Friday, April 23, 2010

Thoughts on the Status of Iraq

I'm down now to just a short time remaining in-country. I've made a big mental shift in the last couple of days - no longer am I an active part of our effort in Iraq. It's something in my past already ... even though there are still a few action items to get done in the next 48 hours. Joyce, my replacement, has taken "my" projects and is running with them. She doesn't even include me on the cc line in emails anymore. At least until something comes along that throws her for a loop, then she's back here and asking lots of questions. Which is the way it should be.

I've been thinking about how things have changed during my time in-country. Iraq now is a far, far different place than it was 18 months ago, when I first arrived at the Embassy. At that time, US forces controlled the International Zone. Security around the IZ was tight and, within it, we had free rein to go from compound to compound, even walking if we wanted. Outside of the IZ was a different story. The insurgency was already dying down, but it was still very strong and very active. We heard car bombs, mortars, and automatic rifle fire from out there pretty frequently. Rockets and mortars were launched at the IZ with some regularity - usually Thursday evenings so the insurgents could brag about it at Friday prayers. Coalition forces were still in charge of running most of the provinces, while trying to build Iraqi capabilities to run their own governments, ministries, utilities, and other services. The army and police forces were not very effective (I'm being generous here). Utilities (power, water, sewage) were in very bad shape, where they existed at all. If we went outside the IZ or other controlled areas, we drove aggressively, blocking traffic, driving the wrong way down streets or even on the sidewalks, and Iraqis had to get out of our way or get run over, wrecked, or shot.

Now it's very different. There are still bombs, mortars, and rockets, but we saw more in a typical day 18 months ago than we see in a week now. Most attacks are targeted against specific Iraqi individuals for political or criminal reasons. American forces are not attacked very often, and most of those are just because they're targets of opportunity. The IZ is controlled by Iraqi forces, not Americans, and it does not feel nearly as safe anymore. Out in town, we don't drive against the traffic, we merge with it. Iraqis are in charge of all their provinces. The army is an effective security force and actually has the respect of most of the people. Police forces are a different matter - they're still seen as sectarian and corrupt. Speaking of corruption, it's unbelievably rampant in all areas of the government. Corruption is the single biggest issue that's holding this country back. If they could reduce it, Iraq's economy could take off. People here want to work, not shoot at each other.

But shooting at each other is a way of life. There have been some nasty bombings in the past couple of weeks. These seem to be intended to try to resurrect the violent sectarianism of a few years ago. If that's the insurgents' only goal, they will fail. Iraqis are tired of all that divisiveness just for the sake of it. On the other hand, they will take up arms again if they feel their lives and well-being are affected. Unfortunately, the ongoing power struggle over the election results could cause serious problems. One of the reasons the Sunni insurgency took off was because many Sunnis felt they were being shut out of the new political structure (they were, partly because of their own boycott of the '05 elections) and also because they believed the Shiites were taking revenge on them for many decades of oppressive Sunni rule. They had nothing to lose by fighting back. Right now, they have a ray of hope with Allawi's political party slightly ahead in the election results. But the current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has started a recount process in the Baghdad area to try to take some of Allawis votes away, and Allawi has started another recount process in another area of the country to take away some of Maliki's votes. So the election comes down to a knife-edge between the two parties. Remember the big dispute we had over the Florida election results in 2000? That was a cake-walk compared to what's going on here. We, at least, have a history of following the rule of law to settle disputes. Iraqis don't. Unless Maliki and Allawi can figure out a way to resolve this with minimal bloodshed, there could be a very serious schism in another couple of months.

Having said that, I've also seen the Iraqis go right to a precipice and actually over it time and again, only to come to some sort of arrangement that allows everybody to walk away with their pride intact. Will they do it again this time? That's always the million-dollar question.

Still, my sense is that Iraq will continue to muddle forward. The mood here is vastly different than 18 months ago. There are still serious tensions and disagreements, and still threats of violence, but I don't get the feeling that people really want to go back to the bad old days. Iraqi "muddling forward" won't look anything like what we would like to see, but it'll work for them, and that's what will matter. In this country, there are good solutions, bad solutions, and Iraqi solutions. The only one with a chance is the Iraqi solution.

1 comment:

Arli said...

Wishing you a safe journey home and a big THANK YOU!