As reported this morning on NPR, Iraqis are facing the worst violence since the country’s sectarian war of 2006 and 2007.
Since April, waves of car bombs and other sectarian attacks targeting civilians have killed thousands. The Syrian civil war and the Iraqi government’s deadly crackdown on Sunni protests are major drivers of the escalating violence and political tensions in Iraq.
If left unchecked, renewed civil war in Iraq and a widening regional conflict are all but inevitable. Strong US and international diplomacy are urgently needed to reverse that trend. As the lead country that started the war in Iraq, the US must do more to help end the violence.
The escalating violence demands more attention at the highest levels, and Presidential leadership can make a critical difference. Yet for the first 120 days of his second term, President Barack Obama did not mention Iraq once. Now the President is proposing 70 to 95% cuts in US funding for Iraqi peacebuilding, human rights, and civil society.
You can help. Join us in urging President Obama to do more to help end the violence. Iraq matters, and so does his leadership.
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April and May were the two deadliest months in Iraq since 2008, and that escalation has continued into June. On Monday, a wave of car-bombs across central and northern Iraq claimed at least 57 lives, prompting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to issue a statement expressing concern over “the escalating political tensions and the appalling upsurge of violence” and urging “all parties to redouble their efforts to support reconciliation and end sectarian violence.”
Here at EPIC, we are also alarmed by reports of a re-mobilization of militias and a return of false checkpoints, a tactic used during the 2006-2007 bloodbath. On June 1, the Institute for the Study of War reported “the evidence is clear; Shi’a militants have mobilized in Baghdad and are conducting executions of civilians.”
Given such developments, it is easy to understand why millions of Iraqis remain displaced. Today we take a closer side-by-side look at the recent escalation of violence and current humanitarian conditions in Iraq through infographics. What we found was a grim outlook that casts a dark shadow over Iraq’s future. While not all of the statistics are entirely pessimistic, they still represent an Iraq that is struggling to provide adequate services and security for its people, and where armed groups and rival political parties claim too much power over the daily lives of ordinary Iraqis.
One of the most striking aspects of the Humanitarian Snapshot infographic is the number of displaced Iraqis. Roughly 10% of Iraqis are displaced—either as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or as refugees who have fled Iraq—making them the second largest displaced population in the region. Sadly, displacement is not a new phenomenon for many Iraqis. Millions of Iraqis were displaced during the 1980s and early 1990s by violent conflict during the Iran-Iraq War and Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression of the 1991 popular uprising. However, the largest displacement of Iraqis occurred during Iraq’s 2006-2008 civil war when sectarian militias seized control of large parts of Baghdad. While the withdrawal of US troops in 2011 has led many Americans to believe that the Iraq War is over, Iraq continues to struggle. The ongoing internal violence in Iraq and humanitarian needs of millions of displaced and vulnerable Iraqis remains a relevant, and indeed growing issue with the continuation of the Syrian civil war. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria as refugees during the Iraq war, and as Syria becomes increasingly unstable, they have been forced to return to Iraq, even if it is not to their home. This means that many Iraqi refugees are returning from Syria to become IDPs in Iraq. At the same time, an estimated 200,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Iraq, particularly in the northern Kurdistan Region, greatly exceeding the current capacity of refugee camps and swamping social service agencies in urban centers like Erbil.
The influence of the conflict in Syria affects Iraq well beyond the issue of displacement, as violence has spread across the border and as militants—including Iraqis—and arms transit through Iraq. The increasingly sectarian nature of Syria’s civil war is also intensifying political tensions and instability that have already been running high due to deteriorating relations between Iraq’s political opposition and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The statistics about the number of civilian deaths in April and May of this year have gained a lot of attention in the news in recent weeks. April was host to 712 civilian deaths, while May experienced 1,045. These numbers are staggering as they represent the highest rates of civilian deaths since 2008. It is less than half way through the year, and Iraq is already averaging 4.5 more deaths a day than it was in 2012. June is shaping up to be another deadly month, with over 50 people dead in a string of car bombings this week. While the rates of violence vary by region, the overall picture is very serious.
In the midst of this worsening cycle of violence and continuing displacement crisis, President Obama has avoided mentioning Iraq in his second term, and in his budget request for fiscal year 2014, he is proposing a precipitous 55% cut in US aid to Iraq, including a 70% to 95% reductions in US funding for Iraqi peacebuilding, human rights, and civil society. The infographics depict a nation and population that demand greater attention by diplomats and aid agencies. As US Secretary of State John Kerry recently put it, “Deploying diplomats today is much cheaper than deploying troops tomorrow.”
