Iraq still violent and more divided

BAGHDAD — The new Iraq is still a place where violence reigns and ethnic and sectarian divisions are growing deeper one year after the handover of sovereignty by the US-led occupation.
On the bright side, 8.5 million Iraqis voted in the watershed January election and the political process appears to be forging ahead against all odds.

Iraq is also no longer the pariah state it was under the rule of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

It has diplomatic ties with more than 40 countries including former enemies like Iran and Kuwait and UN Resolution 1546 endorsed the sovereignty handover and gave international legitimacy to the foreign troop presence.

“Sectarian divisions are more pronounced than before,” says Adnan Pachachi. “Life is tough and the security situation is worse.”

He was a member of the Governing Council created by US civil administrator Paul Bremer and favourite to be president in the interim government that took over from Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority on June 28, 2004, before losing out to tribal magnate Ghazi Yawar.

The Sunni Arab elder statesman ran in the January 30 election but failed to win a seat in parliament.

Pachachi says the much-hailed election polarised the Shiites and Kurds, who overwhelmingly embraced it, against the boycotting Sunni Arabs.

“Unfortunately in the last election, sectarian, religious and tribal considerations were paramount,” he says.

He remains an optimist and believes rifts can be healed if Sunni Arabs who have just been invited to join parliament’s constitution drafting committee are treated as true partners and the next election in December is more inclusive.

But in a society where blood feuds linger for centuries, the healing may take a lot longer.

The past year has seen a string of devastating attacks against Shiites and an alarming rise in tit-for-tat killings among Shiites and Sunnis.

“I take off my black turban when I venture out of the neighbourhood,” says Hazem Araji, a senior partisan of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr who led a bloody six-month rebellion against US forces that died out last September.

He says 32 clerics from Sadr’s movement have been assassinated since then.

At least 10,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in attacks since the handover of power, according to the independent website Iraq Body Count.

“We are caught between a rock and a hard place: Occupation and hardline Sunnis,” Araji says, seated inside a small mosque in Baghdad’s Kadhimiyah district.

Araji, who was held for nearly nine months in a US-run prison in Iraq, says the United States with its some 140,000 soldiers and army of advisers, diplomats and contractors remains the real power despite the handover.

He says the only way out of the vicious cycle of violence is to set a timetable for a foreign troop withdrawal and open a serious dialogue with Sunni Arab groups willing to lay down their weapons. “We need practical steps, not just declarations,” he says.

Hamed Bayati, deputy foreign minister, says it is difficult because these groups have no single leader and conflicting agendas.

“The problem is that unlike armed opposition groups all over the world, the ones in Iraq do not have a political programme or leadership that can be dealt with,” says Bayati, a Shiite.

Both Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and Allawi before him have spoken about dialogue with armed groups renouncing violence and even amnesty to some, but critics say these efforts went nowhere because of strong opposition from the Americans to any rapprochement with insurgents.

Sunni Arab areas like Anbar, Ninevah and Salaheddin provinces continue to be virtual battlegrounds despite the massive US-led assault on the former rebel bastion of Fallujah in November.

As for a scorecard for the two transitional governments, Pachachi says it is too early to judge Jaafari’s because it only started work in early May but warned against “witch hunts and score-settling” that would lead to more rifts.

Many in Jaafari’s Shiite-dominated government speak about the need to purge government institutions of all those associated with the former ruling Baath Party allegedly brought back by Allawi.

Pachachi concedes the challenge of governing Iraq. “They are working under extremely difficult conditions,” he says.

The government is based inside the US-protected Green Zone and officials go nowhere without an army of Western security guards.

A Western diplomat, who did not wish to be identified, says Iraq is on the right track despite the grim picture.

“Building a country is a slow process,” he said. “We are definitely making progress. I am a bit upbeat.”

But many Iraqis say they have seen little change over the past year.

“No security, power, water or jobs and government officials are as corrupt as ever,” bemoans Haidar Majid, 26.

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