December 14, 2011

Without our troops, can Iraq's fragile peace hold?

RAMADI, Iraq – By midmorning, tribal sheiks, provincial leaders and politicians from Baghdad were packed into a small office in the provincial council chambers.

The gathering was choked with smoke as the Iraqis debated several matters. Wisam al-Rawi, a council member, insisted on more security where insurgents had vandalized power substations. Ibtesam Mohammed, head of the education committee, defended her demotion of a headmistress at a school where teachers had been demanding money from students to teach them.
"There's no need to collect money from the families and children anymore," Mohammed explained later. "We have good salaries these days."
It would be a typical community meeting in much of the world, but in Anbar Province, which was among the deadliest regions during the Iraq War, the meeting is a remarkable turnaround.
Five years ago Anbar's provincial capital of Ramadi was a war zone as U.S. Marines fought through rubble-strewn neighborhoods against a dug-in insurgency. Large sections were under the thumb of al-Qaeda, the terrorist group that had declared Ramadi its Iraqi capital. But the crushing of the insurgency here and in most other parts of Iraq following more than eight years of war has improved security and given rise to a rudimentary democracy and improving standard of living for many Iraqis.
What worries most Iraqis now is whether this transformation will survive the departure of the Americans. The gains that cost more than 4,000 American lives can be reversed in a country where old sectarian grudges simmer, Iran is aiding radical militias, al-Qaeda is still mounting attacks and the U.S. troops that helped keep a lid on it all will have left.
"People are scared," said Wisam Ahmed, a sales manager at a new Chrysler dealership in downtown Baghdad. "This could all be gone in a blink," he said, nodding toward Baghdad's busy streets.
The Iraq war began March 22, 2003, and it was only days later that U.S. troops took Baghdad. They were greeted as liberators by Shiite Muslims who had been repressed terribly under Saddam Hussein, who gave favor to the minority Sunni Muslims. The rebellious Kurds, victims of Iraqi genocide campaigns, assisted the invaders.
But the attempt to establish a working government was soon overwhelmed by the rise of a Sunni insurgency backed by al-Qaeda terrorists. Shiites formed militias and hit squads. Despite local pride over free elections and a constitution after decades of dictatorship, Iraq was in bloody chaos. The violence escalated until a surge of U.S. troops tamped it down.
The past two years have seen far less violence. In announcing the U.S. withdrawal, President Obama said the Iraqis could handle their own security, though U.S. commanders said at least 20,000 troops should remain to help Iraqi forces maintain the peace.
Iraqis express worry that the momentum toward peace could end once the last of American troops cross the border into Kuwait by Dec. 31.
An inability to finalize a government 22 months after elections has raised concerns about the sincerity of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to form a coalition representing all Iraqis.
"Our problem with the central government is getting bigger," said Hikmet Suleiman, a member of the Anbar council.
Terrorist attacks continue
That is not the only problem, Iraqis say. Al-Qaeda elements remain in the country and continue terror attacks. Bomb blasts ripped through crowds of Shiite religious pilgrims last week, killing 20 people. Muqtada al-Sadr, an anti-U.S. cleric, maintains a militia backed by Iran and said recently the U.S. embassy is an occupying force that must be resisted.
Still, U.S. officials say, America has set the conditions for success. Now it is up to the Iraqis. The United States will have a vast diplomatic mission here, including an office that would oversee $10 billion in military sales to Iraq's armed forces.
"My greatest hope is they take advantage of all the opportunities they have," Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, the top U.S. military spokesman said. "I can't say for sure what its going to look like five years from now."
Five years ago, violence was so bad in the western province of Anbar that its provincial council moved to Baghdad, 65 miles away. The governor worked alone in his office after insurgents assassinated many of his staff and the rest fled.
Former governor Mamoon Sami Rashid, now chairman of the council, survived dozens of assassination attempts. Back then the site of the government center was a fortress protected by U.S. Marines and rimmed by concertina wire and concrete barriers. When U.S. forces drove in the city they had to fight their way through.
Today the provincial councilors must still meet under tight security. Members are notified of the time of the meetings at the last minute to prevent attacks against leaders who are still targeted for death by those who wish to halt Iraq's progress toward tranquility and democracy.
Outside the meeting room, life is far different from before. Ramadi streets are jammed with new cars. Cafes are open and people freely argue over matters of the day.
"Now we can have an open dialogue," said Hikmet Suleiman, who earlier in the day was seen complaining to a couple members of parliament about toadying up to the central government.
Iraqis say they have adopted many principles of democracy, but not at the expense of their traditions. Anbar is socially conservative region where tribes play a prominent role and have prospered alongside government for centuries.
"We accept those things that help our tribes and families," Ibtesam Mohammed said, the council member.
