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On Eve of Elections, Iraq Is More Stable Than Many Realize

There are still militias active in Iraq, and the level of deadly violence would be unacceptable almost any place else on Earth. But fears that Iraq is "unraveling" are overblown.

One day last month, a few weeks before Iraq's forthcoming elections on March 7, I drove south from Baghdad to Iskandariya, a majority-Shiite town about 40 kilometers outside of the capital. The town, on the road to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, had been hammered especially hard by the violence of Iraq's civil war: Shiite pilgrims headed toward Karbala were often ambushed on the road through Iskandariya, and the area had seen fierce battles between al Qa'eda and the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to Muqtada al Sadr.

I had been to Iskandariya a year earlier and met the local police chief, Ali Zahawi. "Iskandariya is a small Iraq," he told me then. "It connects the north to the south. We went through very hard times. Al Qa'eda was the first stage, and then there were [Shiite] militias who did the same thing as Al Qa'eda -- killing and displacing. The third stage was imposing law, and now almost 100 per cent have returned to their houses."

My friend Hazim, a jovial NGO worker who lives in Iskandariya, recalled the worst phases of the civil war: "People couldn't go out of their houses," he told me. "When al Qa'eda was strong, Shiites couldn't go out on the street. Then the Shiites got strong, and Sunnis couldn't go out on the street." But all that was now in the past. Iraqi and American forces had arrested members of armed groups in the town during Operaton Fard al Qanun -- or "Rule of Law," the Iraqi name for what Americans called the Surge. "The state is strong here now," Hazim told me last month. "The government is strong. You can't even fire a shot in the air now; the police will come in two minutes."

The civil war in Iraq began in 2004 and intensified in 2006, when the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra unleashed a frenzy of sectarian bloodletting: estimates vary, but some 30,000 civilians were killed that year; another 25,000 lost their lives in the course of 2007. Millions of Iraqis have been displaced since 2003, and hundreds of thousands killed. Violence has not come to an end, of course, but the war had burnt itself out by the close of 2008: Shiite forces essentially defeated their Sunni rivals, many of whom took up with the American-sponsored Awakenings militias; once-mixed neighborhoods had been ethnically cleansed and, in many cases, the warring sects were divided by blast walls; the violent Mahdi Army stood down at Muqtada al Sadr's instruction to avoid an escalating conflict with American forces.

There are still militias active in Iraq, and the level of deadly violence would be unacceptable almost any place else on Earth. But the fears frequently voiced by foreign analysts and reporters -- that the civil war is merely in abeyance, and that sectarian fury could break out again at any moment after a series of deadly attacks, or an unfavorable election result -- are overblown. The threat of a civil war no longer looms, and the country is decidedly not "unravelling," as many continue to suggest. Armed militias have not been eliminated, but they have been emasculated: they carry out assassinations with silenced pistols and magnetic car bombs, but they are no match for the Iraqi Security Forces, which have shed their reputation as sectarian death-squads and now appear to have earned the support of much of the public. Apart from the occasional suicide bombing, Iraqi civilians are no longer targeted at random -- and even these more spectacular attacks have little to no strategic impact.