Civilians continue to suffer in Iraq

Sunday 26/02/2017

With the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS) in its fifth month, the misery of the city’s residents can only be imagined. The United Nations has put numbers on the scale of the unfolding tragedy — 160,000 civilians displaced since the offensive began in October, 208 killed and 511 injured in the northern province of Nineveh where Iraqi government forces are fighting to retake the country’s second largest city.

Overall, at least 6,878 civilians were killed across Iraq last year. The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), saying it could not verify casualties among civilians in conflict areas, cautioned against taking the figures as anything other than “the absolute minimum”.

There is a terrible pathos in that warning about inaccurate figures. War has reduced swathes of Iraq — and indeed of other conflict-riven countries in the Middle East and North Africa region — to black holes. Reliable information doesn’t get out; all too often, neither do the desperate people.

In Mosul, aid agencies say, approximately 750,000 civilians are trapped, many of them on the brink of starvation as the result of months of siege. It is anyone’s guess how many of these innocent men, women and children will survive the battle to liberate the city.

As the intensity of coalition air strikes increases, Airwars, a group that monitors air strikes in Iraq and Syria, says there has been a sharp rise in civilian casualties in Mosul. January had 170, more than twice the number suffered in December.

All this means, of course, is that people in war zones live more precariously and can die more tragically. They die in their homes, in markets and on the roads. They die from bombs, bullets, improvised explosive devices and drone strikes. Farmers step on mines as they work in their fields; women as they gather fire­wood; children as they walk to and from school.

A couple of years ago, the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University tried to calculate the costs of the Iraq war. It said that approximately 165,000 civilians were thought to have been killed by direct violence since the 2003 US invasion but the actual number was unknown and likely to be in the hundreds of thousands.

The uncertainty about the exact number of deaths in Iraq is itself a tragedy.

Civilian casualties are too often lost in the fog of war but military euphemisms such as “collateral damage” cannot hide the catastrophic effects of war on civilians. Such an impact is both direct and indirect. War deaths — from malnutrition and a damaged health system and environment — likely far outnumber deaths from combat.

Wars inflict deep trauma on whole populations. They also destroy the institutions of state that could stabilise a country after the conflict.

Like many other populations in the region, the Iraqi people have suffered enough. For their sake and that of others, military and political leaders should work to spare civilians the fallouts of war.