Iraq: Population racked by heavy burden of decades of conflict

15-03-2013 Operational Update

Ten years after the intervention in Iraq by the US-led coalition in March 2003, the Iraqi population is still affected by multiple humanitarian consequences of the ongoing violence. Access to essential basic services such as healthcare and clean water remains a challenge for many Iraqis, especially in rural and violence prone-areas. In 2013, the ICRC is continuing its efforts to help the Iraqi population, through its activities across the country.

Decades of conflict and economic sanctions in Iraq have caused deep scars, leaving the country's infrastructure unable to cover the needs of a growing population. Ongoing violence in many areas affects the lives of Iraqi civilians and continues to hamper the country's recovery. Basic public services, especially health care, are at risk from the prevailing insecurity.

Drought, compounded by falling levels of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, has led to lower water-table levels and chronic water shortages. Outflow of river water into the sea has reduced and salt water is filtering back into the rivers, causing the progressive salinization of the soil in southern Iraq. In addition, overuse and poor maintenance of water systems prevent its efficient distribution. According to World Bank estimates (2010), nine per cent of the urban population and nearly half of people in rural areas lacked access to safe drinking water.

Due to these water shortages, damage to the irrigation systems and higher prices for seeds and other necessities, farmers are cultivating smaller areas; this poses a threat to agriculture as a key source of livelihood.

Iraq is still littered with an estimated 25 million mines and other explosive remnants of war, in particular along its borders with Iran and Turkey, putting around 1.6 million Iraqis at risk.

In addition, thousands of families across the country are still seeking to clarify the fate of their missing relatives. An estimated one and a half million widows face extreme difficulties in supporting their families.

In 2013, the ICRC is pursuing its efforts to help the Iraqi population in the most affected regions. To be able to do so, it will maintain its dialogue with all relevant bodies and stakeholders in the country. It will also continue assisting people most in need, without discrimination. The ICRC’s Iraq operation is its second largest in 2013, after Afghanistan.

The ICRC delegation in Iraq is based in Baghdad and works through 11 field offices; it has some 850 staff, including 750 Iraqi nationals.

Activities in 2012

The ICRC extended its presence in areas most affected by violence, notably in the disputed territories in the north as well as in central Iraq. It assisted vulnerable people and communities, notably female breadwinners, people with disabilities, impoverished farmers and internally displaced people (IDPs). It focused on strengthening health and physical rehabilitation services, improving access to clean water and responding to humanitarian emergencies.

The ICRC also supported the Iraqi authorities in their efforts to clarify the fate of the missing and monitored the conditions of detention and treatment of people deprived of freedom. It promoted respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) among decision makers and weapon bearers and strengthened its cooperation with the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS), notably in enabling Iraqis to restore or maintain contact with family members, in particular with detained relatives.

Action on behalf of detainees

The ICRC visits detainees to assess their treatment and conditions of detention. In 2012, the ICRC:

  • conducted 231 visits to 109 places of detention;
  • visited more than 38,000 detainees held under the Iraqi central authorities or the Kurdish regional authorities, of whom 1,000 were followed-up individually;
  • helped improve the living conditions of more than 3,000 detainees (rehabilitation of the infrastructure, upgrading of water and sanitation, enabling access to fresh air).

Nearly 3,500 detainees, including juveniles and women, benefited from distribution of various assistance materials. The ICRC also worked with the Iraqi justice authorities to promote respect for detainees' basic judicial guarantees.  

Restoring contacts between detainees and their families

The ICRC enables detainees to restore or maintain contact with their families by exchanging news through Red Cross messages (in cooperation with the IRCS). In 2012:
• 1,953 messages were exchanged;
• more than 12,700 phone calls from families looking for a detained or missing relative were processed.

The ICRC issued 107 travel documents to people without passports, mainly refugees, who had been granted resettlement in a third country. At the request of families, the ICRC also attempted to locate 81 people, including Iraqis living in Libya with whom contact was lost as a result of the armed conflict.

Clarifying the fate of the missing

The ICRC continued to support the Iraqi authorities in their efforts to clarify the fate of the tens of thousands still unaccounted for as a result of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and the 1990-1991 Gulf War. In 2012, the ICRC:

  • facilitated five joint Iraqi-Iranian excavation missions, resulting in the recovery and repatriation of hundreds of sets of human remains;
  • helped arrange two joint Iraq-Kuwait excavation missions (no human remains were recovered);
  • arranged training courses by international forensic experts.

