Friday, June 22, 2007

Iraq holds its breath for the vital summer ahead

For Western officials who had hoped that their stint in Baghdad would help to craft a better future for Iraq, the kidnapping of five Britons is guaranteed to sap morale and energy. If any further proof was needed that the “red zone” – the real Iraq that lies beyond the relative safety of the green zone – was hostile territory, this was it.

Even within the blast-walled “sanctuary”, reality has long caught up with the green zone. A zone it remains, but green it is not. “‘Green zone’ makes it sound as if it’s safe, and it’s not,” sighs an American diplomat.

When I visited Baghdad last week, the mood among the Iraqi politicians, coalition forces and Western diplomats appeared at best uncertain. Only the Peruvian soldiers who man checkpoints gave nothing away; others let their body language do the talking.

Hussein al-Falluji, an MP from the largest Sunni bloc, says: “When I sit with the Americans, I feel a kind of weakness [from them]. When I look in their eyes I feel that they are not the same as in 2003. From the inside they feel like they are failing here.”

The birth of the green zone harks back to a time of exhilarating innocence when all things seemed possible. But four years of chaotic upheaval and unfulfilled hope have left a palpable weariness.

For the first-time visitor, Donald Rumsfeld’s dictum explaining the post-invasion looting – “freedom’s untidy” – springs quickly to mind. What stands out are the plastic bags snagged on razor wire, barriers of rubble or blackened palm trunks blocking streets, pocked surfaces, a burnt-out car, drivers on the wrong side of the road. In the early evening, with curfew approaching, it is easier to count plastic bottles offering black-market petrol than children.

It is understandable, therefore, that if you paint a picture of brighter possibilities for Iraq, few people look. Invite them through an open door marked “optimism” and they shy away.

The next few months are critical to Iraq. For the past year, security concerns have demanded priority. Now politics has to catch up. Agreements between sectarian and ethnic leaders on dividing Iraq’s future oil revenue, allowing Baathists back into work and rewriting parts of the Constitution to address the grievances of Sunnis who virtually boycotted the original drafting – all of these would help solidify the US security surge, which has made some gains while being apparently powerless to stop brazen kidnappings like that of the five Britons this week.

Some green zoners, British included, are uneasy with the way that Ryan Crocker, the US Ambassador, is trying to force the pace. The fear is that deals brokered to meet Washington deadlines may prove suspect to Iraqis at large, and therefore flaky.

But unless General David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces, is able to report positive movement when he delivers his status report in September, there will be the small matter of a US political crisis, with crucial issues about the funding and duration of the US presence hanging unresolved.

Despite the stakes, no one is predicting significant progress, let alone expecting it. Western officials have been stung too often to talk up prospects. General John Allen, deputy commanding officer of US forces in western Iraq, covering the restive Anbar province, says he is “confident that there has been progress” there – an interesting use of tense and a cautionary reminder of past false dawns.

Sunni leaders excoriate the Shia-led Government. Mamoun Sami Rashid al-Awani, governor of Anbar and a US ally in tackling al-Qaeda, accuses Baghdad of threatening local security advances by at best failing, and at worst refusing, to improve the patchy supply of the three basics – electricity, petrol and water – that still dogs the country.

Meanwhile, street-level Shia leaders breathe fiery resistance. “If the occupiers stay here, we will not develop for 100 years,” says a commander of the Mahdi Army who helps to control much of what goes on in the volatile slum of Sadr City.

The recent fortunes of Anbar, furnace of the Sunni insurgency, highlight the positive signs while underlining the dangers of overinterpreting them. Al-Qaeda has largely been expelled from towns and cities, according to General Allen. One version has it that locals in Ramadi turned against the terrorists when two boys who refused a jihadi order to stop riding their bikes were beheaded. Yet the fighters, and the violence, have simply moved to Diyala province.

The number of police recruits in Anbar has increased hugely, from 2,000 last year to 14,000, a positive sign, perhaps, of Iraqis embracing their future. Many are assumed to be former insurgents – not necessarily a problem if they have decided to join civil society – but the statistic is wholly irrelevant if they remain at heart violent sectarians masquerading as the law. Yet some claim that policemen are currently not being paid, an act of possibly wilful negligence by Interior Ministry officials. And according to Mr al-Falluji, some 90 per cent of Anbar still supports the resistance, viewing Americans with hostility and the Baghdad Government as the plaything of Iran.

There is hope, though, for Iraq’s domestic politics. Nouri al-Maliki struggles to assert prime ministerial authority and may distrust many of those with whom he has to strike deals. But there are signs, according to Western officials, that Sunni and Shia leaders have agreed the outline of a new Constitution.

This, though, is not a bilateral negotiation, and there are concerns that the Kurds, who did well out of the original draft, may refuse to play ball. The ill-health of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of Iraq’s largest Shia party, who has lung cancer, will not help a swift result.

There are two scenarios for Iraq. One involves the US-issued, ecofriendly lightbulbs that glow in the chandeliers of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace, the current US Embassy. But they could yet serve as a metaphor for the whole venture: well intentioned, expensive yet failing to understanding life in the real Iraq and irrelevant to it. Too much time spent on energy-saving light bulbs powered by a green zone generator, not enough on providing electricity for those outside.

The other envisages Iraq’s leaders reaching a political settlement and the surging US troops reducing violence to the point where Washington and Baghdad are happy for coalition forces to leave. Perhaps some barriers could even come down.

The trouble with the latter is that no one, not even those involved, is gambling a single dinar on it being remotely that straightforward.

Roland Watson is foreign editor of The Times

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