Despite the optimism, Iraq is close to the edge
Troops are preparing to withdraw as a peace of sorts descends, yet all the elements for civil war remain. Barack Obama will need all the goodwill he can garner
From the Guardian (UK) -- George W Bush, barely a month away from leaving office, flew to Baghdad last weekend for an eight-hour visit. On Wednesday, it was Gordon Brown's turn. The arrival of president and prime minister in the Iraqi capital is part of a concerted effort to draw a line under the debacle that Iraq has become for the American and British governments. After nearly six years of occupation, Bush was keen to stress the progress he claimed had been made.
"The Iraq we're standing in today is dramatically freer, dramatically safer and dramatically better," he told American troops. Brown was a little more circumspect, simply declaring: "We leave Iraq a better place." The startling actions of Iraqi journalist Muntazar al-Zaidi in throwing his shoes at Bush indicates that all is not as positive as Bush would have the world believe. There is a grave danger that by overstating the good news from Iraq, both Bush and Brown are making a return to civil war more likely.
I have been travelling back and forth to Iraq for the last seven years. I witnessed the violent aftermath of the invasion in the spring of 2003 when looting and lawlessness descended into an all out insurgency. I returned in 2007 to see a country in the midst of civil war. On my last trip to Iraq this year, the population was holding its breath, waiting to see if the internecine strife had finished or simply stalled while all sides rearm.
Bush and Brown's visits were heralded by what could be a final date for both US and British troops to go home. The agreement between Baghdad and Washington, passed by the Iraqi parliament at the end of November, should see US combat troops removed from all Iraqi cities by June and then out of the country entirely by the end of 2011. Britain's remaining 4,000 soldiers in Basra will leave Iraq by July. With an end to the occupation in sight, both Bush and Brown are attempting to put the best possible gloss on a military adventure that has seen 178 British and 4,209 Americans troops killed and anything between 90,000 and 650,000 Iraqi deaths.
Anglo-American declarations of progress and stability need to be treated with caution. Even today, Iraq is far from peaceful; an average of 500 people are murdered each month, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Baghdad at the end of 2008 is a deeply divided city. Neighborhoods that were religiously and ethnically cleansed by the wave of violence that engulfed the city before 2007 are now fortified by row upon row of concrete blast walls.
Bush "surged" US troops at the beginning of 2007 to reduce violence and trigger some form of political reconciliation and a negotiated settlement. This is yet to happen, so there is a real danger all-out conflict could reignite. Bush and Brown are loathe to use the term "civil war" to describe what took place in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 but this is exactly what happened.
The manner in which key political groups responded to the violence raises grave doubts about the future stability of the country. In the wake of al-Qaida car bomb and suicide attacks, militias claiming to represent the Shia community retaliated, abducting and murdering innocent Sunni men across Baghdad. This cycle of atrocity and counter-atrocity resulted in the murder of 3,700 people in October 2006 alone. Some were victims of car bombs but the majority of the dead had been bound, frequently tortured and shot in the back of the head, the work of death squads claiming to defend the Shia community of Baghdad.
The ultimate aim of this campaign was to reduce drastically the numbers of Sunnis resident in Baghdad. Previously affluent suburbs on the western side of the Tigris such as Mansour and Yarmouk were targeted for violent population transfer. There is also strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that government services were withdrawn from these areas as part of a co-ordinated campaign to drive Sunnis from Baghdad. In early 2007, as I travelled through these previously affluent suburbs of Baghdad, I found them to be largely deserted, their markets and shops closed, their populations either trapped inside their houses or forced to flee.
The optimism that both Bush and Brown displayed in Baghdad is naive. Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia have shown that they have the continuing ability to send car and suicide bombers into Baghdad. Across Iraq as a whole, there were 24 such attacks in November alone. The problem is that without meaningful political reconciliation and a sustainable peace deal, Iraq could once again descend into all-out civil war.
After nearly almost six years of occupation, a US withdrawal from Iraq is both inevitable and desirable. There is little that the Americans can now achieve on their own. Obama has committed his government to having all of its combat troops out of the country within 16 months of him entering the White House. Even with a clear electoral mandate to pursue this policy, there are potential problems he has to avoid. If violence does increase as he draws down US troops, then the Republicans and especially ex-President Bush will accuse him of "losing Iraq", of squandering the gains in security made in the two years before he took office.
There is a way of reducing this risk. The election of Obama was greeted with something like a global sigh of relief. The new American president will enter the White House with an immense amount of international goodwill. He could utilise this in Iraq to very good effect. Obama's international influence will be at its peak when he visits the United Nations in New York for the first time as president. A speech before the General Assembly will have to acknowledge the damage that his predecessor did to America's standing in the world. A clear request for international help in sorting Iraq out would have immense appeal.
Iraq faces two elections in 2009. The first, in January, is for provincial councils in the south and centre of the country. The second, more important, one in December will elect a new parliament which, in turn, will pick the next prime minister. It is hard to overstate the importance of this election. If successful, it has the potential to revitalise Iraq's governing elite, bringing in new, more representative politicians and reconnecting the ruling elite, presently tucked away in the Green Zone, with their long-suffering electorate.
There is a grave danger that the elections could be undermined, either by increased violence or by widespread electoral fraud. At present, the United Nations is set to play a minor role in the elections. By December, the US, already redeployed to remote bases, will also have little ability to oversee the vote. However, Obama could use the Iraqi national elections as a vehicle for greatly increasing the international community's involvement in Iraq.
An appeal by him at the UN for assistance would be hard to reject. This could act as the trigger for much greater international participation in the country, reducing the potential for Iraq to descend into civil war and help the United States to withdraw without leaving a political vacuum in Baghdad. The alternative was on display in Baghdad last week, the unrealistic and deeply opportunistic optimism of Bush and Brown. That approach offers little help to Iraq beyond wishful thinking.
Toby Dodge teaches Middle Eastern politics at Queen Mary University of London.