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As violence ebbs, the next hurdle for Iraq is political progress

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has vowed to capitalize on security gains to revive the political process in the coming year.

January 8, 2008

Iraqi challenge: Despite strides, the US military says Iraqi forces "remain constrained." Above, Iraqi soldiers during Army Day celebrations in Karbala on Sunday.

Mushtaq Muhammad/Reuters

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This will be a pivotal year in Iraq. Nine provinces are now under Iraqi Army control. This year, the US plans to hand over responsibility for security in the remaining nine provinces. American military officials say that if current security trends hold up, it will withdraw four more brigades from Iraq by the end of July, bringing the number of troops back to its presurge level of around 130,000.

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Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently said the new security gains need to be bolstered by national reconciliation and a revival in the political process as well as economic growth. He vowed to do his utmost next year to spread the state's authority.

But it will take more than good intentions to get Iraq's feuding factions together to run a viable state, reports correspondent Sam Dagher in Baghdad.

Will it be reconciliation or more disintegration and infighting in 2008?

It boils down to the careful calculation by Iraq's various protagonists – politicians, religious leaders, and insurgents – as to what they actually gain by either resisting the political equation or trying to work within the system, says a senior adviser to Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.

Resistance has so far manifested itself in an insurgency of all shades and colors – with both home-grown and foreign links – as well as in the sectarian polarization, says the adviser, who requested anonymity because of his position.

What he worries about most is another spike in violence as a result of the shake-up under way, even though security has improved and the number of civilian deaths in large-scale bombings has dropped significantly, from 588 in August to 154 in December.

"The surge [of US troops] was designed to create space to make political deals and to restabilize Iraq. It was also hoped that this process would enhance a sense of national unity. However, contrary to US objectives, a number of deals made at the local level led to increased fragmentation, not national unity," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group in remarks made in October.

He said there is a "vigorous fight for the control of national resources."

Echoing the concerns of Mr. Talabani's adviser, Mr. Hiltermann still sees "four intersecting wars" in Iraq: the Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict, the intra-Sunni conflict, the intra-Shiite conflict, and a potential fight between Arabs and Kurds, whose rumblings are increasingly heard through disagreements over oil, territory, and the Turkish intervention in northern Iraq.

Will Al Qaeda back off and shift focus elsewhere?

Despite "the great disappointment and failure" on the political front, the US military will do whatever it takes in 2008 to safeguard the precious gains against Al Qaeda and related groups, says Toby Dodge, a London-based Iraq expert.

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