Friday, June 26, 2009

The "Economist"asks: Is Iraq Getting Worse?

. . . in a word, yes. But they feel that the impending US withdrawal will force the contending groups to play ball with each other.

Would that were the case. But as Patrick Cockburn recently pointed out (in what, for my money, is a must-read essay), Iraq's history over the last 100 years - and especially since 1980 - is drenched in blood, and Iraqis have become paranoid, scared of each other and unwilling to trust each other.

Is it getting worse again?
Jun 25th 2009 | BAGHDAD
From The Economist print edition

As American troops prepare to leave all the towns, Iraqis are getting nervous

BARACK OBAMA’s administration has promised to withdraw all American troops from all of Iraq’s towns by the end of this month. As the deadline looms, people are again asking whether Iraq’s forces will be able to cope on their own. On cue, a fresh bout of violence has erupted. On June 20th, a huge lorry bomb exploded in Taza, a Turkmen town just south of the disputed city of Kirkuk, killing at least 70 people. Two days later at least seven bombs went off in and around Baghdad, including a roadside blast, a car bomb and a suicide attack, killing some 30 people altogether. And on June 24th another big bomb killed at least 70 people in Baghdad, perhaps the single deadliest attack in Iraq this year. The insurgents, knowing that the Americans are poised to pull out, are aiming to make Iraq as unstable as ever.

They have also staged some spectacular assassinations that have threatened to restart a cycle of sectarian reprisals. Earlier this month the head of the main Sunni bloc in parliament, Harith al-Obeidi, a noted campaigner for human rights, was gunned down by a teenager in a Baghdad mosque after he had led Friday prayers. In Mosul, the biggest city of the north, where the coach of Iraq’s karate team was recently shot dead, bombings are still going on, though at a reduced rate.

Yet, despite this nerve-racking spasm, the recorded figures suggest that the violence is still in retreat. Fewer civilians were killed in May than in any month since 2003. Both Iraqi and American officials had predicted a surge in attacks as the deadline for withdrawal neared.

The prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, told Iraqis not to be dismayed by violence here and there. The country’s own forces, he insisted, could maintain security, as they already were. Besides, American tanks and armies were no use in what had become a counter-insurgency intelligence game, which the Iraqis were better equipped to play than were the Americans. “We’re absolutely certain the withdrawal will not make our security worse,” said Mr Maliki. In any event, he said, the withdrawal of American troops from the towns would be a “great victory” for Iraq.

In fact American troops have already withdrawn from nearly all the towns—and have rarely been seen in them of late. Many joint American-Iraqi security posts have been dismantled. There will be no more routine American patrols, rare though they have already become. The Americans will, however, remain in bases nearby, on call in case Iraqi forces hit trouble. And in some places, especially in Mosul, where efforts to suppress the insurgency have been intensifying, the definition of city limits is being elastically interpreted, to let the main American base stay where it is, on the city’s edge.

But the Iraqis are slowly realising that Mr Obama really does intend to remove the bulk of his troops before 2011. So they may at last be starting to focus on passing long-delayed bits of important nation-building legislation, such as an oil-and-gas law, constitutional amendments, and even a law governing elections. Without a modicum of cohesion at the heart of government, how can Iraq’s security forces stick together in the face of sectarian or ethnic tension? Iraqis know that establishing a more cohesive and broader-based government is at least as important as beefing up the Iraqi security forces.

A crucial general election is due in January—and everybody knows that the Americans want to witness a peaceful poll leading to a stable government before they can withdraw completely. So there is a fresh ferment of political horse-trading and alliance-testing. Mr Maliki is trying to buff up his image as the strongman who can provide law and order. He is exploring the possibility of new ties across sectarian divisions as well as sounding out possible partners for a grand Shia coalition similar to the one that won last time. Even the “Bands of the Righteous”, an offshoot of the Shia militia movement led by a radical cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, may want to take part in peaceful politics. As a gesture of goodwill, it released the bodies of two long-dead British hostages who had been kidnapped two years ago.

Yet, whether the Americans stay or leave, Iraq still suffers from its worst failing. There is still no party or leader that can reach across the country’s divisions and appeal to Iraqis of every ethnic and sectarian hue.

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