Iraq surge brings a lull in violence but no reconciliation
By Steve Negus, Iraq correspondent
Published: January 7 2008 02:00 | Last updated: January 7 2008 02:00
Already, the “surge” of US troops into Baghdad is beginning to recede, leaving behind a country where, by most accounts, levels of political violence are much reduced.
But the surge has not accomplished the goal that the administration of US President George W. Bush set when it announced the policy at the beginning of last year – to buy time for Iraqi politicians to reach compromises on the country’s future that would reconcile its feuding ethnic and sectarian factions.
US officers say that such a grand compromise may not be so important. They have achieved “bottom-up” reconciliation by cementing local alliances and arranging for the amnesty of prisoners, the pensioning off of former regime officials and other measures to win Sunni acceptance for the Shia-led government.
Over the next year, as neighbourhoods, towns and districts lose the US garrisons that helped suppress sectarian militias and insurgent groups and maintain the balance of power, the ability of these improvised measures to withstand the centrifugal forces of Iraqi sectarian politics will be put to the test.
US forces numbered approximately 160,000 at the end of December, down from a high of over 170,000 in October. Robert Gates, US defence secretary, said last month that the military should be able to withdraw five brigades, or around 20,000 soldiers, by mid-2008, and hoped to take out another five by the end of this year.
British troops will also be winding down their deployment in Iraq, with numbers expected to fall from 5,000 to 2,500 in the middle of next year.
In terms of reducing violence, the strategy orchestrated by General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, appears to have succeeded beyond its planners’ expectations. Both US military casualties and Iraqi civilian casualties have fallen dramatically since the summer.
But many Iraqi politicians and Iraq analysts fear that unless the government can reach agreement with its political opponents, the lull in violence may not last. “If this improvement in security is not matched by improvements in political life, economy, unemployment and the services for the standard of living, [or] if there is no reconciliation, nobody can guarantee that this security would not deteriorate again,” says Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish politician.
“What Petraeus has accomplished is a lull that is sustainable through the American elections [in November 2008],” says Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank. “It’s not indefinitely sustainable without political accommodation at the top . . . This is conventional wisdom and it makes sense.”
Gen Petraeus himself said last month that, although the violence that had brought Iraq to the “brink of civil war” had receded, the progress had been “tenuous in many areas and could be reversed”.
According to American officers, the surge worked by allowing the US and Iraqi governments to blanket strategic districts, in some cases placing troops in positions where they could overlook virtually every main road junction.
This allowed US forces to intercept guerrillas moving in and out – and, more importantly, to break the hold that insurgents had gained on neighbourhoods via intimidation. Fatalities suffered by the US-led coalition fell to 40 a month in October and November, and 23 in December, from well over 100 a month in each of April, May and June. Figures for civilian dead also suggest a drop of more than 50 per cent since the summer.
In addition, both Sunni and Shia armed groups appear to have suffered a significant loss of legitimacy among their support bases. Members of both sects say that the gunmen alienated the civilian population by imposing a puritan version of Islamic law or by killing locals suspected of being informants.
Iraq’s al-Qaeda network, in particular, sparked a massive backlash. Over 70,000 paramilitaries, or “concerned local citizens”, enlisted in neighbourhood patrols targeted mainly at the radical Sunni movement.
Shia militants also appear to have lost legitimacy. Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric, continues to enforce a ban on all armed activity in areas controlled by his movement, and his deputies say that that they have formed a special “Golden Unit” to purge members suspected of criminal violence or sectarian killing.
However, the retreat of the armed movements does not appear to have been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the authority and legitimacy of the Iraqi state. Gen Petraeus has said that as al-Qaeda activity lessens in Sunni areas, “mafia-like” criminal organisations practising kidnapping and extortion expand to fill the gap. Meanwhile, the British military’s recent withdrawal from Basra city stems from the realisation that it could do little to stop feuding among Islamist militia groups.
Some analysts have suggested Basra is a glimpse into Iraq’s medium-term future. The violence there, which probably results in several dozen dead a month, is hardly a serious threat to the Iraqi state. But the climate of lawlessness ensures that investors steer clear of an oil-rich port city that could be Iraq’s economic and commercial capital – and that the middle class, which fled en masse to neighbouring countries, does not return.
Meanwhile, Iraqi politicians have failed to deliver the hoped-for “national reconciliation” package of legislation. Parliament adjourned at the end of the year without having approved important legislation on the distribution of oil revenues and the fate of members of the former ruling Ba’ath party. Given the heated rhetoric that continues to fly between Kurds and Arabs, Sunni and Shia, it appears that the much-vaunted “consensus” may not in fact exist.
It could be the US troop presence, rather than low-profile trust-building measures, that is the crucial factor in keeping the feuding factions apart. “The Americans can [prevent local conflicts] now because they have leverage through the military,” says Mr Hiltermann.
The US surge does appear to have interrupted the cycle of violence that a year ago seemed to be pushing Iraq inexorably into all-out sectarian war. But it has not bought Iraqis enough time to resolve their differences and it is unclear whether local ceasefires can last without US troops to help resolve disagreements and prevent groups from settling their disputes by force.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008