Not one step forward
As Washington boasts its "surge" strategy in Iraq has brought new security to the beleaguered nation, the US-imposed political process is as shaky as ever, writes Salah Hemeid
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Iraqi men kneel down as US soldiers storm their house during Operation Gecko, south of Baghdad
Declaring him "man of the year", many US media sources are already hailing General David Petraeus, the US Iraq "surge strategist", a hero for making victory in Iraq look possible again. But nearly five years into the US occupation of Iraq, the country is still wracked by killing, sectarian militias, a stagnated economy and deadlocked national reconciliation. As difficulties and setbacks continue, Iraq today is far from being the tranquil democracy the United States promised on launching its March 2003 invasion.
Officials of both the Bush administration and the government in Iraq say violence has been cut in half in recent months. They claim that in September, Iraqi civilian deaths were down 52 per cent from August and 77 per cent from September 2006. US soldiers killed in action numbered 43 -- down 43 per cent from August and 64 per cent from May, which had the highest monthly figure so far this year. The American combat death total was the lowest since July 2006 and was one of the five lowest monthly counts since resistance to occupation in Iraq accelerated in April 2004. Officials say that reduced violence in many parts of Iraq stems from two main developments: the troop deployment widely known as the "surge", and the empowerment of local Sunni tribal groups to help drive Al-Qaeda operatives from their towns and neighbourhoods.
The "surge" was the brainchild of General Petraeus one year ago. Against the domestic current, Petraeus advocated a rise in troop levels and was made chief US commander in Iraq by President Bush. Petraeus employed a double-tier strategy: increasing the number of American troops on the streets of Baghdad and recruiting Sunni Arabs to turn their guns on Al-Qaeda instead of American troops.
On the other hand, the reduction in violence by Shia groups, notably the Mahdi Army, is attributed to a six-month halt in military action declared by firebrand leader Moqtada Al-Sadr. The militia's death squads were blamed for most of the killings in Baghdad of Sunnis and for troublemaking in the Shia- dominated central and southern provinces.
As support for their point, Iraqi and US officials claim that in recent weeks there have been an increasing number of Iraqi refugees returning to Baghdad and other cities -- at least 25,000 since mid-September from Syria alone. Yet, UN officials say the returnees represent only "a flow, not a flood", and many are returning because their visas have expired or they have run out of money, rather than because they believe conditions in Iraq have improved.
While one can agree that there has been relative calm in the last few weeks in Baghdad, there seems no guarantee that the situation cannot be reversed at short notice. One cannot judge whether the surge strategy has succeeded by solely looking at violence levels in Baghdad, especially when entire neighbourhoods have been turned into isolated and walled-in sectarian islands by the US military. Rather than generating feelings of loyalty to the central government, the plan created pockets of shaky stability.
Also, there is the failure of the Shia-Kurdish dominated government to achieve national reconciliation and bring more Sunnis into mainstream national politics. Sunnis, who turned against Al-Qaeda, are now expecting to be rewarded with jobs in the security forces, government and army. Yet efforts to bring them in to the prevailing government and its bureaucracy have faltered and barely five per cent of their 70,000 volunteers have been given jobs.
Critics have warned that while the surge strategy has probably reduced violence, at least for now, it certainly has not turned the tide in the war, nor ushered in an end to Iraq's troubles. For one, it is bereft of a sound political strategy, relying heavily on the US-supported Green Zone government to come forward with one. But if the broader Sunni Arab community is not integrated into the new Shia-Kurdish dominated power structure, it is likely that violence will rapidly resurface as Washington reduces its troop levels -- if it reduces its troop levels.
If that happens, critics argue, Sunni forces will renew their assaults on the Shia-dominated establishment, with Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, and probably other Shia groups, responding in kind. That scenario would turn the widely acclaimed surge strategy into a fiasco, taking Iraq back to the edge of civil strife.
Can Washington get the government of Nuri Al-Maliki to change course? The government has a limited amount of time to integrate Sunnis. So far, the government has showed little intention to compromise, with many of the measures demanded to facilitate reconciliation -- such as abolition of the de-Baathification law, and local election legislation -- still on hold. But on 14 December, leaders of the four major groups that make the coalition cabinet said the government will pay the salaries of some Sunni volunteers and also promised that Al-Maliki would declare a limited clemency for Sunnis who were accused of sabotage or anti-government activities.
In the United States, debate about Iraq has become muted, despite the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the fact that more American soldiers have died in 2007 than in any previous year and that the financial costs of the war are mounting at the rate of $100 billion a year. Iraq is sure to surface again as an issue of controversy as the race for the presidency heats up. A reminder of the problems ahead is the continuation of car bombings, attacks on police and army posts, and the frequently found remains of slain bodies in Baghdad's streets.
Superficially, violence may be down, but political and economic progress in Iraq will remain elusive without consensus on a national agenda of just and fair power sharing and wealth distribution. That, of course, would bode ill for the sectarian and ethnical quota regime imposed upon Iraq by the Bush administration, taking the country not in the direction of democracy but rather of bloodshed.