On Eve of Elections, Iraq Is More Stable Than Many Realize
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It has been difficult for those outside Iraq -- or even those who rarely travel outside Baghdad -- to perceive the gradual shift toward stability now underway. From the beginning of the occupation, American forces and foreign reporters have focussed too much on the political squabbles among Iraqi elites and on events inside the Green Zone, neglecting the "street": the lives of ordinary people and the atmosphere in neighborhoods, villages and mosques. Just as they were slow to recognize the growing resistance to the occupation and slow to recognize the dawn of the civil war, many today -- worried about the resurgence of a "new" sectarianism -- seem blind to the fact that the intense fear which led ordinary Iraqis to seek the protection bloody sectarian gangs has begun to evaporate. A few years ago, observers underestimated the power of these militias; today they underestimate the power of the Iraqi Security Forces.
As worldwide attention has returned to Iraq in the run-up to the March 7th elections, a new chorus of worry has emerged, concerned that the corrupt political maneuvering of some Shiite parties -- who have succeeded in banning prominent nationalist and secularist candidates under the thin pretence of de-Baathification -- would lead first to a Sunni boycott and then to renewed sectarian violence and war. But just as the dismantling of the Sunni Awakening groups last year failed to produce the disaster many analysts predicted, the results of the election seem unlikely to stoke the embers of a new insurgency.
The continued sectarian exhortations of Iraqi politicians have been met with cynicism by the public, whose support for religious parties has diminished considerably. Iraqis are still "sectarian" to a degree: most Shiites prefer the company of Shiites and Sunnis the company of Sunnis. The vitriol and hatred of the war have faded, but a legacy of bitterness and suspicion remains. What has gone is the fear of the other -- and it is this fear that led to the rise of the militias and the sectarian religious parties.
During my travels in Iraq last month -- in the capital and, more importantly, in the surrounding provinces of Diyala, Babil, and Salahuddin -- I found Sunnis and Shiites alike talking of the civil war as if it were a painful memory from the distant past. Just as the residents of Northern Ireland refer obliquely to "the Troubles," Iraqis speak of "the Events" or "the Sectarianism" – as in, "my brother was killed in the Sectarianism." Uneducated Iraqis might even say "when the Sunni and Shiite happened."
The looming election -- signposted in the foreign media as a critical "turning point" liable to wreck the fragile gains of the last two years -- seemed to be of little interest to most Iraqis, disenchanted with the pitiful performance of their political leaders and the tired rhetoric of sectarian religious parties.
In Shuwafa, a Shiite village alongside a canal to the west of Iskandariya, I met a schoolteacher named Akil, who had led a Shiite Awakening group that battled al Qa'eda after the ethnic cleansing of the village in 2006. He and his men had laid down their weapons last year -- after a portion of their salaries had been siphoned off by official corruption -- but he said the security situation had improved dramatically. "The Awakening is over," he told me. "The Iraqi army is here, with two Hummers, so we feel safe. And nearby there is an army base." Akil had returned to teaching biology to children.
Akil, like many Iraqis, seemed indifferent to the approaching elections. "People don't like the religious parties any more," he said, and many believed Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who heads the religious Shiite Dawa party, had transcended his sectarian affiliation. "He is not considered to be from a religious party anymore," Akil said.
Reconstruction proceeds haltingly in Shuwafa: 50 families of the hundreds who fled to Karbala to escape al Qa'eda had returned, but few had the funds to rebuild their homes or repair their farms. In the nearby village of Malha, where well-fed sheep were grazing on dark green grass around the rubble of destroyed houses, the situation is much the same. Only two homes are in the process of being rebuilt, and the majority of the village's residents have not yet returned. Those who came back survived by working in a local Shiite Awakening group -- earning only $200 (Dh740) a month, barely enough to replace a single one of the hundreds of sheep that had been killed or stolen by Sunni insurgents when they fled. The lives of Iraq's millions of internal refugees remain bleak and the country's humanitarian crisis is a grave one. But the restoration of some semblance of security has bolstered the authority of the state and the prime minister. "The Awakening, the Americans, the Iraqi Army and the tribes made it safer here," one man in Malha told me. "Everybody here is with Maliki."