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IRAQ - Lull In Sectarian Violence.

The US troop surge in Baghdad, a last-ditch effort to stabilise Iraq four years after the US invasion, appears to have brought down the death toll, at least in the capital. But the government has so far been slow to match this security offensive with outreach to the Sunnis and other key political moves, bringing into question whether the limited improvements enjoyed so far are sustainable. The FT on March 17 said US officials had been reluctant to claim an early victory in what was supposed to be a months-long operation.

Yet there have been early encouraging signs. At a recent press conference in Baghdad, US Embassy Charge d'Affaires Daniel Speckhard said: "In my nearly two years here, I sense for the first time a renewed sense of hope among Iraqis". The FT on March 17 quoted US officials as saying "murders and executions" had fallen more than 50% in Baghdad since the crackdown began a month ago, although they acknowledged that large-scale car bombings - nearly all by Neo-Salafis - were still common.

The FT added: "Anecdotal evidence from Baghdad residents suggests people now feel safe returning to their homes in districts from which they were driven out months before by Sunni insurgents or...[Shi'ite] militias. The decline in violence can be partially attributed to a new US tactic of establishing permanent combat outposts inside most of Baghdad's main neighbourhoods. Not only can they keep a better eye on what is going on but their proximity and permanence is supposed to reassure Iraqis who otherwise might not have dared to co-operate with the Americans. US officials say that intelligence tips from civilians this month were at an all-time high".

On the other hand, the decline may have more to do with the strategic decision taken by the biggest Shi'ite militia, Jaysh al-Mahdi, to withdraw from the streets of Baghdad, with the leadership heading to other parts of Iraq or abroad. The FT quoted a Shi'ite MP as saying the government had convinced the militias to step back and give the military operation a chance to fight Sunni insurgents. But, the paper said, "if the US-Iraqi crackdown fails, the [Shi'ite]] militias are likely to be back on the streets, with even greater popular support".

Reports that a Sadrist negotiator may have been shot and wounded on March 16 by dissident Shi'ite militiamen suggest some Jaysh al-Mahdi fighters may return to their old ways. The challenge for the US is that, while checkpoints and patrols may deter Shi'ite militia death squads, they appear less effective against the more stealthy Neo-Salafi car bombs.

The US military says it is now concentrating its efforts on discovering insurgent warehouses where car bombs are assembled. But the bomb factories are thought to be scattered throughout Sunni agricultural regions, and have proved difficult to find. Military force, the US admits, is at best a temporary remedy, and must be bolstered by a political reconciliation deal between the Maliki government and its Sunni opponents, diplomatic accords with neighbours, and the rebuilding of state institutions and the economy.

The government has taken some steps towards patching up differences between the three main ethnic and sectarian blocs but is a long way from becoming a true government of national unity. The government has failed to produce a law that would rehabilitate members of the former ruling Ba'th Party who are banned from public life, seen as a vital step if there is to be any chance at convincing the more nationalist parts of the insurgency to lay down their arms. Plans to hold local elections and to review the constitution to address Sunni concerns about federalism are moving ahead slowly.

The US military claims some success in winning over formerly anti-occupation Sunni tribes and claim they are slowly winning control of former insurgent strongholds such as Ramadi. But according to a familiar pattern in which violence ebbs in one area only to surge in another, the sectarian conflict seems to have given extremists a new foothold in places like the Sunni-Shi'ite province of Diyala, north-east of Baghdad.

Despite reports of US forces and some of the less radical insurgents reaching a modus vivendi in some areas, there is no sign so far of a breakthrough that would lead to any significant section of the insurgency suspending guerilla operations. US officials also say the Iraqi military is steadily growing in experience and confidence. But the FT on March 17 said reports from embedded journalists and Iraqi civilians suggested that many Iraqi units remained unmotivated and unreliable.

US officials are still urging patience. Only two out of the five brigades earmarked for the 21,500-strong troop surge are in place, and the rest will not fully be deployed until May. But patience - be it the US's electorate's willingness to keep troops in Iraq, or the Shi'ites' willingness to suffer car bomb attacks without responding - is now in short supply.

At the UN, Iraq on March 16 gave a long list of promises for national reconciliation and economy rebuilding, in an "international compact" designed to win financial and political support from the outside world. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the compact was "a tool for unlocking Iraq's potential". US Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt said Iraq's new petroleum law could lead to economic self-sufficiency in five years' time.

