where the bulk of the post-war military operations have taken place. However, as attacks on US troops intensify and widen in scope, international NGOs, especially those identified with the US, express concern that they may become targets. The bomb blast at UN headquarters in Baghdad created a new situation, suggesting that if humanitarian workers are viewed as “soft” targets, all will be vulnerable. ICRC announced that it was withdrawing some of its staff from Iraq, and all NGOs were reviewing their security provisions and making their own decisions on how and if they can continue working in Iraq.

Despite the fact that NGO personnel often criticize the way the UN operates, most NGOs share with governments outside Bush’s “coalition of the willing” a preference for the UN to oversee humanitarian recovery, as opposed to the current bilateral approach. Some also want to see the UN shepherd the transition to an indigenous, sovereign government. Most often cited in support of these changes is the fact that, unlike the Pentagon, the UN has experience in the missions of rehabilitation, resettlement and stabilization.

Currently, UN agencies, particularly the World Food Program and UNICEF, are active in providing humanitarian assistance on the ground, but staff are said to miss sorely an overarching structure within which to work. From the end of the war, the US made it clear that while it was happy to see these agencies hand out rations, it refused to deal with any UN body that would have overall control of relief or reconstruction efforts. The UN currently holds coordinating meetings for its agencies and NGOs but there is no forum for coordination with the CPA. NGOs are often mystified as to what the CPA’s intentions are in any given realm, and equally confusing is the array of players in the humanitarian field. Currently, according again to Ramiro Lopez da Silva, needs assessments are being carried out by military civil affairs officers, private contractors hired by the occupying powers, USAID Disaster Assistance Response Teams, NGOs and UN agencies.

In Iraq, USAID and the US Army Corps of Engineers have awarded contracts for large infrastructural works — the largest so far to Bechtel at $680 million — but they are also hiring or subcontracting private firms to work in areas usually considered part of NGOs’ province, like health care, education, training and capacity building. The larger US NGOs are more accustomed to working with private contractors, but some British NGOs object on several scores. Private companies do not necessarily have the appropriate skills or methods to target assistance effectively. Secondly, the strict hierarchy of big corporations can be galling even for larger NGOs. Coordination, as one field worker noted, means that “they coordinate us.” The third concern is that companies with educational curriculum or health insurance packages designed for the US simply import them into Iraq, where they are unlikely to be appropriate.

Many NGOs now attempt to involve local communities in rehabilitation and development, and they have welcomed the appearance of new local government and community organizations in some parts of the country in response to the vacuum of power at the center. The main challenge will be to build upon these local initiatives to create a new, more participatory political order.

Rebuilding Iraqi Society

Years and billions of dollars will be needed to refurbish Iraq’s ailing infrastructure after years of sanctions, war damage and neglect. An immediate concern is how basic services will be maintained in the interim. But in the view of many NGOs, the focus on infrastructure, however important, misses the key elements in rebuilding Iraq society. These are the revival of viable livelihoods and sources of income for the majority of the population and the participation of Iraqi citizens in decisions affecting their lives at local and national levels.

Viable livelihoods have been undermined by three wars and 13 years of sanctions. The Oil for Food program improved nutrition, especially among children, and lowered prices of basic goods, but it still left many of the poorest households without breadwinners, wholly dependent on rations for survival. The deepest poverty is to be found in the south, where the infrastructure was worst damaged in the Iran-Iraq war and particularly neglected since 1990. Agriculture in the south has long been in crisis. The World Food Program, in a survey of chronic poverty in central-south districts finalized in May 2003, found an overall chronic poverty rate of 21 percent despite state-provided rations and subsidies. Chronic poverty is defined as households’ inability over long periods of time to meet their basic needs for food, water, clothing, shelter, health and basic education. In many areas of the south, around Basra and along the Iranian border, the rates were up to 50-80 percent. [19]

Living standards could easily erode further in the postwar period. The previous government distributed several months’ worth of rations before the war and from June, ration distributions resumed. But with the formal economy having virtually ground to a halt, household income has dropped dramatically. NGOs report from household needs assessments that there is widespread unemployment in urban areas and still limited or sporadic payment of wages and social benefits such as pensions. Some people engaged in opportunistic petty trade, mainly in the informal sector, have benefited from the US policy of open borders, but many small businesses are still struggling with the impact of security problems, electricity and fuel shortages. In May, Save the Children (UK) conducted its first structured assessment of the vulnerability of poorer communities in Baghdad. “The lack of economic or government activity has left many families dependent on rich relatives or selling household assets to survive…. In the poor district of Shu‘la in Baghdad, a quarter of the families interviewed in depth…had no income at all.” [20]

The wars and repression of the last decades have also left many households headed by women, older people or those who have disabilities. These households, which often have many dependents and few or no earners, are among the most vulnerable. Internal displacement, dating back to the Iran-Iraq war and the bloody crackdowns after the 1991 uprisings, also appears as a factor in chronic poverty. Many displaced communities, and families which lost heads of household in the Iran-Iraq war, live on the edges of cities — primarily Baghdad and Basra, but also ‘Amara and Nasiriyya — in the poorest-quality housing with the worst or no public services. The three northern governorates that were under Kurdish control before the war did not suffer the direct impact from the war, but disruptions in the economy because of uncertainties in the months before the war also depleted incomes. The Kurdish administrations were short of funds and Save the Children (UK) reported on June 12 that civil servants received no salaries between January and April.

