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For the sake of Iraqi children, can we please move the debate forward?

By Sukrit Sabhlok - posted Wednesday, 4 August 2004


Last year, the United Nations Children’s Fund released a revised edition of an assessment on the state of young people in Iraq. Among many harrowing conclusions was the mistreatment of women, pervasive malnutrition among children, and disturbing statistics showing that infant mortality in Iraq was high – 107 per 1,000 live births – and was over double what it was at the end of 1980. Indeed, Save the Children estimated that close to 90 per cent of all injuries and deaths during war are sustained by civilians, mostly women and children.

Young people around the world have heeded the call for help: hundreds are volunteering their time and skills to aid in the co-ordination of resources in Iraq. Brendan Lund, a 26-year old who involved himself in helping Iraqis through the Coalition Provisional Authority, explains the reality on the ground: “The majority of Iraqis support the effort. They don't want the US here forever but they know that they need us now.” As Iraqi expatriates slowly trickle back to rebuilding efforts, they face an Iraq where tensions between ethnic groups are running high and adrenaline is flowing freely.

There are 12 million people in Iraq under the age of 19 – more than half the country’s population – who need our constructive support. In this regard, small improvements in quality of life matter especially if it improves the lives of the very young, who didn’t ask to be born orphaned, or even ask to be born, into the volatile environment created by grown-ups. What is as shocking as witnessing beggars without arms plying their trade? It’s seeing children in tattered clothes, roaming the streets and not going to school; this is a sight I hope would soon cease to exist in the new Iraq.

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In October 2003, the International Donors’ Conference on Reconstruction in Iraq resulted in a pledge of financial assistance of over $US 33 billion by 73 countries, 20 international organisations and 13 non-governmental organisations. This was real progress. Withdrawing troops by Christmas however, as a Labor government has announced it would do, is a step in the wrong direction. No wonder then, that so many pundits have predicted another major terrorist attack between now and Election Day could tip odds overwhelmingly in favour of the Liberals.

It baffles me that public opinion is still divided on the issue of plans for a future Iraq. Robert Horvath in The Age was absolutely right: for all the criticisms made by anti-war commentators about the decision to go to war in Iraq, these same critics have been either strangely silent or have conveniently played down positives arising from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Therefore, despite lip service by cynics, Iraq is undoubtedly a golden opportunity to instil a government for the people, by the people.

A stable democracy in the Middle East is beneficial in two main ways.  One, it gives an equal voice to people of all faiths, including Muslims. Thus a representative democracy takes into account conflicting views and adjusts accordingly. Minority groups are given a fair say, and can voice their opinions in a public forum without having to resort to kidnappings or extortion to gain attention. Two, it provides the Western world with an invaluable link to the Middle East. Hence, a friendly relationship with an elected Iraqi government is likely to mean better relations with neighbouring countries too.

The modern state of Iraq arose in 1920 as part of the peace settlement after World War I. However, it was explored (and exploited) by the Iraq Petroleum Company, a conglomerate of British, Dutch, French and U.S. oil interests. Constant British influence ensured the government was never really in tune with the people of Iraq. If the “coalition of the willing” is serious about helping Iraqis, it will follow through on its many promises to guarantee such a situation does not occur again.

Knowing his democratic ideals, Thomas Jefferson would undoubtedly have advocated that the will of the people must reign supreme: any hint of unrest could result in another coup; a power vacuum could mean another authoritarian regime. In light of the fact that the United Nations is fully backing current efforts by the coalition in Iraq, it’s high time Western public opinion made a decisive choice: to continue to flog the dead horse of an “unjustified” and conspiratorial war, or to move on and support a humanitarian military presence (for the waging of peace) by contributing to aid efforts for the victims of war. The children of Iraq anxiously await your decision.

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About the Author

Sukrit Sabhlok is a Young Voices Advocate and Masters in Politics candidate at Monash University in Melbourne.

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