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Iraq: A Cluster of Forward Thoughts!
Dear reader, have you noticed how Iraq, so very much the central issue at the start of the US presidential hustings between Democrats and Republicans, has gradually moved away from the overall political agenda?

13 February   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

One reason for the distance that Democrats are so very carefully nurturing between Iraq and the US presidential elections is the tottering and sub-prime economy that has become the main concern for many Americans.  After all, the daily imperatives of consumerism almost invariably overtake the expostulations against war. Another reason is that the Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are far too busy besting each other to focus on the substantive issues of the campaign. But over and above those two telling factors, there has also been a noticeable drop in violence (despite occasional bloody incidents) since the US surge by the military. The concomitant change of operational tactics has meant, for instance, that 70,000 Sunni volunteers - such as those in Al-Anbar - have allied themselves with the Americans. This drop in the levels of violence has equally meant that the anticipated drawdown will in all likelihood bring the US troops by July 2008 to 15 combat brigades from the current level of 20 brigades - as such restoring them roughly to the same levels of 130,000 that were in place at the beginning of 2007.

But let us not deceive ourselves: many of my readers are acutely aware that Iraq is still a powder keg that could ignite at any moment. The fact that the world media does not focus on this country so much nowadays as in the past four years is largely because of the incandescent events in Lebanon and the conflicts engulfing Palestinians, Egyptians and Israelis - with the latest chapter being played out at the Gaza border crossings - that have grabbed the media headlines. There is so much attention span that one can attach to Iraq anymore.

So in view of those factors, where are we with Iraq today? The optimist in me would suggest that things are slowly moving forward. After all, the Shi’i, Sunni and Kurdish main ethnic groups have seemingly compromised enough for Parliament to approve three main measures that go some way toward national conciliation. They are the 2008 budget, a law outlining the scope of provincial powers that is a crucial aspect of the Iraqi self-definition as a federal state, and an amnesty that would apply to the thousands of detainees in Iraqi gaols. Although the details of the legislation are not too clear, and the three-member presidency council must still sign off those laws before their implementation, there is a palpable sense of progress.

Interestingly enough too for the Kurdish northern community, their regional government also safeguarded its current allocation of 17% of the revenues of the country after subtracting the costs of ministries that serve the entire country, such as those of foreign affairs and defence.

However, much as I would like to highlight all progress, let me also scroll forward two examples that underline the continuing fragility of the current situation that might so easily collapse again.

For one, and as International Crisis Group stressed this month in its Middle East Report #72 entitled Iraq’s Civil War, the Sadrists and the Surge, Iraqi overall stability could easily break down if Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shi’i Mahdi Army is ostracised from the political process. Soma readers might recall that Sadr declared a unilateral ceasefire in August 2007, one that he has just renewed despite his populist base becoming increasingly restive. Yet, instead of using this interim opportunity to win Sadr over into the political framework and turn him into a legitimate political actor, the Iraqi authorities and their American patrons have continued vilifying him. This means that if Sadr loses any further control of his militia army to the more radical elements within his movement, Iraq could easily plunge into further episodes of blood-letting between the US and his militia members, let alone precipitate a class-based conflict in Baghdad or the south between his militia and his Karbala-based arch-nemesis and rival Shi’i Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

The other example that also underlines the horrible social situation in the country centres on the issue of the missing persons. Reading a Reuters news alert on Iraq a few days ago, I came across a glum quotation attributed to a Kareem Faraj. This hapless man said that he had been trudging to the morgue in Baghdad every day in the past year in the hope of finding a clue about the fate of his kidnapped brother. He added, "Whether he is dead or alive, it makes no difference to me. I just want to find something to lead me to him."

In fact, Kareem’s brother is just one amongst tens of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed or gone missing in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. As the journalist Waleed Ibrahim indicated in a despatch on 24th January, many of the missing are never found, whilst thousands of others end up in numbered mass graves for ‘unknowns’, their identities reduced to a file number at the morgue and the cemetery for families hoping to track them down. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that 10,000 unidentified bodies were taken to Baghdad's main morgue in the year to August 2007 alone.

But all those missing Iraqis are not dead - even if there has been no closure in many cases. Some of them get kidnapped for financial reasons because their jobs mean they have ransom potential and their families are deemed able to pay out to the kidnappers. Others are guilty of nothing more than belonging to the wrong sect or living in the wrong neighbourhood, whilst some more just get caught up in random acts of criminality. However, the fact remains that the question of the missing persons is one more symptom of a country that is still very much teetering precariously on the remotest edge of cohesion.

And cohesion - or coming together - should be the strategy for Iraq, shouldn’t it? Iraq has seriously been messed up in the past five years despite the fact that it rid itself of a despot and created a political opportunity for many communities who had for decades been discriminated against to assume their legitimate national roles. However, with freedom also comes responsibility, and it seems to me that the American persistent lack of a valid strategy let alone understanding of the Iraqi psyche when coupled with an Iraqi lack of any togetherness are jointly rending the country apart. It is high time to face political realities more seriously and pragmatically - whether in Washington DC or in Baghdad - and to negotiate peace with enemies too.

But are there enough politicians and mandarins today - in Iraq, the USA, the EU or the Arab World - who are ready to consider such a cluster of nascent thoughts without labelling them as immaturely forward?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   13 February


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