Fractures beneath appearances
Progress in Iraq is more mirage than reality, writes Salah Hemeid
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Iraqi firefighters extinguish an exploded car bomb at a parking near the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad
Measured by the lowered death toll of American soldiers and shaky political gains, such as a new provisional election law passed by the Iraqi parliament last month, the Bush administration is insisting that the situation in Iraq is improving and victory in the war it has waged on Iraq could finally be within grasp. Yet despite much trumpeted security gains, it is clear that the political situation in Iraq remains unsettled and success there is but an illusion.
A recent report by the Pentagon assessing stability in Iraq concluded that the "overall security situation in Iraq has greatly improved". Attributing that to the "surge" strategy, the report noted that security incidents remained low over a period of three months while deaths across Iraq have declined to a level of 77 per cent lower than the same period last year.
American war strategists proudly consider the fall of US troop deaths for September by nearly 40 per cent to 25 as progress, though total US troop deaths since the war began in March 2003 stand at 4,177. Another statistic, however, reveals that the number of Iraqi security forces killed in September rose by nearly a third to 159, compared with the same period last year. Evidently while the so- called surge strategy has saved American lives by increasingly relying on Iraqi forces, Iraqis, including civilians, continue to pay in blood and violence.
On the political scene, the Bush administration hails as a success the Iraqi parliament's approval 24 September of a long-delayed law to allow provincial elections to go ahead, though a main sticking point over who will control Kirkuk, a multi-racial and divided city, was delayed until next year to allow elections to move forward everywhere but Kirkuk. Lawmakers also scrapped a key clause that would have guaranteed seats for Christians and other religious minorities, a serious blow to democracy.
Doesn't this suggest that real progress is still a far-fetched goal, especially in terms of ending violence and forging lasting power- sharing agreements? To be sure, violence has significantly dropped since last year, but that could be mere respite before a new lethal round of sectarian strife kicks off while government leaders remain reluctant to pursue a broader and more inclusive national reconciliation plan.
Indeed, a spate of bombings in Baghdad last week as residents of the Iraqi capital celebrated the Islamic holy feast of Eid Al-Fitr, killing and wounding dozens of people and wrecking the holiday that is usually a time for family gatherings and outings, is reminder of the fragility of progress both the Bush administration and Nuri Al-Maliki's government claim to have achieved. Underscoring this fragility, the US military is continuously building separation walls around residential areas in Baghdad, attempting to create sectarian havens and completely sealing off quarters of the city.
On the other hand, one of the many unresolved issues that could crumble the political house of cards that Washington has built in Iraq is the future of the so-called Awakening Councils, composed of tens of thousands of Sunni fighters who have joined in the war against Al-Qaeda but remained outside the official armed forces. On 1 October, Iraq's Shia-led government took command of the US-backed forces, pledging to induct them into public life in return for help in quelling violence. Though the government transferred them to Iraqi military control and agreed to pay their salaries, it made no clear commitment to make them part of the army or police force, fearing that they may have no loyalty to the government. The question now is what happens to these forces in the long run if they are abandoned by the Americans and are not given a stake in the political system.
There has also been a downturn in relations between Shia and Kurdish leaders, threatening their five-year-old alliance with collapse. Kurdish security forces and government army forces clashed recently in the Diyala province bordering the autonomous northern Kurdistan region. Kurdish troops have imposed their control on many of the towns in Diyala that they want to annex into their region. Despite an agreement to end the standoff, the dispute has emerged as a new flashpoint in the ethnic and sectarian conflict in Iraq.
The dispute is more serious than many would have thought and could signal the end of the Shia-Kurdish honeymoon and lead to ethnic clashes between Kurds and Arabs at a time when the Bush administration is trying to cement meagre political gains. Many analysts believe that the quarrel over the so- called disputed areas is an attempt to redraw the borderlines in case the situation deteriorates into a civil war and Iraq is split into ethnical and religious entities.
Even the Shia alliance is crumbling with a crisis brewing between Al-Maliki's Daawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI, formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- SCIRI) over forming the so-called government "Support Councils", a militia type tribal force being set up in southern Iraq and which the ISCI believes will be tools in the hands of the Daawa Party to control the Shia provinces. If Daawa goes on with plans to form the councils, they will most certainly spark a conflict between the two partners and put an end to their alliance.
The local elections, to be held by January, meanwhile, are expected to be intensely competitive between Muqtada Al-Sadr followers and their ISCI rivals. Each group is hoping to make large gains in Shia-dominated southern and central provinces. There are a lot of concerns that the parties now in power will probably use their influence to try to come out on top again. If the Sadrists see attempts to influence the elections they might come out from hiding and disrupt the elections or refuse the results, triggering even a wider conflict.
Overall, security gains will remain vulnerable and national reconciliation will remain allusive as long as Iraq continues along its present path of sectarianism, nepotism, inefficiency and corruption.