Strengthening health care services

In coordination with the Iraqi health authorities, the ICRC renovates and upgrades facilities and helps to strengthen medical services, through training in emergency management and war surgery. In 2012 the ICRC:

  • provided training to improve the professional and management skills of staff at health care centres, ensuring improved curative care for over 400,000 people, notably women and children;
  • rehabilitated four primary health care centres.
  • Helping people with disabilities to resume a normal life

The ICRC has provided limb-fitting and physical rehabilitation services to people with disabilities since 1993. It runs its own centre in Erbil and supports 11 other physical rehabilitation centres. In 2012, the ICRC:

  • provided physical rehabilitation services to almost 33,500 beneficiaries, half of them amputees;
  • delivered almost 4,000 prostheses and 14,213 orthoses, as well as wheelchairs and crutches;
  • organised three post graduate training courses and paid for seven Iraqi technicians to attend international training courses.

The ICRC also provided funding to enable 202 breadwinners to launch an income-generating activity.

Assisting female breadwinners

ICRC assists female breadwinners who face severe hardship because their husbands have been killed, arrested, disabled by war injuries, or are missing. It helps them to register with the Iraq's welfare system and offers them grants to start small businesses and become financially independent. In 2012:

  • 608 female breadwinners received ICRC grants, enabling them to set up small businesses;
  • with the support of local NGOs and the ICRC, almost 4,000 female breadwinners (with close to 16,000 dependents) were helped to apply for social assistance. They also received cash payments from the ICRC to offset costs.

The ICRC continued its dialogue with the Directorate of Women and Social Care and the authorities concerned to improve the living conditions of female breadwinners.

Boosting the productive capacity of rural communities

The ICRC helps poor farmers improve their livelihood by increasing their agricultural production in a sustainable way and helping them restock their herds. In 2012, the ICRC:

  • assisted over 7,000 farmers and their families (more than 45,000 people in total) through community-based income-support projects;
  • contributed to improving their livelihoods by rehabilitating irrigation infrastructure, providing greenhouses, drip irrigation systems, seeds and tools and by supporting livestock vaccination.

More than 500 farmers also received cash payments for repairing irrigation channels and for land reclamation work.

Assisting IDPs and vulnerable residents

Many Iraqis are struggling to earn a living and provide for their families. The ICRC helps people most in need in violence-prone and remote rural areas. In 2012:

  • with the support of the IRCS, the ICRC distributed essential household and hygiene items to nearly 27,000 people, mostly IDPs in group settlements around the country; 
  • some 10,000 particularly vulnerable IDPs also received additional one-off food rations.

In close coordination with UNHCR, the ICRC also distributed essential household and hygiene items, as well as food rations to some 1,200 Syrian refugees.

Improving access to clean drinking water and sanitation

ICRC engineers repair and upgrade water, electrical and sanitation facilities, with a view to improving the quality of services and infrastructures.

In 2012, more than 1.4 million people had improved access to safe water through the upgrading and construction of 27 water facilities. Among its most significant interventions, the ICRC:

  • installed six water pumps benefiting half a million people in Abu-Khistawi, Babil governorate;
  • organised 20 training sessions for 402 technicians.

In addition, it rehabilitated five water supply systems, allowing 24,600 IDPs to receive safe drinking water in different places of the country. In August, it constructed latrines and showers benefiting 589 Syrian refugees in Al-Qaim.

Dealing with the threat of unexploded ordnance

In 2012, the ICRC, in coordination with the Iraqi army, local authorities, the IRCS and the Regional Mine Action Centre, cleared 958 pieces of ordnance in Missan governorate, providing a safer environment for more than 6,000 civilians.

The ICRC supported the IRCS in raising awareness about the risks posed by weapon contamination, encouraging some 37,000 people living in dangerous areas to adopt safer behaviour.  

Promoting respect for international humanitarian law (IHL)

ICRC staff regularly hold information sessions on IHL for government officials, weapon bearers, community/religious/tribal leaders, journalists and  academics.

In 2012, the ICRC organised seminars on integrating IHL into decision-making processes for 87 unit commanders and led courses for 27 future IHL instructors of the Kurdistan Peshmerga forces. The ICRC also organised information sessions on international legal norms for 920 members of the Iraqi Armed Forces and police officers.

Cooperating with the Iraqi Red Crescent Society

The ICRC helps the IRCS develop its ability to deliver humanitarian services and to help people separated from their relatives to restore contact and exchange family news.

The ICRC supports the IRCS in its Explosive Remnants of War awareness programme, to educate communities about the risks of explosive devices.

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