The new normal in Baghdad

Peter Harling writes: After violence that shattered hundreds of thousands of lives and left nearly everyone with a tragic story to tell, life in Iraq has settled into a strange normality — with no discernible direction or clear future. “How do you make sense of the last ten years?” said a novelist, who is trying to do just that. “The problem is not the starting point, but where to end. To write the history of the Algerian civil war, you had to wait till it was over. Here, we are still in the middle of a sequence of events whose outcome we cannot see.” The structure of his novel, in which each chapter relates to a different year, means he remains hostage to a political system that continues to keep the country in suspense.

A decade after the US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains in crisis, although you wouldn’t know it from visiting Baghdad. The suicide attacks, car bombs and other explosive devices used, and abused, by the resistance and sectarian militias are much rarer than they were a few years ago, leading the world’s media to lose much of its interest in Iraq.

Traffic is easing its way through the maze of roadblocks and concrete barriers that had made it a nightmare. Many Iraqis who fled the violence in 2006 and took refuge in Kurdistan, or abroad, have returned. Those who stood accused of “collaborating” with the US are fitting back into society. The high cost of living doesn’t stop the new recipients of oil money from frantic consumerism. Indeed there’s more of a bustle in the shopping streets than in the corridors of power, where politicians on all sides react to the latest political tussle with remarkable nonchalance.

Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s detractors have been growing as he has accumulated powers. His trial of strength with the Kurdish leadership in the northeast of the country, over oil revenue and disputed territories, did help him rally support among the Arab population, both Shia and Sunni, establishing him as the defender of their interests and, more generally, of the country’s integrity. But then he overreached himself by using the “terrorism” argument to push aside politicians such as Rafi al-Issawi, his Sunni deputy, in a political system where senior government posts are allocated on ethno-sectarian lines. This led to huge popular protests against Al-Maliki, which forced Sunni politicians whom he had co-opted to distance themselves from him.

That in turn almost inevitably rekindled Shia identity politics, in a society still scarred by sectarian violence, particularly rife between 2006 and 2008. But not everyone in this diverse Shia community is an ally of Al-Maliki, since his personal power increases by reducing the influence of his rivals. [Continue reading…]

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