Iraq + 6 more

InterAction member activity report: "Iraq, its Neighbors and Lebanon" Mar 2003

Situation Report
Originally published


A Guide to Humanitarian and Development Efforts of InterAction Member Agencies in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Lebanon
March 2003

Background Summary


Wars, sanctions, shifting alliances, and massive flows of civilians have created precarious political, economic and humanitarian situations in the region that includes Iraq, its neighbors, and Lebanon. Issues of ethnicity, religious and political affiliation, and nationality have been significant factors throughout the course of recent history, and further complicate the region's present state of affairs.

Regional Politics

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 was a watershed event that shaped Middle Eastern politics for the next decade. The support that Iraq enjoyed from many of the Arab states in its war with Iran was quickly lost. Saudi Arabia, like Turkey, was wary of Iraq's hegemonic intentions, and was quick to offer support for U.N. coalition forces. Syria, which has been an antagonist of Iraq's since the ruling Ba'ath Party split into rival Syrian and Iraqi factions in 1960, also sided against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. This move helped break Syria out of its long isolation in the Arab world, which was due largely to its support of Iran in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. The usually moderate government of Jordan was pressured by its majority Palestinian population into condemning the war. Iraq's consistent hard- line approach against Israel in favor of the Palestinians earned it political support from Jordan, a move that shocked the rest of the Arab world.

Unlike the other members of the region, Lebanon was only indirectly affected by the war. Its 16-year old civil war ended in 1991 but a Syrian army presence of 25,000 troops, based mostly in Beirut, continues to dictate Lebanese politics. Other Arab countries have consistently pressured Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, while Iraq has attempted to undermine Syria's de facto control over Lebanon by supplying the Lebanese Armed Forces with military equipment. Nevertheless, on the pretext of maintaining the peace, and much to the chagrin of its Arab neighbors, Syria has refused to reduce its military presence in Beirut and as a result, ha s continued to exercise political dominance in Lebanon.

Initially all of the countries in the region agreed to support the comprehensive, multilateral UN sanctions regime that was imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait. However, many of these countries are now showing signs of "sanction fatigue" and have expressed their opposition to what they consider especially harsh and ultimately ineffective sanctions. Jordan and Turkey, which lost important parts of their foreign trade due to the sanctions, are now engaging in up to $2 billion a year in illicit trade with Iraq. Moreover, Syria reopened its borders with Iraq for businessmen in 1997, a significant thaw in the traditionally cold relations between the two countries.

Cultural Ties

Underlying these political and economic relations is a web of ethnic and religious ties that spans the region. The historic split between Sunni and Shi'ite Islam continues to be a dynamic factor. Iran has an overwhelming Shi'ite majority and sponsors Shi'ism throughout the region, including through the provision of support for Iraqi Shi'ites and the militant Shi'ite party Hezbollah that is active in Lebanon and Syria. In Iraq, the Shi'ite majority, estimated at 60-65% of the total population and concentrated in the country's southern regions, presents a significant counterweight to the Sunni-controlled government in Baghdad. The Kuwaiti government is also wary of Iranian influence in its country because of the potential for insurgence among its 25% Shi'ite minority.

The presence of significant Christian populations in the region has been another source of tension. Lebanon has a 30% Christian minority, while Syria and Jordan have 10% and 6% Christian minorities, respectively.

The movement for an independent Kurdistan also plays an important role in regional politics. With an estimated population of 20 million in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, Kurds represent the largest ethnic group in the world without a sovereign state. In Turkey, Kurds make up almost 20% of the population and are concentrated almost entirely in the economically depressed eastern portion of the country. A bloody and protracted Kurdish nationalist movement in southeastern Turkey has made the Kurdish issue a top priority for Turkey in its dealings with its eastern neighbors. Syrian support for the Kurdish insurgents in Turkey almost brought the two countries into direct confrontation until an agreement was reached between them in 1998 whereby Syria promised to cease support and disband Kurdish military camps in Lebanon. In Iraq, a Kurdish revolt in the north in 1991 brought harsh reprisals from the central government. Eventually UN coalition forces in Iraq created a protective military umbrella north of the 36th parallel that has provided the Kurdish populations with de facto autonomy.

Humanitarian Issues

The history of warfare in the region has created one of the heaviest concentrations of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world. The Iranian government claims to have the world's largest refugee population at 2.55 million in 2001. Of those, 2,355,000 were Afghans, many of whom have now returned home. The remainder are mostly Shi'ites and Kurds from Iraq. In the western portion of the region, the vast majority of refugees are Palestinians, almost 2 million spread throughout Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait host an additional 165,000 Palestinians. Kuwait is also home to 120,000 stateless Arabs known as Bidoons.

