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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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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.

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."

***

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.

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."

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."

***

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.

***

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.

The elections that will take place on March 7th are the first to be held in a fully sovereign Iraq, and they certainly represent a milestone in the country's political evolution. Maliki remains the most popular candidate, supported by Iraqis for having crushed both Sunni and Shiite armed groups. His Shiite rivals have been partially discredited by their roles in the civil war, and for their corruption and sectarianism, although Maliki is no saint, and he has shown himself willing to play dirty if necessary -- sending troops to Salahuddin last year to close down the provincial council, and launching specious accusations of an attempted coup in the Ministry of Interior last year to weaken the campaign of one rival. Whether he wins, or wins fairly, he is the candidate best able to maintain a stable Iraq.

But, regardless of the outcome, the elections will not precipitate a return to the civil war. The state is too strong, and there is no longer a security vacuum in Iraq. The security forces take their work seriously -- and perhaps too seriously. The sectarian militias have been beaten and marginalized, and the ­Sunnis have accepted their loss in the civil war. The framework in which Iraqis address existential issues is now the political arena.



In the United States, there is considerable trepidation about the election result, and suspicions of Iranian influence still cling to ­Maliki -- an echo of the tendentious Sunni notion that an Arab cannot have a strong Shiite identity without being pro-Iranian. Pundits, including several leading neoconservatives, have begun to argue that the U.S. should keep a larger number of troops in Iraq than was previously agreed -- but this risks undermining America's partnership with the Iraqi government, whether it is headed by Maliki or not. "You want Iraq to be pro-western and to invite you in," an American intelligence official told me. "So you build that relationship by strictly adhering to the agreement you signed."



Seven years after the disastrous American invasion, the greatest ­irony in Iraq is that, in a way, the neoconservative dream of creating a moderate ally in the region to counterbalance Iran and Saudi Arabia may finally be coming to fruition. On my trips to Iraq in years past, I made a habit of scanning the walls of Baghdad neighborhoods for bits of sectarian graffiti, spray-painted slogans that were pro-Mahdi Army, pro-Saddam, anti-Shiite or pro-insurgency. This time, however, there were almost none to be found; the exhortations to sectarian struggle had been replaced with the enthusiasms of youthful football fans: now the walls say "Long Live Barcelona."