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Relative calm a chance for Iraq

Times Staff Writer

As Iraq’s government on Monday trumpeted a dramatic decline in violence, describing it as a sign that sectarian warfare is waning, U.S. officials warned that the gains would be short-lived if the nation’s leaders did not use the relative calm to advance political reconciliation.

A day after U.S. military officials proclaimed that bombings and other attacks had dropped 55% nationwide since June, the Iraqi government released figures showing steeper declines in the capital and surrounding areas. According to its figures, there were 323 violent attacks in the governorate of Baghdad last month, compared with 1,134 in June.

The violence remains high, but the current level is a vast improvement, one that turned government spokesman Ali Dabbagh nearly giddy as he spoke on Al Arabiya TV on Monday. Dabbagh said Baghdad had “defeated the forces of darkness” and returned to its glory as “the beautiful city of the ‘One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.’ ”

“Certainly we still have more to do, but no one can deny that we have passed the difficult stage in Baghdad, the stage that we all had fears of sliding to a civil war,” he said.

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Dabbagh echoed U.S. officials who have cited various factors for decreasing violence: the recruitment of former insurgents to work alongside U.S. and Iraqi security forces; a decision by Sunni Arab tribal leaders to turn on insurgents; and the deployment of an additional 28,500 American troops to Iraq between February and June of this year as part of a U.S. security plan.

But military and government officials warned at the start of the clampdown that it would not have lasting success unless it was matched with political progress. It is a message being repeated with a new sense of urgency, now that Iraqi leaders can no longer blame huge bombs, mass abductions, and street-by-street fighting as an excuse for political paralysis.

Analysts, as well as officials, say now is the time that Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-led government must step up delivery of essential services, revive schools and hospitals, and pass laws to end distrust among Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds.

“It’s about confidence-building measures. You have got to step forward,” said the No. 2 commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno.

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Odierno said the government has a window of opportunity, perhaps until next summer, to act before gains begin unraveling. “Security is better, so now is the time to reach out to the other parts of the Iraqi populace,” he said. “It’s time to really look at delivering services to all Iraqis in Baghdad and around” the country.

U.S. government officials agree.

“This is absolutely the case,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip T. Reeker. “This really is the time when they need to take advantage of the window that has been given.”

Some basic services such as electricity are showing signs of improvement, with most customers receiving more power per day than a few months ago. But that could be because demand for electricity is down now that the end of summer has reduced use of air conditioners.

The major laws that U.S. and Iraqi leaders long maintained were crucial to peace have not been passed, and there is little sign any of them will be soon. None has come before the parliament for debate.

Chief among them are a law to end the official shunning of former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party, who were stripped of their jobs and pensions after Hussein’s ouster; a law to manage the country’s oil industry so that Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish regions reap the financial rewards; and a law to decide the extent of provinces’ powers.

Perhaps the most pressing is the provincial powers law, which is necessary before provincial elections can be held. A U.S. Embassy official said there had been no movement on it since July and that different factions were deadlocked over such things as whether the prime minister should have the power to sack governors. This has stalled the scheduling of provincial elections, since no party wants to hold them until they know the provinces’ ultimate powers, said the official, who asked to remain anonymous.

Odierno said provincial elections were a key confidence-building measure. “I’m hoping it happens next year. I think it’s essential,” he said.

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Senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, have frequently expressed frustration that political reconciliation has lagged behind progress they say is being made by U.S. forces. At one point, Gates bluntly warned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki that U.S. troops were buying him time with their blood.

But one senior U.S. military official noted that many Iraqi government leaders had been chosen by their peers precisely because they did not have a strong political base, leaving them insecure and not inclined to move quickly and decisively.

“They weren’t the strongest horses around; there was concern about somebody taking the reins and running away with it,” the official said. “Because of their insecurities and the weakness of their political base, they’ve been reluctant to jump off the high board.”

Maliki’s government has bristled at the U.S. impatience and accused American lawmakers of trying to push Iraq’s parliament to satisfy Washington’s clock. It also has been slow to embrace the U.S. military’s idea of using former Sunni Arab insurgents as security forces, warning that such recruits could turn on Shiite forces once American troops leave.

But many provincial leaders have accepted the idea, and senior U.S. military commanders, as well as many Iraqis, are hopeful this will turn up pressure on Baghdad’s government to do what it takes to solidify the gains made.

Many Iraqi politicians agree that they need to act fast.

Dabbagh tempered his enthusiasm with an acknowledgment that some Baghdad neighborhoods, such as Dora and Saidiya, remain tense and that threats from insurgents remain.

Ammar Wajeeh, a Sunni Arab lawmaker in the national parliament, said legislators were under pressure because there were few jobs and scant municipal services.

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“People are wondering what will be next,” Wajeeh said. “Winter is on the doorstep and we are wondering if the sewers will stand the rain. The municipal services provided are, to say the least, minimal.”

But Sami Askari, a Shiite lawmaker allied with Maliki, said he was confident the reduced violence would usher in changes on the political level and allow contractors and companies to return to the streets to repair infrastructure damaged in the war.

“Now is the appropriate time and a chance for them and the government to proceed,” he said.

The relative calm did not come soon enough for four members of the Iraqi national soccer team, who disappeared during a visit to Australia and requested asylum.

The Iraqi team had played Australia’s soccer team Saturday in a qualifying match for the 2008 Beijing Olympics; Australia won, 2-0. Three Iraqi players and a coach vanished Sunday. An official of Iraq’s sports journalists association, Saif Muhsin, said the Iraqi Olympic Committee got word Monday that the men were asking for asylum in Australia.

Also Monday, an Iraqi television journalist who had been abducted Friday was freed. The kidnappers called his family and told them to pick up their son in a Baghdad neighborhood in the predawn darkness today, said the manager of the independent Baghdadiya TV station.

“They went and found him standing on the street alone,” said the manager, who asked not to be identified. He said the reporter, Muntathar Zaidi, had minor bruises but was otherwise unharmed.

tina.susman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Ned Parker, Saif Hameed and Wail Alhafith in Baghdad, and Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.


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