The region's Kurdish populations present a complex of humanitarian issues. The 15-year secessionist movement in Turkey, and the economic disruption it caused, created between 400,000 and 1 million internally displaced Kurds, although the government often denies their status as IDPs. The majority of Iraq's 700,000 IDPs are Kurds who were displaced during the war and are living north of the 36th parallel. Iraq is also host to 13,100 Kurdish refugees from Turkey. Another 200,000 stateless Turkish Kurds live in northeastern Syria, where they have been denied citizenship by the Syrian government.

In Iran, the refugee problem is exacerbated by two natural disasters that are reaching humanitarian crisis levels. The first is the alarming increase of floods in northwestern Iran, the most recent of which destroyed a total of 4,300 ha of agricultural land and directly or indirectly affected some 200,000 people. The second is in the southeast, where the Hamun lake region (which spreads into Afghanistan) has been transformed from abundant wetlands into a dustbowl. Hundreds of thousands of people in Iran and Afghanistan have been affected by the crisis that resulted from 5 consecutive years of drought and the mismanagement of the Hamun's tributary rivers.

By far the region's greatest humanitarian crisis is in Iraq. Two consecutive wars followed by over a decade of crippling sanctions have debilitated the country's economy and infrastructure. Since 1990, health indicators have plummeted as access to clean water and basic health care have become increasingly rare. In 1998, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 5,000 to 6,000 children die every month due to the scarcity of food and medicine. The Oil- for-Food Program, initiated in 1995, has stemmed the tide of the crisis, but has fallen well short of resolving it. Aid organizations are severely restricted in their activities due to the sanctions regime, and are consistently slowed by UN bureaucratic procedures. Moreover, if the present situation were to deteriorate even further, the lack of infrastructure in Iraq would be a serious impediment to any organized response. Some speculate that a war in Iraq could result in up to 1.5 million Iraqis fleeing the country, mostly in the directions of Iran and Turkey.

Iran, which is struggling to provide for its present refugee population, recently announced that it is ready to accept up to 500,000 displaced Iraqis. Turkey is presently discussing plans to set up six refugee camps in northern Iraq that would be able to house 250,000 people. Turkish officials remain determined to prevent a repeat of the refugee situation that resulted from the 1991 Gulf War, when 500,000 Iraqi Kurds fled toward Turkey's borders. Jordan is concerned not only about the possible influx of Iraqi refugees (1.5 million during the 1991 Gulf War), but also with the possible arrival of Palestinian refugees who may be forced out by Israel.

Agencies concerned about a potential humanitarian disaster in Iraq are concerned about the unwillingness of most of Iraq's neighbors to accept new refugees. Moreover, many of the agencies have encountered significant barriers to contingency planning and the pre-positioning of goods and supplies. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has not been issuing the licenses required under the sanction regime for American agencies to conduct assessments in Iraq and Iran and to actually implement projects. As a result, agencies are finding themselves unable to properly prepare for a new crisis in Iraq.

Report Summary

This report offers international agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the media and the public an overview of the humanitarian and development assistance being provided to the people of the Iraq, its neighbors, and Lebanon, by InterAction member agencies.

Over forty member organizations submitted information on their current or planned relief and development operations for the countries covered in this report. The programs address a broad range of sectors, including: agriculture and food security; business development; disaster and emergency relief; education and training; gender issues; health care and medical training; infrastructure rehabilitation; refugee and IDP protection and assistance; rural development; and water and sanitation.

Eastern Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have the greatest concentration of member agencies. Only a handful of agencies are working directly in Iraq, while others are supporting non- member NGOs who are active in Iraq. Numerous agencies that did not submit reports are interested in working in Iraq, but are having trouble receiving OFAC licensing. Some of the agencies in this report have begun observations and contingency planning from offices in neighboring countries. No members submitted reports for programs in Kuwait.

The agencies in this report have presented various objectives for their programs in the region. Many deal with addressing the immediate needs of the refugee/IDP population through the distribution of food and non- food supplies, provision of health care services, etc. Some agencies focus especially on credit and micro financing for small businesses. Other common themes among program objectives include education, agriculture and infrastructure rehabilitation.

Many of the agencies in this report work with the support of, or in coordination with, local and international partners, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Member agencies also frequently work closely with local and national governments to accomplish their objectives.

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