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Notes from… Iraq

1 June 2006

Interview: Mark Lattimer, Director of MRG

When Mark Lattimer, director of MRG, was in Iraq earlier this month, he missed the world cup fever that was clearing the streets of people in London every evening. In Baghdad, Iraqis were far more concerned with a different contest – their own FA cup, and the streets of the city were empty in the evenings for a very different reason: the curfew.

Football has a special place in Iraqi cultural life. Young boys play on the streets after school much as they do all over the world. Each area has its team with its heroes to cheer. But it is almost impossible to play football in the 45 degree heat of the Baghdad summer. And how to have a match in the evenings when it is cool, if everyone has to be off the streets by 8pm?

An offer came from the Kurdistani regional government: they would host the cup final there. But for the fans in Baghdad who have followed every game, this was no comfort. Even the most ardent fan would think twice about trying to travel out of Baghdad, through Ba’aqubah where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaida was killed, and north towards the Kurd-controlled area.

Across this vast land, from the mountains, down through the plains of Ninevah (one of the centres of Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation campaign,) to the winding streets of Baghdad, it seems that the only thing that travels in Iraq is fear.

There might be optimism about the new government from people in the green zone in Baghdad, but it doesn’t extend to those living outside the area. They testify that the situation is worsening every day. Their living conditions, with no running water and no electricity, are deteriorating. Communities are being slowly destroyed as different professions are being targeted until a neighbourhood can’t be sustained anymore. First the bakers, then the barbers, then the grocers, until finally no one is left. The predictions that Iraq is on the edge of splintering into fragments get more and more serious, and fragmentation could have dire consequences for 10 per cent of the population who do not belong in the three majority groups of Arab Sunni, Shi’a and Kurd.

This 10 per cent is made up of the Turkomans, the Armenians, Baha’is, Chaldo Assyrians, Fayli Kurds, Shabaks, Mandians, and Yezidis. A list of where these peoples come from reads like a map of oil fields and battlegrounds: Basra, Mosul, Kirkuk, Baghdad. Many live on the borders between the majority groups, and are caught in the power struggles over land. As the new Iraqi state comes into existence, very little attention is being given to the needs and rights of these minorities, most of whom suffered so much under Saddam Hussein, and are suffering again alongside their fellow Iraqis today.

Before the country’s new constitution is finalised (a constitution that was drafted without input from all communities), MRG and the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) are working with representatives of the minority groups who have formed the NGO the Iraqi Minorities Council. Many of these representatives are working at considerable personal risk. The aim is to formulate and propose amendments to the constitution that will protect minority rights. As important is work to ensure that majority communities accept that protecting human rights, and especially minority rights, is in their best interests for a peaceful future. At considerable personal risk, representatives of minorities travelled to meet Mark and each other to discuss these issues.

Stability for Iraq and equal rights for all are still, sadly, a long way in the future. But this is a cause for which people are prepared to put differences aside, to work, to meet and to discuss, no matter what the personal risk.

Interview by Preti Taneja