Things are going well or not so well, depending on who you listen to, says Nermeen Al-Mufti
Iraq entered its fifth year of American occupation with two contradictory announcements, one by Iraqi security officials, the other by the commander of American forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus. It brought 2007 to a close with a parliament unable to conduct business because there weren't sufficient MPs on hand for the necessary quorum, as a good many of them had travelled to Mecca for the pilgrimage. As a result, many laws remained pending, most notably the controversial oil and gas bill which came under heavy criticism for offering too many concessions to foreign companies.
According to General Abdul-Aziz Mohamed Jassem, director of military operations in the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, the security conditions in Iraq will continue to improve over the coming months. "2008 will mark a new beginning for the security situation in Iraq which will take as its starting point the relative stability being experienced in the various neighbourhoods of Baghdad," he said. "The evidence affirms that the coming few months will be critical in bringing an end to terrorism in the country." He went on to laud the new strategy formulated by the Iraqi government and the multinational forces for having been highly instrumental in restoring stability to the areas that had suffered security breakdowns. He anticipated "greater progress in this realm in the coming phase".
General Petraeus had a different take on the situation. He held that although Iraq has moved back from the brink of civil war, the recent security gains and the progress that had been made in curbing sectarian violence in Iraq were "fragile and could still break down". In a press statement issued to mark the end of 2007 the commander of American forces in Iraq said that he believed that the Al-Qaeda was the chief enemy in Iraq because it aims to rekindle sectarian violence. Success against this enemy "will be slow and intermittent, with some losses and some gains. There is certain to be some violent fighting and some more very difficult days and weeks, but increasingly fewer in number, God willing," he said. On the other hand, he was heartened by the progress achieved by the Iraqi Sahwa (Awakening) Councils. "The assaults in which Iranian weapons are used have declined," he said, adding a word of praise for the part Syria and Saudi Arabia have played in stemming the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq. This latter point was confirmed by a senior Iraqi Interior Ministry official who told Al-Ahram Weekly that Saudi and Syrian cooperation had a considerable impact on reducing the level of violence in Iraq.
The Iraqi government has approved or requested the extension of the presence of US forces in Iraq until the end of 2008. Washington is planning to withdraw 20,000 troops by the middle of this year. At the same time, it will reduce the profile of many of the remaining forces as it gradually hands security tasks to Iraqi forces.
Both Iraqi and American officials attributed the reduction in military and sectarian violence to the fact that the Sunni Arab tribes had turned against Al-Qaeda and to the ceasefire proclaimed by Muqtada Al-Sadr. The anti-American Shia spiritual leader also suspended the activities of the Mahdi Army. Such developments did not sit well with Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden who, in a new tape recording whose veracity has yet to be confirmed, condemned the Sahwa Councils and called upon Iraqi Islamists to declare their support for Abu Amr Al-Baghdadi as "the emir of Islamic Iraq".
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Director of the National Command Centre in the Iraqi Ministry of Interior General Abdul-Karim Khallaf said that his ministry would soon be preparing to take over the security portfolio for Baghdad in August. He, too, felt that great progress had been made in this domain, noting that between June and December armed engagements declined between 70 and 90 per cent, assassinations by 79 per cent and kidnappings by 72 per cent. In addition, casualties among the police, army and civilians have declined by 23 per cent, 28 per cent and 34 per cent respectively. Also, he said, now no more than three to five unidentified bodies surface a day. General Khallaf attributed this marked improvement in the security situation to the sincere commitment on the part of Iraq's neighbours to prevent infiltration across the borders and to the establishment of some 580 checkpoints on the borders. On the number of police killed in Baghdad during 2007 the director of the National Command Centre said that the Ministry of Interior lost 18,200 of its policemen this year, 60 per cent of whom died in Baghdad.
General Aydin Khaled, deputy minister for police affairs, told the Weekly that the Ministry of Interior dismissed 95 police officers two weeks ago on the grounds that they let their party or sectarian affiliations interfere with the performance of their duties. Also during the past year, the ministry dispensed with the services of more than 15,000 police conscripts.
Turning to another dimension of the situation in Iraq, Al-Yaqiza published a special report entitled, "Two million Iraqi women lost their husbands during the war". The article quoted Wafaa Sadiq, director of the office of the president of the British-based Islamic Relief organisation, as saying that about two million Iraqi war widows now support their large families. She complains that a media cover-up has prevented the flow abroad of sufficient information for people around the world to appreciate the magnitude of the hardship faced by millions of women in Iraq. Other newspapers cited reports by international humanitarian agencies stating that more than five million orphans are in desperate need of care.
At the political level, Kurdish leaders who had threatened to withdraw from the political process in the event of the passage of the controversial amendment to Article 140 of the constitution, pertaining to a solution to contested territories, have now changed tack. Instead of all contested areas, they have now focussed their attention on Kirkuk and the oil-rich areas around Mosul. Article 140 officially expired on 31 December 2007. According to Aydin Aksu, the representative of the Iraqi Turkoman Front in Baghdad, the committee charged with drafting the amendment did not complete its work by this deadline and, therefore, the referendum on it could not be held on the constitutionally set date. He suggested that the leadership will hold true to its threat to withdraw from the government if Article 140 is not amended or extended. The two major Kurdish parties, the PUK led by President Jalal Talabani and the PDK led by Masoud Barzani, have allied themselves with the Islamic Party, headed by Vice-President Tareq Al-Hashemi, in the interests of pushing for an extension. The alliance has been condemned by Arab and Turkoman politicians who fear a replay of the memorandum of understanding on Kirkuk, the promulgation of Article 140 and the as yet undisclosed annex regarding Mosul, which, according to information leaked to the press, contains Al-Hashemi's approval for "normalising the situation in Mosul".
However, the Kurdish territory issue plays out, Nuri Al-Maliki, whom Kurdish leaders once viewed as an ally but now oppose on the grounds of his failure to implement the provisions of Article 140, started off the New Year in a hospital in London, where he is to undergo a battery of medical tests due to fatigue. According to the official Iraqi government newspaper Al-Sabah, Al-Maliki has set the priorities for his government in 2008: consolidating and building on the political, security and economic achievements of 2007. The Iraqi people, worn out by the strains and anxieties of life in their war-torn country, undoubtedly share this hope.