Qaim, Haditha, Rawa. What do you think when you hear these words? Americans, the British, and other Westerners may associate them with names like Operation “Rivergate,” “Iron Fist,” “Steel Curtain,” and other recent Multi National Forces – Iraq (MNF-I) operations. For Iraqis and many Arabs they signify the Iraqis’ ongoing suffering as a result of the Occupation. For the children and families who lived in these areas, these names simply meant home. Inside Iraq today there are thousands of internally displaced refugees from cities that have faced assault by the MNF-I and Iraqi forces, including Qaim and Rawa in the Anbar province.
The Anbar province of Iraq has long been considered the major base of military opposition to the interim government and MNF-I forces. Whether from foreign insurgents or Iraqi resistance fighters, conflict in this area of Iraq has been fairly continuous since the occupation of Iraq began in May of 2003. After the second major assault on Fallujah in November 2004, similar assaults began around the rest of Al Anbar province. Al Anbar, is a huge province, mostly desert, and has a frontier nature. The areas of western Iraq where opposition has appeared are also areas with little communication and control from the central government in Baghdad. It was after these areas found support and security from opposition forces that MNF-I operations began there. Ramadi was one of the next major assaults after Fallujah, and larger strikes continued this summer and fall in Tal Afar and Qaim.
Qaim was a thriving town of 150,000 before the recent American operations there. Now these thousands of people are refugees, surviving wherever the can. Many Qaim residents have found shelter in an abandoned phosphate factory about one hour east of Qaim, in a place known as Akashaat. Under the previous regime Akashaat was a small community constructed around the phosphate factory, with houses and a small market built specifically for the workers. Until recently the factory and houses were completely abandoned, after the factory was shutdown.
When International Peace Angels, a humanitarian aid agency, traveled to Akashaat three weeks ago, they found between three hundred fifty and five hundred families living in the abandoned buildings. These buildings have no doors, and the glass in the windows was long since removed, either by the previous owners or Bedouin scavengers. There is no running water and no electricity. Rana Alaiouby, the director of International Peace Angels explains, “They have to travel to Rutbah to bring water back in tankers.” Rutbah is close to seventy-five kilometers from Akashaat. “We brought them medicine, food, and blankets, because this is what they asked us for,” states Alaiouby.
Many of Iraq’s internal refugees depend on local Iraqi NGOs for assistance. The United Nations has many other responsibilities in Iraq, and so has not provided adequate aid to refugees. The Iraqi government and the international reconstruction efforts have overlooked the desperate need for housing and basic infrastructure in these areas.
The formation of a new Iraqi government is not expected to change the situation for these refugees. During the recent Constitutional Referendum refugees could not vote because they had no access to polling places. Most of Iraq’s internal refugees are Sunna, and they are now desperately poor, although many were financially stable before the military actions in their communities. Their lack of representation in the current Iraqi Interim Government, and lack of political influence as the new government forms, makes it unlikely they will receive aid or redress from the government.
The refugee situation has far-reaching consequences for the Iraqi government and the Multinational forces. Many of the refugees originally lived in Al Anbar province, and many have settled close-by. This part of Iraq, also known as the “Sunni Triangle,” has become a stronghold for the Iraqi resistance. As residents of Al Anbar see little support from the official reconstruction effort, elements of the Resistance arrive to provide support and resources, converting the towns into basecamps for the Resistance. As the MNF-I takes notice, seeing these town as a threat to the stability of the Iraqi interim government, towns are cordoned off from outside interference in preparation for assault.
Ghazi Farhan, manager of the Amman office of Ezz El Iraq, described the process before the assault on Rawa, “When the American troops want to enter a city, the first step is they close the city. They don’t let people get outside or inside the city. They bomb it with the helicopters. They enter the city and search inside the houses for weapons and men.. After they surround the city, some organizations try to help those people by medical supplies and food, but the American forces don’t allow them. They cut the electricity, the water also. If there is a patient there they don’t allow him to go to the hospital. That is exactly what happened in Rawa, they didn’t allow the medical supplies or food into the city.” After the assault, many of these cities have been functionally destroyed, leaving tens of thousands of refugees and strengthening the support for the Resistance, beginning the cycle once again.
There is a way out of this vicious cycle. Hanna Ibrahim, the director of Women’s Will Body, another NGO that provides aid to internal refugees and detainees, presents her analysis of the situation in Al Anbar. “If the government deals with the water and electricity problems, if they solve the unemployment problem, then the people in Al Anbar will not be involved in the Resistance anymore.”
The refugee families living in Akashaat are living without these basic necessities, and almost all aid comes from small organizations, most of them local. They have little hope for government assistance.. The new Iraqi Constitution, and the new government to be elected in December, provide the people of Akashaat with one hope: an MNF-I withdrawal. If they survive long enough, these families then hope to return to their homes and try to reconstruct their lives.