Igor Klimes - stabilisation of Iraq will take decades, says aid worker with first-hand experience of country

Igor Klimes

Igor Klimes is now a desk officer for People in Need, helping organise the Czech NGO's operations around the world. But three and a half years ago he was working on the ground in the southern Iraqi province of Misan, where the infrastructure had been left in tatters are years of conflict. At People in Need's headquarters near Prague's Nusle bridge, Igor Klimes recalled his impressions of Iraq when he arrived in the country in September 2003, less than six months after the US-led invasion.

"I was very surprised by my experience at that time, because I expected something horrible. Just when I was recruited in August 2003 there was a major bombing of the UN centre in Baghdad. It seemed everything was going to collapse, and it seemed that Iraq was a really dangerous country.

"But when I came there to Amara the first thing that I was appointed to was actually to go shopping, to check some furniture supplier, directly in the city. My colleague told me, just pick up a taxi on the street and go to the centre and check if the delivery is ready.

"I was like, hey, this is Iraq, I'm not going there alone. And he was like, calm down, this is southern Iraq, this is not Baghdad, you are absolutely safe and people are very nice here. It was true - it was true for the next three or four months."

How did you find the Iraqi people in those days? It wasn't so long after the invasion...

"I guess it was quite different throughout the country. But in the mainly Shia south it was clearly happiness that Saddam Hussein's regime is gone. There were great expectations and big hope that was felt all around.

"Unfortunately, during the coming months this hope turned out to be unsupported and all the expectations were not fulfilled. So people are getting tired and they lose their faith."

Did you find yourself in any or many dangerous situations, or scrapes?

"Unfortunately, yes. But you usually realise that only after you've gone through it - then it clicks and you say, that was really dangerous.

"I remember one time there was an apparent threat to all international NGOs in our city, and British intelligence said that an RPG attack - or rocket propelled grenade attack - is expected on some international NGOs.

"I was returning quite late from the neighbouring province Nasyria and actually I didn't follow my own procedural order that no-one should travel after dark, because I thought I was going to make it.

"I was travelling quite late and one car was chasing us. But fortunately we were able to reach an inhabited area before they got us. So this was probably quite dangerous."

When and why did you leave the country?

"I left in the middle of April 2004. It was about 14 days after we evacuated our office in the city and we moved to a British military base for security reasons, because there was a big uprising of the so-called al-Mahdi Army under the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"There was an imminent threat that any westerner moving around the city will be attacked or kidnapped or whatever. So we decided to seek safety in the British military base.

"We thought that it would take a few weeks or so, and then we would return to our work. But the situation deteriorated further, so we were evacuated to Basra and then to Kuwait."

Three years later is People in Need doing any work in Iraq?

"It certainly is. Our Iraqi colleagues are still in place and they are still going a great job. Actually, they've had to learn a lot, they had to turn themselves from normal workers who were listening to orders or instructions into proper managers.

"Our headquarters for Iraq is now in Jordan and there are expatriate staff managing other projects. Now it's mainly focused on the support of growing civil society and the support of local governance and such things."

Would your Iraqi colleagues be in any danger because of the fact they work with westerners like yourselves?

"They may be. I think they are well aware of this and they are monitoring their own situation. There is the understanding that we cannot push them to remain with us when there would be any threat to them or to their family.

"But so far we are very fortunate that they are, through negotiations with different factions, through good relations with all the governing structures, with all the political parties, through very delicate manoeuvring, they are able to keep themselves in relative safety."

I guess it's fair to say that Iraq today is in a terrible, terrible state. How do you look on the invasion? What's your attitude now to the US-led invasion of Iraq four years ago?

"Well, my stance towards this question has developed quite a lot. First of all when I was going I thought the whole thing was wrong.

"When I arrived in Iraq and I listened to Iraq and I heard terrible stories about Saddam Hussein's regime I thought, OK, it wasn't really good, but those people are now better off than they were.

"Now, four years after, I'm not so sure. I don't know. I still think that the fact that Saddam was removed and his regime was toppled was quite good.

"But the follow-up actions by the multi-national force and by the coalition were not well planned. The follow-up plan wasn't built well enough for the Iraqis. And I don't see any near solution to this problem."

That leads me to my last question - how do you see the future of Iraq?

"I don't know, to be honest. It's a very difficult question which I'm asking myself all the time. I'm trying to find the answer through all the messages that are coming from Iraq and the wider international community.

"I think it will require enormous amounts of effort, enormous amounts of money, to stabilise the country. It will require an enormous amount of effort from the Iraqi people to achieve any stability and any prosperity for Iraq. And I'm afraid it will take a couple of decades. It's not a question of years, it's a question of decades, really."