My name is Mil Dranoff and I’m the newest summer intern at EPIC! I’m a rising senior at Washington University in St. Louis, and I am very interested in the intricacies of geo-political and religious conflict. I am excited to use EPIC both as a platform to learn more about the situation in Iraq, and to use this new knowledge to affect change in Washington.
I’ve just returned from a semester abroad in Jerusalem, where I was able to learn the ins and outs of a different conflict in the Middle East. Through J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization that advocates for bold American leadership towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I helped lead day trips through Israel and the West Bank. These trips were part of an educational initiative for (primarily American) college students studying abroad. Among the lessons that I learned as part of this leadership experience was the importance of the media’s coverage on issues taking place overseas and how the American public understands the image that is portrayed. The representation of what is taking place thousands of miles away is difficult, if not impossible, to cover accurately and completely in a short newspaper article buried in the middle of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. The general population is familiar with buzzwords and fear-instilling catchphrases, however that is often where education about current events stops.
That’s where organizations, such as EPIC come in. In addition to EPIC’s mission to promote peace and empower young people in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, EPIC also aims to educate the American people and government, through advocacy, for US and international diplomacy for securing peace and building democratic institutions. From my previous work in international advocacy, I’ve learned that both Congressmen and women and the general population have a plethora of issues to concern themselves with, and it is vital to speak with them about the effects of American policies on people halfway around the world. It is also just as important to bring important issues to the agenda, because as we have seen, Iraq has slowly made its way off the administration’s list. We only have to look at Obama’s recent visit to the Middle East to see that the situation in Iraq is not on his list of priorities. EPIC strives to put Iraq back on the agenda, and I am very eager to help be a part of that team.
My name is Kristen Noble, and I EPIC’s newest summer intern! I am a second year graduate student pursuing my masters in International Peace and Conflict Resolution, and I am specializing in Middle Eastern Studies in the School of International Service at American University. My love for international politics was propelled into action in 2008 while I was working to reconcile elementary school-aged children in Bosnia and teach them that ethnic conflict does not have to define their relationships with each other. The grave religious conflicts of the early 1990’s continue to torment Eastern Europe while mirroring the sectarian religious struggles ripping up the Middle East today.
I knew that my career path was cemented in understanding Islam and confronting the issues that Muslims around the world face every day. I am excited to learn more about Iraq and possible avenues toward a peaceful solution. I believe that the puzzle pieces are hiding in the young faces of Iraq. Youth empowerment and education are crucial, not only in Iraq, but here in the United States as well. EPIC’s mission statement and goals relay the need for peace education, and firmly calls our nation from its slumber of inaction in Iraq today. The UN states that last month the death toll in Iraq rose to over 700, the deadliest month since 2007.
Working towards positive change is the only solution. Today is my first day as an intern with EPIC; I hope to help EPIC progress towards its goals of promoting American action, youth education, and hands-on projects that promote peace in an Iraq marked by strife.
On January 7, I walked through the doors of EPIC, openly admitting to all of you that I knew very little about Iraq, as I come from a background in European affairs rather than Middle Eastern. On February 19, Farah walked through those same doors, knowing more about Iraq than any other intern in the organization’s history, being from the heart of Baghdad. Together, her and I, along with the rest of the EPIC team, worked hard every day to advocate for the rights of young Iraqis and to share these efforts with you.
Through this work, Farah and I were asked by NETWORK , a Catholic lobbying group, to write an article for their newsletter about our work with EPIC. They wanted to understand what would bring two young women, from very different backgrounds, together to advocate for the youth of Iraq. Below is the article, published last month.
In 2006, Farah Rasool was finishing her last year of high school in Baghdad, Iraq, while Laura Lundahl was living in Minnesota, attending her senior year of high school. Seven years later, both women now work for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), a non-profit based in Washington, DC that seeks to empower youth to promote peace in Iraq. While they are now coworkers and friends, the journeys that led them to EPIC are very different, and both journeys started in 2006 when Iraq fell into a chaotic, violent civil war. Laura was only 13 years old when the Bush administration invaded Iraq. She watched the aftermath play out from the comfort of her couch. Four years later, horrified by the disintegration of Iraq into civil war, Laura decided to study international relations in college.
