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The Week in Iraq is a weekly assessment of significant incidents and trends in Iraqi civilian casualties by IBC's news collector and Recent Events editor Lily Hamourtziadou.

The analyses and opinions presented in these commentaries are personal to the author.

Recent weeks

Healing the wounds of the past
  18 Jan 2009

Happy New Year
  11 Jan 2009

The sad numbers
  31 Dec 2008

  21 Dec 2008

The farewell kiss
  14 Dec 2008

Regrets –he’s had a few…
  7 Dec 2008


The Week in Iraq

The vulnerable

by Lily Hamourtziadou

3 Feb 2008

The rules of war are founded in 3 principles: discrimination, necessity and proportionality. They dictate that only combatants may be targeted (discrimination), that the tactics used should only be those necessary to achieve a certain military objective (necessity) , and that the cost of the tactics used is not higher than the benefit of the objective itself (proportionality).

The basis and aim of all 3 principles can be summed up in a single phrase: the protection of the vulnerable. During any war civilians are the most vulnerable to attack, and it is the lives of civilians that any army, government, state or group has the responsibility to defend, protect or spare.

The failure to protect the most vulnerable members of society was evident again this week in Iraq, when nearly 250 civilians lost their lives. There were at least 13 children among them. In the recent Baghdad bombings, even the two suicide bombers were reportedly vulnerable people, Down's syndrome women, used by those for whom their own interests are paramount, for whom the lives of Iraqi civilians are expendable.

During the ‘surge’ year, February 2007 - February 2008, the whole purpose of which was to effectively bring security to those who needed it the most, around 22,000 civilians lost their lives in violent attacks, as many as 1,300 of whom were killed by US forces. All sides failed to protect those civilians: the US army, the British, the insurgents, terrorists, even their ‘legitimate’ leaders; on the contrary, all parties contributed to their killings directly or indirectly. The latest example of this is last Sunday’s air strikes that killed 9 Iraqi civilians (as many as 20, according to witnesses), for which the US army has apologised as usual. It seems that the principle of proportionality is lost on them, as the tactics they employ (air strikes on buildings, even whole neighbourhoods) show that the cost involved (the loss of civilian lives) is, to them, very low. Or at least low enough for them to be using these tactics repeatedly, for the past 5 years.

Already there have been 2 large-scale attacks this year, with 50 or more killed, despite the recent drop in violence. The first one, in Mosul, killed 57 civilians on January 23rd; the second killed 62 at a Baghdad pet market on February 1st. The pet market attack was one of two co-ordinated attacks that killed 99 people in two pet markets in Baghdad. Despite the optimism of the last few months, caused by the decrease in violence, 2008 has started badly. Violence aside, Iraq is still a politically and economically dysfunctional state. And, perhaps most tragically of all, it is still not sovereign, 5 years after our attempts to ‘liberate’ it and give it to its people to govern. There is still no one in charge, no one defending those ever-suffering Iraqis, no one to value their lives. No one to see beyond their own interest, be it power, wealth, control, or all of the above.

And the killings continue, every day. Literally. Not a day has gone by when Iraqi civilians have not lost their lives in shootings, bombings, air strikes… not one day since March 2003. This is perhaps the most shocking fact about this war. Its daily terror. Its daily promise of death.

Meanwhile, Brigadier Robert Aitken has criticised the conduct of some British soldiers serving in Iraq. They need to have a ‘better understanding between right and wrong,’ he said. Indeed they do. Yet who has the moral authority to teach them such an understanding? Not their leaders, who declared a war with such a high civilian cost, a war that has unleashed a multitude of horrors, a war that has destroyed a whole society. Not their leaders, who still have not recognised or admitted the wrong they have done. Who still claim to be moral, pious even, driven by ideals such as altruism, self-sacrifice, and striving for liberty, democracy – a force of good against evil.

Who has the courage to teach them respect for a person’s humanity, whatever their colour or nationality, whatever their ‘otherness’? ‘Courage,’ said Brigadier Aitken, ‘does not mean just physical courage in battle, it also means moral courage to stand up against injustice’ (The Independent, Saturday 26 January). Our armies may not lack the courage needed in battle, but they may lack the moral courage to stand up to what is wrong, to the victimisation of a country’s civilian population, to the sacrifice of the vulnerable. Sadly, so do their leaders. Our leaders.