NEWS, ANALYSIS & OPINION: How is Iraq changing?

2008: The year of federalism in Iraq?

In all the speculation about the fate of the US “surge” policy in Iraq, many analysts have overlooked a date on the 2008 calendar which is bound to become fateful: 11 April. On that day, the current moratorium on creating new federal entities – a last-minute addition to the Iraqi federalism legislation in October 2006 – comes to an end. From April 2008 onwards, the administrative map of Iraq could change dramatically. [complete article]

Iraq: Toward national reconciliation, or a warlord state?

While the vast majority of analysts agree that sectarian violence in Iraq has declined sharply from pre-“surge” levels one year ago, a major debate has broken out as to whether the achievement of the surge’s strategic objective – national reconciliation – is closer or more distant than ever.

On one side, advocates of the surge – the deployment beginning last February of some 30,000 additional troops to Iraq to help pacify Baghdad and al-Anbar province – claim that the counter-insurgency strategy overseen by Gen. David Petraeus has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

On the other side, surge skeptics argue that the strategy’s “ground-up” approach to pacification – buying off local insurgent and tribal groups with money and other support – may have set the stage for a much bigger and more violent civil war or partition, particularly as U.S. forces begin drawing down from their current high of about 175,000 beginning as early as next month.

One prominent analyst, George Washington University Prof. Marc Lynch, believes that Petraeus’ strategy of reducing violence by making deals with dominant local powers is leading to the creation in Iraq of a “warlord state” with “power devolved to local militias, gangs, tribes, and power-brokers, with a purely nominal central state.” [complete article]

In Iraq, signs of hope and peril

Even Osama bin Laden understands that al-Qaeda has stumbled badly in Iraq. In an Oct. 22 audiotape that attracted too little notice at the time, bin Laden scolded his followers for tactics that alienated Iraqis. “Mistakes have been made during holy wars,” he said. “Some of you have been lax in one duty, which is to unite your ranks.”

Bin Laden’s self-criticism was “possibly the most important message” in al-Qaeda’s history, wrote Abdel Bari Atwan, an Arab journalist who has interviewed bin Laden and written an insightful biography. “It is the first time that bin Laden recognizes the error committed by the members of his organization and in particular the excesses committed in Iraq.”

Second, the recent security gains reflect the fact that Iran is standing down, for the moment. The Iranian-backed Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr has sharply curtailed its operations. The shelling of the Green Zone by Iranian-backed militias in Sadr City has stopped. The flow of deadly roadside bombs from Iran appears to have slowed or stopped. And to make it official, the Iranians announced Tuesday that they will resume security discussions in Baghdad with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

I suspect the Iranians’ new policy of accommodation is a tactical shift. They still want to exert leverage over a future Iraq, but they have concluded that the best way to do so is to work with U.S. forces — and speed our eventual exit — rather than continue a policy of confrontation. A genuine U.S.-Iranian understanding about stabilizing Iraq would be a very important development. But we should see it for what it is: The Iranians will contain their proxy forces in Iraq because it’s in their interest to do so. [complete article]

Maliki thrown a political lifeline

The Iraqi Accordance Front, the Sunni heavyweight in Iraqi politics, has decided to rejoin the cabinet of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which it abandoned on August 1.

It is unclear whether the same five ministers, along with deputy prime minister Salam Zoubai, who all stepped down, will return to work with the premier or whether the Front will nominate new ministers for the vacant posts. They resigned because Maliki had not responded to any of the 11 demands they had made. These included a greater decision-making role for Sunnis and an amnesty for Sunni prisoners – mainly former Ba’athists who had joined – or been accused of taking part in – the Sunni insurgency.

This comes amid increased speculation that Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will also soon reconcile with Maliki, having also walked out on him in recent months due to Maliki’s “friendship” with US President George W Bush. [complete article]

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