Understanding First-Hand the Violence in Iraq
For Farah, her journey to EPIC includes a very personal understanding of the organization’s mission of youth empowerment, having grown up in the heart of Baghdad. One evening in the middle of the civil war, on the eve of her high school graduation, she was eating dinner with her family when armed men stormed in and sprayed the house with bullets. The Rasools were told that they must leave or be killed. While her parents and brothers fled to Egypt, Farah was determined to remain in Iraq and finish her education. It was not easy for her, living in an unsafe neighborhood with her family far away, but she was not deterred. “Education was the thread I was holding to help me survive; not only to live but also to make me feel that I was still a human being who could overcome horror and hardship in order to succeed.”
What Drew Farah to EPIC
It is because of this determination that Farah works at EPIC today. She wanted to have the opportunity to help her peers in Iraq overcome the difficulties in their pasts and pursue their dreams of a brighter future. EPIC’s projects in Iraq were what originally drew Farah to the organization. In the fall of 2011, EPIC held an Iraqi Youth Hike, which brought together ten Iraqi young men and boys from the violently divided city of Kirkuk—some for the first time—and took them on a three-day journey of discovery through the beautiful mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“I loved hiking and exploring nature and its elements. I got to see the tops of mountains at sunrise. It would be good if such programs could be conducted all over Iraq to spread awareness among people about the environment, and how to conserve it.” Abdulrahman Yousif Akbar, participant in the Iraqi Youth Hike.”
Environmental education is not typically a focus in the Iraqi school systems, and every young man who participated in the Iraqi Youth Hike came away with a much broader understanding of their own backyard. Here is a sample of what they said about their experience:
“The multiple languages and nationalities taught me many things about our community.” —Ali, 22
“The best part was spending peaceful time with the teachers and students. There was no discrimination or political issues between us. The Iraqi Youth Hike taught us about nature and protecting the environment. At the same time, we had fun!”—Ahmed, 17
“I loved hiking and the spirit of teamwork!” —Mohammed, 24
This coming summer in Erbil, the capital city of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, EPIC will carry out a new project called PhotoVoice Iraq. Researchers the world over have praised the photovoice method, and EPIC will be the first to bring the practice to Iraq. The project will teach twenty young Iraqis (ages 10-25) to use the power of photography and their own voices to raise public awareness and reach decision-makers about the issues that they care most about. The youth participants will use cameras and personal narratives to explore how Iraq has changed, and how that change is affecting their lives and future aspirations. Then, they will photograph and write about the positive change that they hope to see within their lifetimes, and how they see themselves being a part of that change.
With nearly 60% of the Iraqi population being under the age of 30, EPIC works to ensure that the United States develops a more positive relationship with the young people of Iraq. PhotoVoice Iraq is a great, interactive way in which to accomplish that goal. As Farah says, “I love the idea of young Iraqis using cameras to tell the story of change in Iraq and how that change is affecting their lives. It gives them an opportunity to express their feelings, their hopes and their dreams. Programs such as the Iraqi Youth Hike and PhotoVoice give young Iraqis new knowledge, new friendships and new experiences.”
What Attracted Laura
While it was the field projects that attracted Farah to the organization, it was another aspect that drew Laura to EPIC. Having spent her college years working on several advocacy campaigns, both in the United States and in Europe, she wanted to continue this work in Washington, DC. With the EPIC office mere blocks from the U.S. Capitol, advocacy is a large part of EPIC’s mission toward achieving peace in Iraq. Using her background in grassroots advocacy, Laura is helping EPIC put Iraq back on the agenda.
To mark the 10-year anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, EPIC launched a “Campaign for Iraq’s Future,” including a petition at www.epic-usa.org/petition, to build support for long-term U.S. and international commitment to promoting peace in Iraq. Once the petition gains 10,000 or more signatures, EPIC will deliver it to President Obama and the U.S. Congress to show that Americans and concerned citizens around the world believe in a peaceful Iraq.Farah and Laura, while coming from very different backgrounds and experiences, share the same vision of a peaceful Iraq. EPIC, and its work through advocacy and projects with young people in Iraq, is a wonderful outlet for these women to promote their shared vision of peace and healing in a war-damaged country.
Today is our very last day as EPIC interns. I speak for Farah, Chelsey, Ayhan, and myself when I say that this has been a wonderful learning experience for us, and we are very grateful that you came on the journey! Thank you for all of the support you have given us, and please join us in welcoming the new summer interns who will carry on the legacy of EPIC in, well, epic ways!
