Friday, 12 September 2008
Iraq: what's changed?
Iraq: what's changed?
The security situation has improved, but as the smoke of conflict clears, the full human cost of the Iraq occupation comes into view
The Guardian - September 10 2008
Back in Baghdad for the first time this year, I was consumed by the issue of change. What's different, I would ask almost every Iraqi I met. 'What about you, what do you see that's new?', they would query in their turn. So here, in a few paragraphs, is a summary of my answers. Some things have changed for the better, others for the worse. Let's start with the positive.
Security is massively improved. Fears of random abduction and murder are reduced. The frequency of car bombs is down. Whereas Iraqis rarely left their homes, except for work and some hurried shopping, people dare to go out in the evening. Some 50,000 attended the finals of the national football championship in Baghdad the other night, a crowd which would have been anxious of being the target of a suicide attack this time last year.
Was it the 'surge' of 30,000 extra troops which did it? That played a role, but the more important and larger 'surge' was the Iraqi one. Iraqi police and army units are everywhere in Baghdad, while US troops are rarely to be seen. Uniformed Iraqis stand guard or sit in vehicles at virtually every cross-roads and roundabout in Baghdad. They man checkpoints every few hundred yards, observing traffic, occasionally pulling a driver over, and keeping an eye on each other. A year ago, the police were suspects themselves, often involved in sectarian brutality. Now, the police have been cleaned up, not yet fully, but enough to make a difference, especially with the army standing close by to watch them.
The emergence among the Sunnis of al-Sahwa, the so-called Awakening movement, has also helped to enhance security. This is the second positive change. Several areas of Baghdad are patrolled by these new militias who used to fight the Americans and then switched to fighting al-Qaida. Now they run their areas on their own, telling the Iraqi police as well as the Americans that they are not wanted. The Americans call them 'sons of Iraq' or 'concerned local citizens' and pay them, but whatever their name, they perform a vital security function.
A major result – my third good change – is that hundreds of displaced Sunni and Shia families are coming home. It is well-known that the longer refugees stay away, the harder it is for them ever to go back. Their property is looted or taken over. They put down roots elsewhere. A year ago it seemed that the capital city's mixed neighbourhoods were doomed. Over half a million Baghdadis had fled to different parts of the city where they felt safer. Baghdad seemed fated to become a mosaic of ethnically cleansed monocultural enclaves.
That is no longer true. Some of the displacement is turning out to be reversible, and the Iraqi government is making a serious effort to speed it up. It says squatting in someone else's home will be punishable by three years in jail and, starting this month, will use the Iraqi army to force squatters out.
The fourth change is a gradual shift away from the Islamist politics of the last few years to something more inclusive, tolerant, and democratic. It is a hard thing to put your finger on, but there's a more secular mood in the air. For two years Baghdad was in the grip of an intra-Arab Sunni-versus-Shia civil war. That phase is over. People looked into the abyss, and pulled themselves back.
I heard the most optimistic take on this new sense of moderation from Raid Jahid Fahmi, the minister of science and technology, an LSE-trained leader of the Iraqi Communist party. 'We are living in brutal, violent times, but Iraqi society is finding a new equilibrium,' he told me. With his Iraqi government colleagues in mind, he added:
Look at many of these Islamic leaders. Look at their discourse, their practice, and the projects they adopt. It's different from what they believed in the past. The mentality of sectarianism is on the decline. I don't know the degree of their sincerity, but they now accept having a law-based state and a multicultural civil society. It's hard to find a family in Baghdad which didn't lose at least one member, but the forces which were responsible for this have suffered a great deal of discredit. People have learnt from their experiences.
Alas, not all the changes in Baghdad are for the better. On the negative side I would put the extraordinary increase in hatred and suspicion of Iran among Baghdad's Sunni Arabs. Sunnis have never liked the mullahs in Tehran. But now, thanks to the mass killings of Sunnis by Shias in the last two years as well as the constant drum-beat of anti-Iranian propaganda from the Americans, it is hard to find a Sunni leader who does not see Iran as the main source of Iraq's troubles. In Adhamiya, a largely Sunni suburb, the Awakening council leader Abu Abed Ali Bahjat insisted that al-Qaida in Iraq was run by Iran. Osama bin Laden's son lived in Iran, he assured me, where he was in charge of forging links with Lebanon's Hizbullah.
Iraq's vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, the country's leading Sunni politician, was less paranoid but equally blunt. 'Unfortunately, Iran is a troublemaker rather than being a responsible and honest neighbour. There is a major threat from Iran,' he told me.
Bad, too, is the government's new move to disarm al-Sahwa. A year ago, the country's Shia leaders were cautiously welcoming the Awakening movement as a vital weapon against al-Qaida. Now, they see its newfound strength as a danger, and are trying to force it to disband, even though it has improved Baghdad's security.
The third negative change is the new risk of armed clashes between Arabs and Kurds. Low-level tension between the two communities over the oil-rich Kirkuk region and other parts of northern Iraq has been a feature of the Iraqi scene for years. But it has become sharper in the last few months, and there is a real danger that major violence could erupt. It would only take one spark to ignite the Kirkuk oil drum and then we could see Arab-versus-Kurdish killing in every area where both people are neighbours today. The danger should not be exaggerated, but it is certainly more real than a year ago.
Finally, one has to mention the enormous legacy of human misery which the invasion and five years of occupation unleashed. Is it worse than a year ago? Has anything changed here? Probably not, but as the prospect of a US troop reduction gains strength whoever wins the White House in November, the full toll of disaster comes more clearly into focus.
The impact of the recent short-term improvements makes it easier to comprehend the medium- and long-term tasks ahead. A country with more than a million widows, where barely half the children go to school (because of displacement, continuing security fears, and teacher shortages), with drastic scarcities of electric power and water, and an eighth of its people living abroad, many of them those with the best education and the most needed skills, is not going to get back on its feet any time soon.