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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.

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In the town of Shat at Taji, north-west of Baghdad, I drove past orange groves, palm trees, boys in school uniforms walking home on the side of the road, alongside schoolgirls wearing pink backpacks and holding hands. The majority-Sunni town, which stretches along the Tigris river, had also been the site of brutal conflict in the civil war. I walked along the banks with Abu Taisir, a small man with a pistol tucked into the side of his trousers who was the deputy head of the local Awakenings group. "Al Qa'eda used to behead people and dump them in the river right there," he said, pointing over the tall reeds to a spot on the other shore.

Abu Taisir took me to meet Abdulrahman Ismail, a Shiite neighbor who was displaced from Shat at Taji in October 2006 but has since returned home. After a series of death threats -- and the murder of four of his cousins, who were beheaded and tossed in the river -- "we feared for our children and went to Kut," Ismail said. But after security improved in the town, he continued, the Awakening men had contacted the displaced Shiite families to tell them it was safe to return. Ismail found that his home had been taken over by an al Qa'eda man who was later killed; his family's belongings and livestock had been stolen. "We feel safe now," he said, "but we still feel a little scared."

Abu Taisir's outfit had arrested 85 al Qa'eda suspects, he told me; 10 of his own men had been killed in the fighting. Abu Taisir himself had been shot twice, most recently in November. Some of the al Qa'eda men were still in town, he said, but they hadn't been arrested because nobody would testify against them. "They have roots here like us," Abu Taisir said. Both men agreed that there was a new balance of power in the town -- the remnants of the insurgency were overwhelmed by the Awakening men and the Iraqi Security Forces. "Now if we call the police, they come," Abu Taisir said.

He had commanded 360 men, but only 82 were offered jobs in the government, and low-ranking ones at that. Many felt betrayed. "We're fighters," he said. "We brought peace to this area, we fought al Qa'eda. Now we are janitors?"

The failure to integrate the Awakenings men into government security forces had been widespread, and many feared the consequences of the continuing disenfranchisement of Iraq's Sunnis. But they have been disenfranchised since 2003, in part thanks to their own miscalculations. Iraq's new order is dominated by Shiites, and this cannot be undone: the government is soundly in Shiite hands; the only question with regard to the upcoming elections is whether it will remain in the comparatively reliable hands of Maliki or pass into those of his more divisive and inflammatory Shiite rivals. At the time of my visit to Shat at Taji, the leading Sunni politician Saleh al Mutlaq had just been banned from the elections by the de-Baathification committee. Outside observers worried that excluding him could agitate Sunnis, but his removal met with barely a whimper, and even other Sunni politicians failed to unite to support him. "People here are upset about Saleh al Mutlaq," Abu Taisir said, "but they saw from the last elections that the people they voted for weren't sincere so they don't care for politics." The other Awakenings men we met had been impressed by Maliki; he was an effective strongman. "We want secular people, nationalist, not religious parties," Abu Taisir averred.