As has been highlighted several times, we at EPIC have a great relationship with the Sponsor Iraqi Children Foundation, another non-profit based here in the Washington area. Last fall, we interviewed SCIF volunteer Cindy Fogleman about her organization’s work in Iraq, as well as highlighted their future goals in the country. During that interview, we learned how SICF recently teamed up with The Children’s Village, a New York based non-profit that works with vulnerable children. Together, the two organizations went to Baghdad to train leaders of orphan care facilities as well as Iraqi community groups that help orphans and street children.
With estimates of the number of Iraqi orphans running from a conservative 800,000 to a liberal 5 million, the need to aid children who have suffered traumatic experiences is tremendous. However, with only .05 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in Iraq, addressing this need is a serious challenge.
During their time in Baghdad, representatives from SICF and The Children’s Village discovered a special center specifically geared towards helping orphans and street kids. This center focuses on ensuring that the children who frequent its halls have healthy meals and tutoring for school, as well as community education classes with classes like personal hygiene, fine arts, and first aid.
Another compelling aspect of this center is that it is run by a local Iraqi NGO rather than by the international community. However, without the assistance of international groups such as SICF and The Children’s Village, the Iraqi NGO would not have the support—financial or otherwise—to support these children. Unfortunately, as international interest in Iraq has diminished in recent years, the center has lost significant funding and was nearly force to close their doors until SICF and The Children’s Village discovered it. Since SICF added their support to the center in 2011, more than 90 children, who would otherwise be on the streets, have been aided.
As the center for orphans and street kids in Baghdad grows, it is the hope of Cindy and the rest of the SICF staff to open similar centers in other cities across Iraq. We here at EPIC are proud to partner with SICF, and are excited to bring you updates on their great work with this center, with Iraqi NGOs and experts, and with us.
Yesterday, we as a nation remembered the fallen men and women of the US military. Two months after the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, this Memorial Day we honored the almost 4,500 US troops who were killed in that war by recognizing their sacrifice to our country, and to Iraq. Today, we must reflect on the nature of that sacrifice, as well as the legacy that these heroes left behind for future generations.
Many wars throughout the history of the United States, including the war in Iraq, have been politically unpopular, as well as costly in terms of both lives and treasure. However, year after year, the American people demonstrate their support for troops is unconditional and universal. This was plainly seen here in Washington, DC over the weekend, as thousands were in attendance for the National Memorial Day parade, concert, and Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally. However, now that Memorial Day has come and gone and the bikers have roared home, the city—and country—has returned to everyday life.
While our soldiers’ sacrifices were for exactly that—Americans enjoying their daily lives freely—it is crucial that we continue to commemorate those who have fallen by following through with what they were fighting for. In the case of the Iraq War, 4,500 US troops were killed and at least 32,222 were wounded while trying to create a more stable Iraq. Today, 17 months after the total withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, violence and humanitarian crises continue to plague the country and threaten to undo the goals that so many brave Americans worked to achieve. In spite of this, little has been done since the troop withdrawal of December 2011 to recognize and combat these ongoing issues in Iraq.
We here at EPIC would like to recognize the many Americans who served, and died, in the line of duty for our country, and for the country of our Iraqi friends. The sacrifice of these men and women, and their families, is truly incredible, and one that we strive to honor everyday through our work to get Iraq back on the political agenda and to support long-term US diplomacy efforts in Iraq. Please join us in this effort by signing our petition here.
“I feel blessed waking up every day knowing that my parents are still alive,” – EPIC intern Farah Rasool, who lived in the heart of Baghdad with her family until late 2006.
Imagine waking up one day and finding yourself without a family. As adults living in the United States this is a horrific thought. Thankfully, the probability of that actually occurring is quite low here but for thousands of children in Iraq, losing one or both parents in the blink of an eye has become a very real possibility. Violence in Iraq has been on the rise in recent months and many are warning of the potential for another civil war. Even without the escalation of sectarian violence, the spillover of the Syrian crisis into Iraq is an imminent threat.
Unfortunately, with the increase of lethal violence comes an increase in the number of orphans. Current estimates of the number of orphans in Iraq are at a staggering 800,000 – most of whom are living on the streets. The cultures of the United States and Iraq, however, differ significantly in regards to caring for orphans. While the United States encourages adoption and offers the foster care system as viable options for orphaned children, in Iraq, caring for children that are unrelated to you is uncommon. Though family members will often adopt orphaned children in Iraq, if for some reason they can’t, orphans are generally left to fend for themselves.
