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Divisions appear to deepen in Iraq despite relative calm

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. troop buildup in Iraq was meant to freeze the country’s civil war so political leaders could rebuild their fractured nation. Ten months later, the country’s bloodshed has dropped, but the military strategy has failed to reverse Iraq’s disintegration into areas dominated by militias, tribes and parties, with a weak central government struggling to assert its influence.

In the south, Shiite Muslim militias are at war over the lucrative oil resources in the Basra region. To the west, in Anbar province, Sunni Arab tribes that once fought U.S. forces now help police the streets and control the highways to Jordan and Syria. In the north, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens are locked in a battle for the regions around Kirkuk and Mosul. In Baghdad, blast walls partition neighborhoods policed by Sunni paramilitary groups and Shiite militias.

“Iraq is moving in the direction of a failed state, a highly decentralized situation -- totally unplanned, of course -- with competing centers of power run by warlords and militias,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “The central government has no political control whatsoever beyond Baghdad, maybe not even beyond the Green Zone.”

The capital’s Green Zone mirrors the chaos outside. Once the base of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime, it is now the seat of Iraq’s fractured and dysfunctional representative government. The U.S. troop buildup was intended to help Iraq’s national leaders overcome differences and give them space to pass compromise measures to end the country’s sectarian war, but lawmakers remain divided and continue to harbor suspicions about each other’s motives.

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In the summer, the country’s Sunni Arab minority quit the coalition government, leaving Shiites and Kurds with a razor-thin majority in parliament. They appear unable to push forward any solution to the country’s problems, whether a national oil law, a review of Iraq’s new constitution or legislation defining the powers of provincial councils. All efforts to define relations between Baghdad and outlying regions are stalled.

“The absence of government in a lot of areas has allowed others to move in, whether militias or others,” said an American diplomat, who like others, spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said that in the next year, the Iraqi government must step in and assert itself as the dominant force. “The No. 1 priority on the mind of the prime minister has got to be, 2008 is the year of services,” he said. “It’s difficult, but the window hasn’t closed.”

With such a goal in mind, the Iraqi government has budgeted more than $19 billion for public sector investment for 2008, but official spending is beset by corruption and sectarianism. U.S. military officers regularly complain that the education, health and water ministries bypass Sunni neighborhoods in west Baghdad.

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Western analysts question whether a government made up of only Shiites and Kurds will be able to impose order on a country so splintered that even provinces with homogenous Shiite and Sunni populations are beset by conflict.

The national government’s dysfunction sets the stage for more violence as different groups vie for dominance in cities, provinces and regions. Although the bloodshed is not likely to reach the levels seen at the height of the civil war in 2006, analysts expect more strife.

No quick solution

“It is like a baby being born, struggling and shouting,” said Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitaa, the director of the Al-Thaqalayn Center for Strategic Studies, which advises the Iraqi government.

Ghitaa predicted that the government would have to enact legislation such as that dealing with oil revenue and provincial powers by spring -- when the drawdown of U.S. combat brigades for the Baghdad security plan begins in earnest. Otherwise, the stalemate would just drag on.

Even then, he warned, the passage of legislation would intensify the violence for at least a six-month period as winners sought to claim the spoils in the provinces. “We are going to see some problems between Shia and Shia and problems among Sunnis and Kurds, especially in Mosul,” he said.

Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, would also see an increase in violence as Sunni tribal groups maneuvered for power, he added. “This is the price of democracy.”

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has sought to address the splintering of the country, particularly in the south, where most of Iraq’s Shiite population lives. There, Maliki, who is with the Islamic Dawa Party, is working with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the leading Shiite party in the ruling coalition, to try to stabilize cities torn by militia infighting.

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“They agree on what needs to be done in the south,” said an official from Maliki’s office. “This is a test for the government on whether they can establish control in a very volatile area,” the official said.

Militias have reached an informal truce in Basra ahead of the expected transfer this month of security responsibility for the entire province from the British to the Baghdad government, but a Western advisor to the Iraqi government said Iraqi troops were still not up to the task.

A major problem for locally recruited police and army units in Iraq is pressure from militias.

