Iraqis on edge as Americans leave

Patrick Cockburn writes: Iraqis are worried. The last American soldiers leave the country in the next few days and they are waiting to see how the outcome of the struggle for power in Syria will affect them. “We are afraid about the future,” said a businessman in Baghdad. “We are importing goods for two months ahead maximum, and not six months, as we usually do.”

The nervousness of Iraqis is inspired in part by memories of the traumatizing years between 2003 and 2009, when tens of thousands were slaughtered. Many were victims of “identity card” killings, when a Sunni or Shia caught at the wrong checkpoint or in the wrong area was routinely killed.

Baghdad today is quiet by its previous grim standards, but the old fears lie half-buried just beneath the surface. Not all the reasons for the lack of sectarian confrontation are encouraging. One woman journalist said, “There are less sectarian killings now partly because there are so few mixed areas [containing both Sunni and Shia] left in Baghdad.”

Could civil war erupt again? How fragile is the ramshackle coalition government of Shia, Kurd and Sunni led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Iraqi leaders I spoke to say the capacity to keep the present power-sharing agreement going is far more significant for the stability of the country than any enhanced security threat from al-Qa’ida following the departure of the last American soldiers. “The leaders behave like adversaries even when they are in the same government,” says Dr Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of parliament. “It would be better to have a government and an opposition, but nobody in Iraq feels safe enough to be in the opposition.”

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