Global Policy Forum

Iraq: Fighters Fill Humanitarian Vacuum

Integrated Regional Information Networks
February 14, 2007

Militia fighters and insurgents responsible for much of the internecine violence in Iraq are also offering humanitarian assistance to their own communities to fill a vacuum left by the government and aid agencies. "It is the minimum that we can do as the Iraqi government is weak. Some people need medical assistance, others food and since they are our followers, we have to support them," said Ali Jalil, a spokesman for the Mahdi Army, commanded by religious leader Muqtadar al-Sadr and the most powerful Shia Muslim militia in the country.

Because of the high levels of insecurity in Iraq, most international aid agencies have left the country - the United Nations moved its agencies to Jordan in August 2003 following two deadly attacks on its Baghdad compound. Now, the Iraqi Red Crescent is the only aid agency working throughout the country, and even they have had their operations hampered by violence and it is becoming increasingly difficult for aid workers to gain access to the needy.

In recent months, fighters have been offering all kinds of assistance to their respective sectarian groups, from the provision of food supplies, clothes and blankets to physical security. "We have been looking for this assistance from different countries and organisations, which I prefer not to name as the [Iraqi] government might think they are supporting us with arms," Jalil said. "Mainly, we get assistance from all over Iraq, from thousands of donation boxes that are stuffed with cash every week after Friday prayers in mosques."

Assistance only for supporters

It is clear that such assistance is given only to those families who have relatives supporting a particular militia group, as was explained by Umm Hassan, 53, from Sadr city, a suburb of Baghdad controlled by the Mahdi Army. "One of my sons was hit by US troops and on the same day my other son had serious convulsions. I went to one of [Muqtadar] al-Sadr's offices in our district seeking help. The first question they asked me was if my boys were fighting under the name of the Mahdi Army. When I said they were, they gave me everything I wanted," Umm Hassan said. "But a month ago the same happened to the son of my neighbour who was shot by the Iraqi military. When she asked for their help and they knew he was not supporting the militia, they let him die of bleeding in the middle of the street," she said.

Hussein Azize is a humanitarian volunteer for the Mahdi Army and, in the absence of government assistance, said he is responsible for the social welfare of his community. "We protect our families, relatives and neighbours by providing services to them, giving constant aid and security," said Azize. "It is not fair to call us militias. We are armed groups which offer protection and which do much more through programmes of community assistance."

It is not clear where armed groups such as the Mahdi Army get funds to provide humanitarian assistance or indeed for arms to augment their collections at the mosques. However, it is clear that their help is giving stability to hundreds of families in many neighbourhoods, especially in Baghdad. Recently, the Mahdi Army has been delivering gas and kerosene supplies to Shia districts in the capital.

Sunnis help their own

Sunni insurgent groups are also trying to develop their own humanitarian arms but their reach and funds are less than that of the Shia militias. Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for the Islamic Army, a Sunni insurgent group, said their welfare activities were limited because they were constantly targeted by Shia militias and US troops. "We were developing very good projects, especially in [the Sunni-dominated] Anbar province, offering supplies like food items and water with funds coming from different donors. But in the past few months, with the widespread sectarian violence, we have not been able to reach many families. We had to leave them without support and the government has not been giving them any kind of help," said Abu Ahmed. "We try to guarantee that aid workers get safely to hot spots and sometimes we try to collect money from Sunni families with better financial resources and buy food supplies to help," he added.

Mosques in Sunni-populated districts of the capital have played a big part in collecting money for aid. Sheikh Muhammad Rabia'a, representative of a Sunni mosque in the mostly Sunni Adhamiyah district, said that Sunni religious leaders have been continually reinforcing in their Friday sermons the importance of helping their fellow Sunnis. As a result, he said they receive supplies of food and clothes from Sunni families on a daily basis.

"Iraqis still have good hearts despite all this violence. Sunnis still suffer by being targeted with violence and someone should help them. If the government is unable to and NGOs cannot cope, we have to do it ourselves," Rabia'a said. While Sunnis and Shias have the respective armed groups to help and protect them, minorities such as Christians, Assyrians and Turkmen have no-one at all to turn to for assistance. Their only option is to flee to neighbouring countries.

"We have been ignored by the government and even with so many international appeals, we are still not being seen as an important group," said Lucas Barini, a Christian cleric and spokesman for the Christians Peace Association (CPA). "As minorities, we don't get the attention that Sunnis, Kurds and Shias do. We have to save our lives by fleeing outside the country."

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