US and Iraqi officials on March 14 said civilian deaths had declined precipitously in Baghdad since the push to secure the capital began on Feb. 4. But the Americans said Neo-Salafi car bombs remained a big threat which could restart the cycle of violence, and were focusing on areas where such weapons were assembled.

Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Qassem Moussawi said the number of Iraqis killed by violence in Baghdad in the 30 days since Operation Enforcing the Law began was 265, down from 1,440 killed in the previous month. He said the number of attacks in surrounding provinces had increased, although he did not provide figures.

US military spokesman Maj Gen William Caldwell said: "Murders and executions have come down by over 50% [in Baghdad]". He acknowledged there had been a slight climb in the number killed in the previous seven days, but not as much as at the equivalent point in the cycle of previous Baghdad security plans, adding: "This past week is normally the week in which the number of murders goes back to their previous levels".

Stepped-up operations by US and Iraqi forces have had much more impact on Shi'ite death-squad activity than on Neo-Salafi car bombings. Brig Moussawi said the number of car bombs had declined in the last month from to 36 from 56, but Neo-Salafi blasts such as a March 6 pedestrian suicide attack on a procession of Shi'ite pilgrims, which killed nearly 120 people, continued to take a high toll.

Even before the offensive, radical Shi'ite militiamen responsible for most such killings around Baghdad began disappearing from the streets, and some Shi'ites claim this has left them vulnerable to Neo-Salafis. Gen Caldwell said: "If the high-profile car bombs can be stopped or brought down to a much lower level, we'll just see an incredible difference in the city overall. The high-profile car bombs is the one [form of attack] we're really focused on because that's what will start that whole cycle of violence again".

Many of the car bombs detonated in Baghdad are said to be assembled in predominantly Sunni parts of a belt of farmland surrounding Baghdad, and US forces have in recent days stepped up operations in the capital's southern outskirts. US troops have also been moving into areas outside Baghdad hit hard by sectarian violence, such as Diyala, where 700 US troops equipped with Stryker armoured vehicles redeployed on March 14.

Crucial Months Ahead: At a security conference in Abu Dhabi on March 5, Dr. Gareth Stansfield, an expert on Middle Eastern politics at the University of Exeter, said the next 12 to 15 months were to be crucial for Iraq as some significant deadlines to help draw directions for the country's future were fast approaching. Addressing the opening session of the 12th Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) annual conference on 'Arabian Gulf Security - Internal and External Challenges', Dr. Stansfield said the period to mid-2008 will be of formative importance for Iraq's future prospects.

The British scholar, without predicting a smooth and trouble-free process to stability in Iraq, said: "A number of significant deadlines are approaching rapidly. These include negotiations over the future of the Iraqi state, in particular whether or not the final structure will be unitary or federal. The passing of a new Iraqi petroleum law is...a potentially divisive issue. The future role of US and other coalition forces also has to be defined and this is connected to the need to tackle the existing militias within the country".

Stansfield said there were a number of territorial disputes, most notably between Kurds and Arabs in the north of the country. However, he forecast the likelihood of the oil-rich Kirkuk joining Kurdistan after a referendum in September 2007.

Stansfield said all these objectives are subject to ongoing problems which raised serious doubts about the ability of the Iraqi polity to evolve and surmount the present instability. He added: "Direct intervention by Turkey in the north remains a possibility, while the embryonic Iraqi authority is still unable to deal effectively with Sunni insurgents and Shia militias... There is a danger that Iraq will become the theatre of a 'proxy war' between the United States and Iran".

However, Stansfield added that the future of Iraq was intimately tied to the competition for influence in the Persian Gulf, adding: "Apart from the United States and the neighbouring Arab states, other major actors such as Russia and China will also keep a close watch on Iranian policy in the Gulf".

Another speaker on the Iraq issue, Dr Abdullah al-Shayji, head of the American Studies Unit at University of Kuwait, called Iraq a failing state. He attributed this to the American role in Iraq, saying after four years of Iraqi war, the country remained a field of sectarian and ethnic strife and deteriorating law and order situation. He said: "The GCC countries may expect...worse scenarios if US withdraws its troops from Iraq, as clashes between Shia and Sunni sects will further aggravate and create anarchy".

The Kuwaiti scholar predicted massacres in Iraq similar to that between Muslims and Hindus when the Indian Sub-continent was divided, creating a new state of Pakistan. He regretted that GCC states had so far failed to play an active role for the stability of Iraq. He urged the decision-makers in the GCC region to have a vision and a common stand on what was going on in Iraq.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Operations in Oil Diplomacy
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Mar 19, 2007
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