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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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Neither man thought it possible that the civil war could resume. "The people understand now," the captain said. "Before Shiites loved the Mahdi Army, but the Mahdi Army worked for its own interests, for the interests of Iran. The Sunnis supported al Qa'eda because they didn't trust the government, but then the Awakenings were established." In the army, they said, most officers supported Maliki or the secular former Baathist Ayad Allawi -- and the Shiite captain said he worried only about the Shiite Alliance leader, former prime minister Ibrahim al Jaafari, who many blamed for the intensification of the civil war that occurred under his watch. "Only he can bring sectarianism back," the captain said.

"The devil you know is better than the devil you don't," the captain concluded. "The only thing that matters is that the leader is a nationalist, not working for Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia."

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In Diyala, a majority-Sunni province north-east of Baghdad, I met with Dhari Muhamad Abed, the head of the government’s Returnee Assistance Center. "Now sectarianism is completely over," he said. "Security is good." Indeed, as we drove through villages in Diyala where numerous atrocities had once taken place, we found that Iraqi police and soldiers were pervasive, as was the case almost everywhere I travelled in Iraq, no matter how rural or remote. The security forces were no longer hiding their identities to avoid being killed by al Qa'eda, and they were no longer acting as death-squads, though arbitrary detention of suspects remains the norm. Human rights abuses persist in Iraq, but they can no longer be described as sectarian; the state has achieved security in part by returning to its authoritarian roots.

More than 37,000 families had been displaced in Diyala -- about 25 percent of the total population -- and 85 villages were destroyed during the civil war. Only one-third of the refugees have returned. With the end of the civil war and the establishment of a security infrastructure, the refugee crisis remains Iraq's most serious issue. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are homeless and landless, squatting on government property. A senior United Nations official put the figure at half a million, calling it "an acute humanitarian crisis."

In Baquba, the provincial capital, 700 Sunni families are squatting at Saad camp, on the grounds of an army base at the outskirts of the city. They had been driven from their homes shortly after the American invasion in 2003 by Kurdish militias, eager to seize territory in the chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein.

I asked one man if he would like to return to his home. "Who will protect us if we go back?" he asked. The police regularly raided their camp, arresting men and telling the people they would have to leave. "Where will we go?" one old man asked me.

Similar scenes can be found across the country. In the Abu Dshir district of Baghdad, an immense and sprawling squatter camp houses thousands of Shiites who fled rural areas around the capital; they now live in tents and makeshift shelters built from scrap metal and mud. The enormous Sadrein camp, in Baghdad's Sadr City, contains more than 1,500 families, who live on a rubbish dump with the choking stench of sewage clotting the air. Most of the men were unemployed. Children played in mountains of rubbish. Like most poor Iraqis, the squatters depended on the state rations, known as the Public Distribution System, for their very tenuous survival.

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Since the beginning of the Iraq War, American planners and observers have been preoccupied with the consequences of decisive singular events -- from the arrest of Saddam Hussein to the battle for Fallujah and the previous rounds of national and provincial elections. At each easily identifiable juncture, exaggerated claims have been advanced by those in search of a turning point, whether for the better or for the worse.