By Liam Carroll
The future of Iraq has surely become the most pivotal issue in world affairs in recent weeks, not only for its own sakes, but also for the bearing it will have on the Iranian crisis, the 'War on Terror', and the US presidential race. The central issue concerns the stability of the Iraqi government in Baghdad; if it consolidates and prospers over the next few months then tensions with Iran will be reduced, al Qaeda's days in Iraq will be numbered and Barak Obama's policy of troop withdrawals will seem prescient and well timed.
If however, the government collapses and civil war resumes then the inevitable Iranian support for Shiite militia will raise tensions with the United States, al Qaeda will have a recruitment field-day and the idea of withdrawing US troops will seem reckless and fool hardy. There is a lot at stake in Iraq, primarily the lives of the people who live there, but the consequences of a failed state for others, could be astronomical too.
The renewed hope for a stable Iraq has come in the wake of the Surge and the new found assertiveness of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who led a bloody but successful counterinsurgency effort in southern Iraq, mostly directed at the Sadrist militia forces in Basra. The Surge and the Charge of the Knights as Maliki's campaign was somewhat pretentiously dubbed, have coincided with the settlement of a number of turf wars between several Shiite factions, and the battle between al Qaeda and the Sunni tribes that joined the 'Awakening' (the US plan of paying and arming Iraqi tribes to fight al Qaeda). Al Qaeda have been hugely degraded as a result of the Awakening, according to US analysts, and a lot of the insurgent and militia forces are now managing various rackets and criminal fiefdoms that have helped to establish an uneasy, but relatively peaceful status quo. The Surge, the Charge and the Awakening have come at a considerable cost in terms of casualties, but the hope now is that this hard won reduction in violence can be converted into a non-violent political process.
The big challenge then for the Iraqi government in Baghdad is finding a way to reach out to tribal and sectarian groups who are well armed but insecure about their future and wary of how power will be distributed in the long run. Building trust in the government through providing effective services and appealing to the Iraqi sense of nationalism over and above sectarian divisions is the strategy being advocated by the United Nations and the International Crisis Group. This will not be easy; the Sunni Awakening tribes and the Sunni insurgents are suspicious of a majority Shia government that may end up close to Iran, and the Shia parties are wary of the well armed Sunni groups that remain outside the writ of the government. None the less, important talks on the return of the leading Sunni bloc, Tawafuq, to the Government is a good indication of progress in that regard, and the cease fire with Moqtada al-Sadr, a key Shia militia leader, is also positive.
The delivery of services, particularly water, sanitation, electricity and health care is a pressing need that the government needs to resolve post-haste to reverse the dreadful humanitarian conditions that still prevail over most of the country. The inability of the government to develop a working relationship with the provincial and municipal authorities has been a major impediment to relieving the dire consequences of years of conflict. The rejuvenation of the state apparatus is therefore a vital component in stabilizing the country, and in this regard several international agencies and the UN are working hard to ensure funds are available, and that the government remains on target to deliver free and fair provincial elections in October that should help resolve some of these difficulties.
The policies of the two most influential outside powers, the US and Iran, are also important elements in helping to support the non-violent political process. The two countries have been extremely wary of each others' influence in the country but it now looks like Iraqi nationalism and the government's desire to assert its own sovereignty could help settle these fears. Prime Minister Maliki's recent statement that he would like to see US forces leave in 2010 and his opposition to a UN mandated multi-national force, are manifestations of a growing self-confidence and the strong desire in the country to achieve national independence.
The elements for peace in Iraq finally appear to be on the horizon and there is certainly cause for hope. The next few months will be crucial, and boy do we wish them well.