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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 Baghdad a few days later, I saw Omar al Juburi, a leading Sunni member of parliament. "In the beginning of 2007 we made a contract of partnership with the Americans to keep Sunnis safe in Baghdad," he told me. "As you remember, in 2006 there were 50 bodies on the street per day. They wanted to uproot us from Iraq, and we were thinking only of how to remain on the ground."

In August of that year, he said, "we started to negotiate with the Americans. Our goals were clear: stop the displacement, stop random arrests and the killing by Americans, militias, and the Iraqi Security Forces." Juburi, who had been instrumental in backing the Sunni Awakening groups in Dora and other parts of Baghdad, was then handling the human-rights portfolio for the Iraqi Islamic Party. I first met him in 2006, when he presented me with detailed files demonstrating that Sunnis had been killed by Shiite death squads and the Iraqi police. Since then, he said, "the minister of interior has expelled 60,000 bad policemen; today the police is better than the army." The Sunni presence in Iraq was now stable. "The storm has passed," he said.

By comparison to the early years of the occupation, Iraq's Sunnis today seem downright docile -- a little angry, yes, and bitter and wistful. But there is no fuel for a return to the fighting, and the Sunni community lacks even a single charismatic political figure with real appeal. In Baghdad I went to Ghaziliya, a neighborhood on the western side of the city, to visit the Um al Qura mosque. This was once the most significant "pro-resistance" mosque in the city, and the neo-Baathist Association of Muslim Scholars used to broadcast calls to jihad against the Americans from its loudspeakers. Now a senior sheikh was showing me the numerous certificates of appreciation that American forces had bestowed on him. He did continue to insist, however, that Sunnis were really the majority in Iraq, while two of his bodyguards complained loudly that Saddam was a better leader than Maliki. I thought to myself that it was no surprise that some Shiites still think all Sunnis are Baathists.

***

"The situation cannot go back to how it was," an Iraqi Army intelligence officer told me. "We have a strong government; you can use the law." I had joined the intelligence officer, a Shiite captain, and his Sunni lieutenant, for lunch at their base in Baghdad -- a Saddam-era palace in a major Sunni neighborhood. Both men insisted that the era of sectarian division within the armed forces and the police was over. "The army was not built on a sectarian basis," the captain said. "It was built by the Americans to serve Iraqis, and it was strong in the fight against al Qa’eda and against the Mahdi Army."

The Mahdi Army was finished now, the captain continued, though they were still killing army officers in a campaign of targeted assassinations; more than five men who had taken part in the operation to crush the Mahdi Army in Sadr City have been killed in Baghdad in the past two months. In the past, they said, armed groups could easily attack police and army checkpoints; they had the firepower and the quiet support of the civilian population. “Before people would say that they didn’t see anything after an attack,” the Sunni lieutenant said. "Now they call us before anything happens." Anonymous tips, he added, were leading to numerous arrests. "We can't work without the people’s help, and the calls help a lot."