“The issue you have in the army is that soldiers are recruited in regional areas and trained in those areas and employed in those areas. The expectation is they will probably stay in their home areas. If you have deployments in the south, the rank and file will be Shia, the west Sunni and the north Kurd. They will not be a rainbow mix of all groups,” a Western official said.

Anthony H. Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said he doubted the national government could stabilize Iraq soon. “They don’t have a strong central government at this point, and it’s going to take years to create the instruments.”

In a recent report, Cordesman said a strong U.S. role was needed to ensure stability and dismissed the notion of the “soft partition” of Iraq into regional blocks advocated by U.S. senators in a nonbinding resolution this fall. Soft partition entails the creation of semiautonomous regions, based on the Kurdish model, that would receive funding from Baghdad but govern themselves.

Cordesman blamed decisions by the United States for much of Iraq’s current mess, including poor planning for the post-invasion period and, later, the administration’s rush to national elections in January 2005, which Iraq’s Sunnis boycotted. He warned that Iraq was at best midway through a turbulent metamorphosis.

“It generally took half a decade to get anywhere from a situation like the one Iraq has today to that which approaches stability,” he told The Times.

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“There is a reasonable prospect that you can move this toward a set of workable compromises if the United States continues to provide support and handle its military transition in a way that gives Iraqis enough time to not openly confront each other.”

Troops’ concerns

Mid-level U.S. officers in Iraq also worry about what comes next as the military draws down from current numbers of 160,000.

Maj. Barry Daniels, the operations officer for the Army’s 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, recalls how last year his soldiers had an impossible task of combating Shiite and Sunni extremists across west Baghdad’s large Mansour district. The troop buildup enabled his men to focus on just one neighborhood, the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Amiriya. Now, at the end of his deployment, his men have forged an alliance with a Sunni paramilitary group that polices the district.

“The big question for 2008 is what happens once all these surge battalions leave, because all your battle space is going to spread back out again,” Daniels said.

Across Baghdad and central Iraq, the relative calm is linked to the Americans’ alliances with Sunni paramilitary groups and Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s freeze on his Mahdi Army’s operations, but no one knows whether the fighters on both sides are just biding their time until the U.S. military leaves and using this interim period to organize themselves.

“This is an opportunity for the government of Iraq to reconcile at the national level,” Daniels said. “I think if they do that you are not going to have a bunch of mini-warlords. I’m afraid if they don’t, and the American people decide that they have had enough of it and we go home, you could have a full-blown civil war. That’s my personal concern.”

Greater problems lie ahead in provinces such as Anbar, where the U.S. fought fierce battles against Sunni rebels in 2004 and which is now perhaps the United States’ greatest success story.

There, the Anbar Awakening Council, an alliance of tribes that turned against the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq, has picked a feud with the main Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front.

Council members accuse the Sunni parties on the provincial council of embezzling funds. “Do you know that the projects in Anbar are only ink on paper? They are paying the expenses and it is stolen by the provincial council,” said Ali Hatem Sulaiman, a senior Anbar tribal leader, who has feuded with other Awakening Council leaders. “I am talking honestly in order to convey the reality. You want reality? This is the reality.”

The assassination of the council’s first leader, Sheik Abdul-Sattar abu Risha, in September also hinted at turbulence beneath the surface. Although the attack was blamed on Al Qaeda in Iraq, the sheik’s killers allegedly included members of his own security detail.

Other developing hot spots in Iraq include the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, in a strategically important region with large oil reserves. Both have been roiled by Sunni militant attacks since the summer, including two deadly car bombings that left hundreds dead.

Mindful of the challenges, Western officials are pushing Maliki to reconcile Iraq’s warring factions.

“He has to show he is going to be the leader of all Iraqis. He is going to have to make some very hard, tough decisions here,” Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, told The Times last month.

In private, Western officials continue to voice their long-held concern that Maliki is surrounded and isolated by a coterie of hard-line advisors from his religious Islamic Dawa Party.

“What I fear is that there is a group of people close to the prime minister who feed him misinformation, whether knowingly or not, probably not, to give them the benefit of the doubt that spin him up,” a Western advisor said. “He has to be shown this is the way or he is out.”

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ned.parker@latimes.com

Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Wail Alhafith, Said Rifai, Saif Hameed and Saif Rasheed and special correspondents in Najaf, Kirkuk, Basra, Hillah, Mosul and Ramadi contributed to this report.


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