Because the international community’s interest in providing aid to Iraq is waning, poverty continues to cripple the needs of Iraqi orphans. The growing number of orphans in Iraq illustrates the great tragedy of violence and war wherein many children have ended up with no family, no home, and no future. With nearly 40% of Iraq’s population under the age of 15, it is crucial that Iraq’s youth, orphaned or otherwise, are cared for and educated in order to shield them from violence and being recruited into less legitimate organizations . We here at EPIC need your help to remind President Obama that Iraq matters! Please sign our petition to put Iraq back on the agenda!
While EPIC focuses on its domestic campaign to Put Iraq Back On the Agenda, other US-based organizations continue to do impressive fieldwork in Iraq. This week, EPIC spotlights an economic development organization that fosters broad-based economic growth, raises living standards and creates vibrant communities in low-income countries and emerging democracies: ACDI/VOCA.
ACDI/VOCA has worked in 145 countries since 1963, providing sustainable solutions to the most pressing development needs. Their projects range from meeting basic needs to promoting community stabilization, food security and nutrition, poverty alleviation as well as market integration. Currently, ACDI/VOCA is implementing 2 important programs in Iraq:
1. Broadening Participation through Civil Society (BPCS)
This project will help to deepen citizens’ social and political engagement, and nurture an active and interconnected Iraqi civil society that offers greater opportunities for citizens to contribute to and benefit from the country’s development. BPCS seeks to accomplish this in five ways:
Engaging and mobilizing diverse and marginalized groups to broaden democratic participation at community and national levels
Targeting 175 organizations/NGOs with the greatest potential to contribute to Iraq’s development by increasing their institutional capacity
Facilitating opportunities for civil society to directly influence decision-making that affects society
Strengthening mechanisms for collective voice and constructive collaboration with the general public, government actors and the private sector to ensure civil society leadership in Iraqi’s path towards democracy
Assisting Iraqi civilians who have suffered losses as a result of US forces in Iraq
2. Consultative Service Delivery Program II (CSDP II)
A World Bank-funded project, CSDP II aims to strengthen the capacity of local government and communities in the northern Iraq provinces to improve social services.CSDP II has improved services by institutionalizing responsive and accountable community-driven development processes while expanding opportunities for citizens to collaborate with the government. The project provided training and capacity building to local officials and members of 8 community action groups in Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninawa and Salah ad Din, and successfully launched community-prioritized supply projects.
Furthermore, in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, the project has worked in tandem with the Ministry of Planning and local governorate staff to create community-driven development programs. CSDP II has provided assistance to local government officials and communities in 26 projects funded by the Kurdistan regional government, including trainings on project identification and development, procurement, monitoring and evaluation, and project management. CSDP II staff also provide on-the-job training to local government officials and help strengthen their interaction with their communities.
While EPIC commends ACDI/VOCA’s significant advancements and improvements in Iraq, the country continues to struggle with democracy and development in the wake of a destructive 10-year war. As a result, EPIC has launched a petition to urge President Obama and Congress to recommit to our promise of promoting peace, stability and democracy in Iraq. Help EPIC and our fellow Iraq activists, like ACDI/VOCA, achieve this by signing our petition to Put Iraq Back on the Agenda!
My name is Lesley Harkins and I’m the new EPIC Management intern! As a rising senior at Boston University, I’m very excited to explore my interests in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region this summer with the EPIC team.
After growing up in the DC area after 9/11, I became aware of the rhetoric towards the Middle East and Islam, most of it being overtly negative. Being only 9 years old when the terrorist attacks occurred, I was overwhelmingly confused about the threats facing my country. In school we would read kid-friendly articles about the War on Terror but that effort was short-lived and not very comprehensive. As I went through middle school and high school, I became increasingly frustrated with the curriculum, as it did not include current events, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or much of the historical context that lead up to the invasions.
My frustrations and confusions propelled me to enter Boston University as an International Relations major with a concentration in the MENA region. My goal has been to investigate the cultural and political influences in the region, not only to help answer my own childhood questions but also to understand appropriate US foreign policy going forward.
Through immersing myself in Middle East and North African studies, I have become shockingly aware of how stagnant the American people’s understanding of the region truly is. Growing up in the midst of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is sobering to see that many of my classmates, who are not specializing in the Middle East, have a vague, uninformed concept of the region and its people. I hope that, through my internship with EPIC and in my future career, I can contribute to the constructive, informative dialogue on the Middle East that helps to educate the American people and inform US foreign policy.
Currently, as I prepare for my last year as an undergraduate, I am interested in examining the realistic possibility of democracy in the MENA region and the US’ role in promoting it. As such, I can’t wait to explore the democratic process in Iraq and learn how EPIC works with individuals and civil society groups to promote peace and democracy!