Humanitarian situation in Iraq 'close to disaster'

Humanitarian situation in Iraq 'close to disaster'
As a coalition of countries prepare to meet in Paris to review efforts to defeat Islamic State, the UN describes the humanitarian situation in Iraq as 'close to disaster'.
6 min read
01 June, 2015
Iraqis displaced by ongoing conflict arrive in Kirkuk on August 7, 2014 [Getty]

Humanitarian organisations are preparing to launch a fundraising appeal for $500 million (454 million euros) for the crisis created by the Islamic State group in Iraq, UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency said on Monday.  

The announcement came a day ahead of a meeting in Paris of the US-led coalition of countries working to defeat the IS in Iraq and Syria.   

"The humanitarian situation in Iraq is close to disaster. We urgently need extra resources in order to continue assistance," Philippe Heffinck, UNICEF's representative in Iraq, said in a statement in French.  

According to the UN agency, eight million Iraqis are in urgent need of humanitarian aid, in particular the roughly three million people who have been forced to flee their homes since the start of the IS offensive in June 2014.  

Access, however, has been hampered by the fighting and a lack of funding is now even threatening such humanitarian assistance as has been possible, UNICEF said.   

As a result, all those organisations currently active in Iraq would in Brussels on Thursday launch "a fundraising appeal for nearly $500 million to cover relief operations over the next six months", the agency added. 

Anti-IS strategy 'under scrutiny'

Ministers from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are expected to be among 24 participants attending the anti-IS coalition meeting in Paris on Tuesday.

The US-led coalition of some 60 nations was formed last year after IS went on a rampage across Iraq and Syria, seizing key territory upon which it declared 'a caliphate'.  

The main focus of the meeting will be the situation in Iraq, where IS seized the city of Ramadi two weeks ago in the biggest blow to the coalition since it began bombarding militants positions in August. 

The meeting comes after a series of shock battlefield gains by the extremists, with Iraq under pressure to step up its fight by being more inclusive of the Sunni minority.  

US Secretary of State John Kerry will take part in the talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other diplomats "remotely" after breaking his leg in a cycling accident, the State Department said.  

"We are going to discuss Iraq, how to get Daesh (IS) to retreat," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week, warning Baghdad over sectarian tensions which experts say are impeding the country's ability to counter the militants.  

"We engaged militarily but with a political condition: that the government be inclusive, that means bringing everyone together, Shia, Sunnis and Kurds."   

"I am saying clearly that this needs to be better respected from now on," Fabius said in separate comments to parliament.   

French foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said that while the talks would centre on Iraq, "taking into account the battlefield and the overlapping of the situation, Syria will also be discussed."   

Washington piles up the pressure

But with no one willing to send troops into battle, the campaign has relied on air strikes and efforts to arm and train Iraqi government troops and Sunni tribesmen.  

However IS capture of Ramadi, followed days later by the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, has raised questions about the efficacy of the coalition's current strategy.  

It has also exposed and deepened sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunnis in Iraq. 

As part of the efforts to address the schism between the two communities, preparations are also underway for another conference in the French capital to be attended by Sunni Iraqi figures later in June, though the details are yet to be announced.  

     Reconciliation is not just a settlement among political elites

A source in Iraq’s secular National Coalition headed by former prime minister Iyad Allwai, speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Araby al-Jadeed that Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi “is coming under pressure from the US and France to accept national reconciliation, without which  both Washington and Paris fear the country may be dragged into civil war."

He added that "Washington is using the card of arming the Sunnis and the Kurds to put pressure on the PM to accept national reconciliation.”  

Abadi has already met with some Sunni opposition figuers ahead of the formal start of the conference , including former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi, Baath party leaders, and Sunni armed groups commanders.”  

For her part, an adviser to the Iraqi parliament speaker for National Reconciliation, Wiha al-Jumaili insisted that for it to work, reconcilation must be more that a political settlement:

“Reconciliation is not just a settlement among political elites. It should be based on a legal foundation such as a [new] National Reconciliation Law.”   

“What is termed national reconciliation today is little more than power sharing among political elites. Restoring stability can only be achieved by adopting a national reconciliation law based on truth and openness. But it should also include assurances for the Shia community and for their gains in government by law.”   

A spokesman at Prime Minister Abadi’s office said insisted that the Abadi will present Iraq's position at the Paris conference....and what it wants from the international coalition not only militarliy, but also at the humanitarian and economic levels, and the role of the coalition in stopping the flow of militants and weakening the financial abilities of IS.” 

He added that the Prime Minister will brief  the meeting on the efforts by the Iraqi government to achieve national partnership and a broad and diverse representation of Iraqi political and social components, in the context of national reconciliation.” 

But Magdalena Kirchner of the German thinktank DGAP said efforts to include the Sunni politically "are not working at all" due to deeply ingrained suspicion between the two sides.   

The coalition has pushed for Sunni tribal fighters to be trained to fight the largely Sunni IS fighters in their own areas, but Baghdad is reticent to arm a population it fears may turn on it.   

Washington itself has sent thousands of military advisers to train Sunni tribal fighters and help reform Iraq's shambolic army.  

Part of the hope was that better preparing the Sunnis to defend themselves would halt the spread of Shia militias loyal to Tehran.  

But faced with the collapse of security forces during the fall of Ramadi, Baghdad reluctantly sent in the Iranian-backed Hashed al-Shaabi umbrella organisation for Shia militia and volunteers which helped government forces retake an area west of the city on Saturday.  

Observers and politicians have warned that sectarianism in Iraq could be the death knell to efforts to combat IS.  

"A way must be found to achieve what has so far proved most elusive: an end to the alienation of Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria, the most powerful engine of attraction for Islamic State recruits," Middle East expert John McLaughlin wrote in an analysis for the Brookings Institute on Saturday.   

"This latter goal would require a combination of military pressure, persuasion and diplomacy of heroic scale. But the truth is that nothing else will work."