High levels of food dependency characterize present-day Iraq. It has been estimated that 60 percent of the population is wholly or partially dependent on the monthly rations that have been in place since 1990. The lifting of sanctions under Resolution 1483, which stipulated the gradual phasing out of the Oil for Food program, means that the World Food Program will cease distribution of rations by November 2003. While in the longer term it is important to end this dependency by restarting economic activity and increasing employment and income, in the short term the rations continue to be critical to family survival. At a press briefing in Baghdad on August 9, Bremer said that the CPA takes “very seriously our commitment to continue the food ration program…. We are, of course, examining what the most rational use is in the future.” A government-run ration system would appear to be out of keeping with the CPA’s other commitment, to neo-liberal economics.

The US quite openly aims to promote privatization and “free trade” in Iraq, and Bremer says he is engaged in “very intense dialogue” with the Iraqi Governing Council on the subject. [21] US companies have a large new market in which to work and it may be argued that privatizing the Iraqi economy will create opportunities for Iraqis to profit from the country’s prodigious oil wealth. The Bush administration and the CPA are betting heavily on this argument. “I believe the future is hopeful,” said Bremer in a typical statement. “This is inherently a very rich country…. They have great resources in their oil, their land, their potential for tourism. They are well-educated.” [22] But the CPA’s grandiose plans take little account of the scale of poverty and economic dependency that now exists. The experience of privatization in other heavily centralized economies, the classic case being parts of the former Soviet Union, is that the poorest and most vulnerable tend to lose ground rather than climbing onto the economic ladder.

As Amnesty International has pointed out, after decades of suffering abuses of their political rights under a brutal and authoritarian regime, and the negative impact of economic sanctions on their economic and social rights, Iraqis should have a chance to participate in an open and transparent process of reconstruction. [23] If Iraq is to become a more democratic and equitable society, the occupation cannot leave a substantial proportion of its citizens marginalized and impoverished.


[1] Foreign Affairs Committee (UK), Second Report Session 2002-2003, Foreign Aspects of the War Against Terrorism (HC 196), p. 41.
[2] Max Rodenbeck, “The Occupation,” New York Review of Books, August 14, 2003.
[3] Guardian, August 19, 2003.
[4] Save the Children Fund (UK), “Iraq Emergency Update,” June 12, 2003.
[5] Center for Strategic and International Studies, A Wiser Peace: An Action Strategy for Post-Conflict Iraq (Washington, DC, January 2003).
[6] Associated Press, May 8, 2003.
[7] Reuters, May 2, 2003.
[8] Center for Strategic and International Studies, Iraq’s Post-Conflict Reconstruction: A Field Review and Recommendations (Washington, DC, July 17, 2003), p. 9.
[9] Christian Aid, memorandum to the International Development Committee (UK) inquiry, evidence session with the Secretary of State for International Development: Iraq, May 2003.
[10] Christian Aid, addendum to memorandum to the International Development Committee (UK) inquiry, evidence session with the Secretary of State for International Development: Iraq, June 2003.< br /> [11] Financial Times, August 1, 2003.
[12] Washington Post, August 27, 2003.
[13] Washington Post, August 2, 2003.,br /> [14] Guardian, August 21, 2003.
[15] Reuters Alertnet, May 19, 2003.
[16] Humanitarian Practice Network, Humanitarian Action and the “Global War on Terror”: A Review of Trends and Issues, HPG Report (July 14, 2003), ch. 1.,br /> [17] Ibid. p. 29.
[18] Arnoud Hekkens, interviewed by Radio Netherlands, July 22, 2003.
[19] UN World Food Program, The Extent and Geographic Distribution of Chronic Poverty in Iraq’s Center-South Region (May 2003).
[20] Save the Children (UK), memorandum submitted to the Select Committee on International Development, June 3, 2003.
[21] Washington Post, August 27, 2003.
[22] Los Angeles Times, August 25, 2003.
[23] Amnesty International, On Whose Behalf? Human Rights and the Economic Reconstruction Process in Iraq (June 20, 2003).

How to cite this article:

Sarah J Graham-Brown "Multiplier Effect," Middle East Report 228 (Fall 2003).

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