New year holds promise, traps for Iraq

The coming year will test Iraq’s fledgling democracy, with two key events looming as possible tipping points: the pullout of U.S. forces from the country’s cities, and bookend elections in January and December.

The troop withdrawal is pivotal. As Iraq takes charge of its security from the Americans, the civil war might reignite, or the gains of the U.S. troop buildup could prove lasting.

Whatever the outcome, it is likely to emerge gradually as U.S. forces are drawn down under the security agreement signed in November that calls for most troops to leave the cities by the end of June and to leave the country by the end of 2011.

“Are [the Iraqis] able to work it out without sending the country back into screaming civil war? They could, but they could also mess it up,” said a U.S. diplomat in Iraq, who like others spoke for this report on condition of anonymity.

Likewise, local elections scheduled for Jan. 31 and a national vote in December to select the next government will go a long way toward clarifying the political order: whether Iraq’s democracy matures, evolves into an authoritarian regime, or spurs the country’s breakup into Shiite Muslim, Sunni Arab and Kurdish ministates.


U.S. officials hope the elections will help resolve the myriad political disputes -- in contrast to January 2005, when a Sunni boycott created local and national governments with disproportionate Shiite and Kurdish representation, pushing Iraq farther along the path to civil war.

“If we get through these elections and they turn out to be legitimate, I feel that that will really lead us out of this fragile stage into something that is more stable,” U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the senior commander in Iraq, told reporters recently.

U.S. officers argue that times have changed since 2005 and 2006, when political parties co-opted police and army units to carry out killings or, in some cases, purge neighborhoods of members of a religious group. Now, they say, Iraqis won’t tolerate a return to the horrid days of civil war, even as U.S. forces withdraw.

They also believe a springtime offensive in southern Iraq that Prime Minister Nouri Maliki launched against the Mahdi Army militia loyal to his onetime ally Muqtada Sadr was crucial in strengthening the government and security institutions.

“Some would say March was a watershed event. The decision to take on the extremists in Basra, Sadr City and Amarah . . . infused confidence in the Iraqi security forces,” said Army Brig. Gen. Robin Swan, the deputy U.S. commander in Baghdad.

The danger, however, is that U.S. forces will gradually lose their ability to judge the good and bad players in Iraq’s power struggles as the American military forces are scaled down to smaller training and combat units. Before the U.S. military changed strategy in 2007 and sent troops to live in city neighborhoods, the troops often didn’t have a firm grasp of which residents, political figures, Iraqi soldiers or police were abetting armed groups.

“If they are not out there pushing the envelope, they may not know what good is,” said a U.S. advisor to the Iraqi government.

“They will not have the information on which to operate successfully.”

Also clouding the outlook for long-term stability are growing rifts among the members of the country’s ruling coalition. The coming elections could fracture political alliances, encourage power grabs or incite winners and losers alike to resort to violence.

“Political competition here is . . . definitely a contact sport,” the U.S. diplomat said. “Are some people going to get hurt? Probably some.”

Maliki’s allies speak darkly of his erstwhile partners and fellow Shiites in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the bloc that opposes his vision of a strong national government.

“They want their own southern Kurdistan,” said Sami Askari, a lawmaker and confidant of the prime minister, referring to hopes among some for a semiautonomous Shiite south. “I say to them, ‘What about Iraq?’ They say, ‘Damn Iraq.’ ”

Askari emphasized that such ideas were not championed by the party’s leadership, but by rank-and-file members.

Tensions have also mounted between the Kurds and Maliki over disputed territories in northern Iraq. Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan’s regional government, has denounced Maliki’s efforts to assert control over areas that the Kurds wish to annex. The barbed exchanges have raised concern that Iraq’s Arabs and Kurds could return to the wars that have marked their history.

Relations between Maliki’s government and the Sunnis are also strained. Despite the return of the main Sunni bloc to the government last summer after a walkout that lasted nearly a year, little has occurred in the way of real reconciliation.

The passage of an amnesty law last winter has left thousands of Sunni detainees waiting for their cases to be reviewed; a law to address the expulsion of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from state jobs has not restored balance to the nation’s civil service.

Another unresolved issue is the fate of the Sons of Iraq -- former insurgents who decided to fight alongside the Americans against the Islamic militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq. The U.S.-administered program has been transferred to the government’s control in most of central Iraq, but some militia leaders have been detained by the Iraqi army, often on dubious charges and over the objections of American officers and diplomats.

The lack of progress on these issues could breathe new life into Sunni militant groups still bent on fighting the Shiite-led government.

The provincial elections in January could help Maliki strengthen the executive branch. Already, army, police and elite security units report to his office. If his Islamic Dawa Party does well at the polls, the prime minister will win a greater voice in local affairs.

His drive to expand his powers has encouraged speculation that an authoritarian regime could gradually emerge in Iraq, by way of the prime minister, his successor or a coup.

“The society could return to its past,” the U.S. advisor said. “People here today don’t have experience with modern democratic practices or anything except favoritism and authoritarianism being effective. So it will take at least a generation for a new culture to be developed.”

Even Shiite political leaders speak conspiratorially about the atmosphere. In mid-December, the arrest and release of up to 24 Interior Ministry officers over an alleged anti-government plot were described by observers as an internal feud within the Shiite halls of power.

Despite the skirmishing, people have tried to resume their lives as they were before Iraq fell apart. At night, families head to the newest Baghdad restaurant; wedding caravans cruise by with the revelers banging on drums. Shops selling alcoholic beverages, once closed, do a brisk business; cellphones ring with the latest pop jingle, instead of the religious chants popular a year ago.

But the ethnic and sectarian conflicts have left people deeply confused.

On a recent day, Ali Majeed, an engineer, walked in Baghdad’s Karada commercial district, buzzing with shoppers. Like others, he was uncertain about what lay ahead for Iraq. He tried to make sense of the coming departure of the Americans and the country’s unresolved problems.

“We live in a country where each faction wants to subject the others to his rule,” he said. “They are forgetting that the Iraqi people need to heal.”



Times staff writer Ali Hameed contributed to this report.