Civil-society organizations emerge as Iraq’s beacon of hope

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Iraq is still marred by political instability 10 years after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein, and negative news coverage continues to dominate the Iraqi political scene. However, civil-society organizations that have emerged since 2003 are influencing politics and helping people in the conflict-ravaged country.

For the first time in 24 years, Iraqis were free to participate in political and social efforts that are unrelated to the one-party rule imposed by the former Baathist regime. New to the experience, Iraqis started to mobilize and form non-government organizations.

“Civil-society organizations started with offering charitable and humanitarian work, but grew gradually to influence the government itself,” Hanaa Edwar, secretary general of the Iraqi al-Amal Association, told Al Arabiya.

“The experience of civil-society organizations in Iraq has perhaps surpassed its counterparts in other Arab countries, as these organizations have become persuasive in legislating laws,” added Edwar, who is also founder of the Iraqi Women’s Network.

The growing number of civil-society organizations in Iraq compelled the government to legislate a new law governing NGOs in 2010. A tribute to the power of such organizations is that they were paramount in preserving 25 percent of parliamentary seats for women, and putting forward a draft law against domestic violence.

Iraqi NGOs’ filing of a case in the federal court against the government has helped parliament convene after a prolonged political impasse after the elections in 2010. Ayad Allawi, head of the secular, Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, narrowly edged Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated State of Law coalition by 91 seats to 89. This created a standoff as neither had enough seats to form a government.

NGOs are working as mediators between the government and protesters in the predominantly Sunni province of Anbar, as they did during the 2011 protests in Baghdad that called for better services in the country.

In late 2012, protesters in Anbar and Salahudin province called for the government to scrap the anti-terrorism law, saying innocent people were being arrested and detained without trial, including women related to male suspects.

“Many Iraqi NGOs went to Anbar ... to show their solidarity,” Edwar said, describing the protesters’ demands as “legitimate, and as per the constitution and the law.”

NGOs are also following up on the government’s promised release of 3,000 prisoners, Edwar added.

On top of political and social work, some NGOs are working to compensate for what the government is not offering.

The Preemptive Love Coalition, founded by American Jeremy Courtney, used to send children outside Iraq to receive heart surgery, but since August 2010 it has been training Iraqi doctors to perform the surgeries inside the country.

“We started realizing that (sending children abroad for treatment) isn’t benefiting Iraqi doctors,” Matthew Willingham, the PLC’s communications director, told Al Arabiya. “Iraqi doctors are brilliant and talented, but they don’t have the resources to learn and perform these procedures themselves.”

The PLC succeeded in training and qualifying Iraqi doctors to perform two full open-heart surgeries in the provinces of Najaf and Nasriya.

“We’re currently supervising a surgical mission in Najaf to help 13 children receive heart operations,” said Willingham.

Meager funding constitutes a major hurdle for NGOs in Iraq.

“The government needs to put aside some money to give to NGOs in its budget,” Edwar said, citing countries such as Lebanon and Morocco, as well as Iraq’s semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, as examples of where this has occurred.

Other challenges relate to the country’s complex power structure.

“It’s essential to work with local and religious authorities and get their blessing. They’re the leaders of the country after all, and they can help,” said Willingham. “We just want to help kids with heart surgery, but it rarely ends up being that simple because we have many relationships, authorities, personalities and temperaments to navigate.”

The PLC, which is substantially backed by the Ministry of Health, as well as its two NGO partners and fundraising efforts, is aiming to expand to Baghdad and Mosul as part of its goal to achieve nationwide reach.

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