Tribal leaders are also figuring out how to adapt centuries of tribal authority to democratic rule.
Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, a descendant of Ali Suleiman, recognized as the "sheik of sheiks" by the British in the 1920s, said his ancestors would communicate through poets and musicians. Today al-Suleiman appears on satellite television when he wants to get his message across. It's more difficult, he said, because you have to back up your position with facts.
"The press is a double-edged sword," he said.
Sunnis here are using their pulpit to say the government is pushing a Shiite agenda at the expense of nationalism. Sadoon Obead al-Shaalan, vice chairman of the Anbar provincial council, complains that Iraqi army vehicles openly display Shiite flags. "It's a new dictatorship," he said of the central government.
U.S. helped to 'balance power'
For all the accusations, Iraqis have debated their grievances peacefully in recent years.
"You have centuries and generations of grievances that are being discussed through representative government and people are not shooting at each other," said Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr., head of the U.S. Embassy office that oversees U.S. military sales to Iraq.
The presence of American forces in recent years has helped neutralize some of this tension, providing a check on the central government and assurances to Sunnis and Kurds. The U.S. presence has helped to "balance power," Buchanan said.
"With the U.S. military leaving I think it changes the equation, but it doesn't necessarily set it up for success or failure," he said. "It really depends on choices that are made."
The White House said it is withdrawing forces to fulfill an agreement worked out with the Bush administration that called for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of this year. At the height of the surge in 2007, there were 270,000 troops here.
The decision to honor the existing agreement followed the breakdown of talks between Iraq and the United States about leaving a residual force behind that would continue to train and support Iraq's military. The talks had collapsed after the U.S. government failed to obtain legal protections for U.S. troops after this year.
Critics of the White House said Obama was not really committed to reaching an agreement.
"The administration seemed more concerned with conforming to Iraq's political realities than shaping those realities," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said during a congressional hearing.
Others blame al-Maliki, saying he caved to pressure from a minority of U.S. opponents in his government. Most Iraqis want some troops to stay, said Mohammed Aziz, a Baghdad real estate agent. "It was mainly politicians who don't like them," he said.
Still, Iraqis said they were stunned that the United States would actually leave.
"They were thinking Americans were going to be here forever," said Hikmet Suleiman, as the council members gathered around a long table to eat roasted chicken on mounds of seasoned rice.
Even in Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite slum in Baghdad that Saddam had neglected, Iraqis say they are sorry to see the Americans go. Sewage once ran freely in the streets and families lived in grinding poverty. Today the streets are cleaner and regulations on livestock that ban people from herding sheep through city streets are enforced.
"My business depends on them," says Murtada Lafta, who at age 24 owns five cranes and four backhoes and wants the U.S. troops to stay. He said he built his business by winning contracts linked to the U.S. presence and has grown fond of Americans.
"Most jobs will go when the Americans withdraw from the country," Lafta said at a tiny Sadr City equipment store jammed floor to ceiling with used cables, gauges and other spare parts.
Ahmed al-Musawi, 21, who manages the shop, was more ambivalent. "I am happy they are leaving, but on the other hand when they were here we were doing good business," he said.
'Future is unpredictable'
Beyond the worries about losing a revenue stream is the potentially more devastating threat of a return of violence. "The future is unpredicatable," said Ahmed, the auto salesman.
Anbar's tribal leaders, who opposed U.S. troops before switching sides and helping them crush al-Qaeda, say they feel abandoned.
"Americans are leaving a big failure behind," said al-Suleiman, the tribal leader.
Al-Suleiman, in a robe and headdress, sat alongside the swift-moving Euphrates in one of two parks he owns and keeps open for locals. Squealing children played on rides next to his private zoo, where gazelles, monkeys and other animals were in large pens.
Sunni leaders say they worry that al-Maliki is too close with Iran, a mostly Shiite nation.
"Americans have made sacrifices in Iraq," said Abu Reisha, whose brother joined the Americans in 2006 and led the "Awakening" that drove al-Qaeda from the region. "The Iranians will get the benefits."
U.S. officials also doubt Iraq, which fought a bloody war with Iran in the 1980s, would fall under its influence now.
Caslen recalled how in July 2009, as a the commander of a division, he advised against a pullback of his troops from the city of Mosul, at the time full of insurgents. Then he saw Iraq's security forces drive down the violence. "Iraqi security forces were up to the task," he said.
Many Iraqis say it's time the foreigners who set them on this new path let them walk it alone.
"In the future we should depend on ourselves," said Ayad Salman Yahya, managing director of the Al-Bilad Islamic Bank. "In the next four or five years you will see Iraq is different."
Contributing: Khalid D. Ali

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