Iraq: Under worse management

Bloomberg Businessweek reports: Seif Abdel Sadeh’s eyes lolled as his brother tipped a cup of orange juice to his swollen lips. As he lifted his arm to push his brother’s hand away, he grimaced, agitating the charred skin on his face, causing still more pain. The day before, Seif, 18, was walking to his Sadr City high school when a bomb strapped to a motorcycle exploded. It shattered his left leg and sent so much shrapnel into his right leg that it had to be removed. The bomb that hit Seif that morning, and another that went off minutes later, killed a dozen Iraqis, mostly day laborers waiting to pick up work at a busy intersection on the road that connects Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad, to the downtown expressway.

Seif’s family huddled around his hospital bed. “We lived in fear of this happening to one of our kids,” Seif’s father, Abdel Sadeh, said, fingering a set of worry beads. His eyes welled up. “Who benefits from attacking innocent people?” He saw the blasts as bad omens: “These attacks are proof that the political parties are going to start tearing this country apart now.”

By some statistical measures, Iraq today is safer and more stable than it has been in nearly a decade. In 2011, fewer than 1,500 Iraqi civilians were killed by bombs, sniper ambushes, and other “enemy attacks,” according to the Brookings Institute Iraq index, the lowest figure since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Business owners say they’re freer than ever to travel, borrow from international creditors, and transfer money abroad. A visitor to Baghdad can take heart in the signs of postwar normalcy: the shouts of young men watching soccer in the cafés, the laughter of children tromping off to school.

Iraq, however, is far from stable. The wave of violence that has rocked the country since the last U.S. troops rolled back across the border into Kuwait on Dec. 18 began with a dozen coordinated attacks in Baghdad on Dec. 22 that killed upwards of 60 people; then there were the Jan. 5 bombings in Kadhimiya and Sadr City and another attack on a bus full of Shiite pilgrims the same day, near the holy city of Karbala. All 30 passengers died. Fifty-three more pilgrims were killed near Basra on Jan. 14, and 10 died in attacks on a police station in Ramadi the next day. Add the victims of drive-by shootings and bombings at military and police checkpoints from Fallujah to Mosul, and the total number of dead in the month since the withdrawal tops 250.

The end of the U.S. military’s long, bloody adventure in Iraq signals the start of a new, highly uncertain chapter in the country’s development. In the scenario conjured by optimistic U.S. and Iraqi officials, an Iraq free of tyranny, terrorism, and foreign occupation will transform itself into a modern and open economy in the heart of the Arab world. That vision recedes a bit more every day as sectarian tensions reemerge, corruption hinders development, and the country’s political leadership moves against its opponents and flirts with autocracy. Iraqis are reluctant to ask aloud if the most recent attacks represent the deadly half-life of war, or, as Abdel Sadeh and many others I spoke to during four weeks in December and January say they fear, another meltdown.

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