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Signs of progress amid turmoil in Iraq

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 15, 2004


The deadly attack Thursday on the well-guarded Green Zone here may mark the launch of a new insurgent offensive during the holy month of Ramadan, which began Thursday night.

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Two explosions in the central Baghdad zone - the seat of Iraq's interim government and US and British Embassies - left five dead.

But despite continued insecurity, the steady US military pressure against insurgents, coupled with efforts of the Iraqi interim government to negotiate, may be gaining at least some degree of traction.

Among the signs of progress in the conflict:

• Fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr this week turned over many heavy weapons for cash as part of an agreement to stop fighting, and bring more aid and government control to impoverished Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad.

• Rocky negotiations had continued in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, spurred by almost nightly US air raids.

But interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi issued a threat Wednesday of a "major offensive" if the city does not hand over Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the militant leader whose Towhid and Jihad group claims numerous atrocities. The move caused the suspension Thursday of negotiations.

This saber-rattling comes amid reports that weeks of steady US airstrikes are causing a rift between the Iraqi resistance and Mr. Zarqawi's extremist foreign fighters in Fallujah.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered cleric among Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, called Wednesday for all Shiites to register to vote in elections slated for next January - a qualified endorsement for an event that many analysts say will be crucial to calming Iraq.

"There are some positive signs now, but whether this turns into a good future for Iraq ... depends on the election, and whether broad sectors of society feel represented," says Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan.

"The problem is that as long as the guerrillas exist, as long as people [in Fallujah] aren't turning them in, the most you can hope for is a temporary cease-fire," he says. Violence "can always start back up very easily."

October changes

Analysts say attitudes became more cooperative after Oct. 1, when US and Iraqi forces moved into the insurgent- controlled city of Samarra, then started cutting militant "rat lines" into Baghdad and stepping up ground operations in Ramadi.

Iraqi and US officials say they have begun a series of offensives across the Sunni Triangle aimed at rooting out insurgents before the vote. At least eight Iraqis were reported killed during clashes in Ramadi Thursday. Fallujah has been softened with airpower and talks.

Yet few are using the word "optimism." Rumors spread Thursday in Baghdad of a new Ramadan offensive, using car bombs and targeting foreigners. Last year, the holy month witnessed a surge of attacks. And each strand of progress is beset with potential pitfalls - from Sadr City, where $400,000 was spent in the first two days of the weapons buyback, to Fallujah.

"In Sadr City, I would not underestimate the power of the greenback," says a Western diplomat. A $500 million aid package is part of the bargain. "But there's going to come a time when someone will say: 'You did not do what you said you'd do.'"

"Resorting to force alone is not a solution, and Allawi, as well as some Americans, is heeding this argument," says Ghassan Atiyyah, head of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy. "The problem with [cleric] Sadr is different from Fallujah. It is a revolt of the downtrodden and poor."