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Iraq at a crossroads: A return to chaos or are better times ahead?

The spate of recent bombings in Baghdad has evoked memories of the carnage that typified the worst of Iraq’s insurgency at the height of the country’s civil war. Will the scenes of violent bedlam return in 2010?

A burning car following a bomb attack

The recent carnage in Iraq has raised fears that 2010 will continue in the same vein

Iraq had once seemed condemned to a near-endless cycle of slaughter. At their most lethal the heavy years of the gun and the bomb were a brutal combination of terror attacks, internecine sectarian fighting, rampant criminal activity and combat with and military action by coalition forces that collectively, according to the British Medical Journal the Lancet, may have caused between 600,000 to over a million, mostly civilian fatalities.

Containing the killing seemed an improbable and daunting task. Trying to forge some sense of post-Saddam national unity, cohesion, strength and viability as a nascent, newly democratic Iraq, seemed as challenging and as unlikely. As ever the devil is in the mix, the complex tapestry of Iraq's divisive, sectarian history and the tribal, multicultural, religious, ethnic and regional fault lines that underscore it, a reality the invasion had so poorly prepared for.

But the success of the US-led military surge in curbing the epidemic spiral of violence, the steady buildup, confidence and capability of the reborn Iraqi army and security forces, an ongoing entente between Iraq's Shia and Sunni Arabs and the Kurds and continued political power sharing, showed promise and progress. The strengthening of a fragile democracy, and significantly where no such tradition had ever existed, the inability of the violence to overturn successive elections, even where they were marred, pointed the way to a better Iraq.

Can the violence be contained?

If not an Iraq free from violence, then at least an Iraq more able to contain the violence, able to change and evolve its own political culture and once more able to focus on reconstruction, growth and stability and a sense of greater security wished for by the bulk of a war-exhausted population. So can the bombings overturn all that has been gained and stands to be gained, is the fabric of the new Iraq so frail still, that it may be torn apart yet again? Has the terrorist hydra returned undiminished?

According to a Canberra-based Islamic world and conflict specialist with over 10 years of experience working on Iraq issues, who spoke exclusively to Deutsche Welle on condition of anonymity, the answer is quite succinct.

"Not necessarily, al Qaeda is symptomatic, not systemic."

So perhaps al Qaeda is just stirring the pot, taking advantage of the political turmoil to try and provoke greater unrest by escalating violence.

Political tension gives rise to more violence

A group of protesters in Baghdad

Will Sunnis and Kurds one day march together to achieve change for their country?

The political tension exacerbating the impact of the bombings revolves over a dispute between Sunnis and Kurds over the allocation of new parliamentary seats and the handling of the affair by Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki's Shia-led administration. As it stands now, Sunni anger is growing and the newest round of elections set for the new year have been postponed until at least February.

It matters less how it came about and more so that the Sunnis, who once ruled supreme, remain fearful and bitter over anything that smacks of their becoming a disenfranchised minority. The now dominant, majority Shia and the largely autonomous small but powerful and well-organized Kurds, both of whom suffered severely under Saddam's Sunni-led Baathist regime, are just as eager to secure their preeminence and regional sovereignty.

For the Shia it means wielding the greatest power in leading Iraq. For the Kurds to retain the quasi-federated status of their would-be statelet in Northern Iraq and a strong voice in national affairs and not least retention of their military and militia forces, home rule and control of the oil reserves within their sphere.

Al Qaeda split but still a force to be reckoned with

And what is the state of al Qaeda, how badly has it been hit, are the attacks indicative of its overall capabilities? And it must be remembered that it is not a monolithic and centralized organization, but rather a very diverse, often fractured group, whose strength and effectiveness can ebb and flow. And in Iraq the face and shape of al Qaeda has changed according to the conflict analyst.

A US soldier guarding a group of prisoners

Al Qaeda in Iraq may not be the force it once was but it remains a disruptive element

"It has limited capacity, (it's an) organization broken down into various groups that have lost much of their capacity to strike, including allegedly a Syrian wing, Iranian wing and an Iraqi wing, with various splinters and groups or individuals for hire."

So if al Qaeda remains a pernicious presence in Iraq's internal affairs largely manipulated by outside forces, the greater threat to stability rests in keeping sectarian passions down to a manageable discussion, one that prefers the ballot box and heated political argument to disagreements with rocket launchers, bombs and Kalashnikov rifles. If Sunni anger becomes a more open and widespread insurrection again, then the Shia-dominated military and security forces will likely take on a more sectarian rather than national identity and certainly will be perceived as such.

As likely would follow the resurgence of Shia militias, who remain largely organizationally intact. Watching such a scenario unfold, the Kurds would attempt to seal themselves off, but would also face threats from growing Arab nationalist sentiment in oil-rich areas where the Kurds rule over an ethnically diverse population. Iran, Turkey and Syria will all be watching closely as well, regarding the de facto Kurdish statelet as a potential instigator of Kurdish uprising within their own borders.

Iraqis hope for political stability

The hope of the average men and women on the streets of Iraq who simply long for peace and stability, is that al-Maliki has to continue to show convincing leadership and deliver genuine security after the expected phased US withdrawal in 2010 through 2011 and fully be master of his own house. Part of the psychological success of the surge was to lower both the presence and profile of American troops largely confined to their bases and show the ground and security increasingly in Iraqi hands.

And if the ongoing viability of an Iraq fully in Iraqi hands is the contingent prerequisite for a US military pullout, then that too may be under reconsideration in Washington if the situation worsens. Al-Malakis soldiers, policemen and government may not be ready. The reverse may also be true, the new Iraq, though still facing test by fire, may well be ready to confront its demons on its own.

The events yet to unfold before the next election will tell us more. What follows if Iraqis alone cannot fill the security vacuum left by an expected American withdrawal will further set the stage. Iraq itself, like its president, its government, its military and police, its society and institutions has to muster the strength of its convictions to uphold a national rather than a sectarian ideal. That also may be too soon to call and the process remains fragile.


Author: Chris Kline
Editor: Rob Mudge

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