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.

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

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.

Recommended: Shiite and Sunni: What are the differences?

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.

The US has gone out of its way to stress that Al Qaeda is still a serious threat.

The spokesman for US-led multinational forces, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, said on Dec. 19, "Al Qaeda in Iraq continues to be the principle threat to security and stability."

And despite the recent gains, the commander of forces in northern Iraq, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, said on the same day that Al Qaeda has been pushed to his region and predicted that it will carry out "spectacular attacks."

In his parting words as outgoing commander of multinational forces in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil said on Dec. 17 that in many parts of the capital, Al Qaeda and its affiliates were "lurking in the shadows, where they are working quietly, secretively and, I think, very determinedly to regain power and to still continue their attacks."

How will Iraq's neighbors act?

Mr. Dodge says he is seeing a possible turnaround in Syria's stance toward Iraq.

"There is a sense in Damascus that they have now more to gain by restricting insurgents than by promoting them," he says, referring to rapprochement with Washington and economic cooperation with Iraq's government, most notably the announcement in December that an oil pipeline between Iraq and Syria will be fixed and reopened.

As for Iran and its promise, according to Iraqi and US officials, to stop the funding and arming of Shiite militias, the US says it continues to have a wait-and-see attitude. But many analysts point to rising Iranian influence on all fronts.

"Iran supports a wide range of proxies, some of which are in direct competition with one another. It is clear that Iran's leaders want the Iraqi state to remain weak," said the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies in a December report.

The extent to which Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia, are involved in destabilizing Iraq in the name of protecting their Sunni population will remain a major point of contention.

Iraq's national security adviser, Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, accused Saudi Arabia in December of using Iraq to settle scores with Shiite Iran, while a study released by the US Army's West Point military academy on Dec. 19 revealed that 41 percent of all foreign fighters entering Iraq from August 2006 to August 2007 were Saudi nationals.

What will happen to the US-funded Sunni militias and tribal groups?

The greatest success in Iraq touted by the US military and government in 2007 were the "awakening councils" against Al Qaeda. The groups of US-funded ex-insurgents in Anbar Province and local neighborhood watch groups throughout Iraq made up of former militants are now collectively called "Concerned Local Citizens," or CLCs. The US says there are now 300 CLC groups comprising about 71,000 individuals, of whom 80 percent are Sunnis and the remaining 20 percent Shiite. Many analysts say they will be a major factor – and a major concern – in 2008.

Al Qaeda-linked elements within the Sunni community have already unleashed a campaign of attacks against the CLCs. There are fears this will only escalate. In a Dec. 29 audiotape, Osama bin Laden warned Sunnis against joining the movement, and since the tape was released Iraq has seen an uptick in attacks against the councils.

On Monday, double suicide bombings in Baghdad's Sunni stronghold of Adhamiya killed at least six people outside the Sunni Endowment, a government office that cares for the city's mosques and shrines. One of the victims was reportedly a leader in one of the new US-backed groups.

Can the Iraqi Army do the job?

One key issue will be whether it can hold its ground and resist political, ethnic, and sectarian pressures as the US scales back. Despite great strides and massive investments in training and equipping Iraqi forces, the Pentagon said in December that these forces "remain constrained.

"Special problems ... include corruption and lack of professionalism, sectarian bias, leader shortfalls, logistics deficiencies and dependence on coalition forces for many combat support functions," said its report to Congress.

Will Iraq's citizens have a greater voice?

One of the most serious side effects of the conflict in Iraq is an unraveling social fabric, an erosion in basic rights, and a loss of faith by average Iraqis in government. Despite the return of some refugees, 2.2 million remain displaced outside Iraq and another 2.3 million inside. One of the key developments to watch next year is whether the improvement in security will spur Iraqis to resist intimidation and voice their aspirations.

"We have not yet heard the true voice of the Iraqi people," says Fakhri Karim, owner of the Baghdad-based Al Mada newspaper, who has been sponsoring cultural events aimed at promoting secular values and uniting Iraqis.

What will be the barometers of progress?

• Will Iraqis resolve their bitter differences on how to share oil resources and pass a much anticipated oil law? Kurdistan and Baghdad are increasingly at odds.

• Can agreement be forged regarding Kirkuk, the oil-rich and ethnically mixed city? Or will it be a trigger for more conflict? A referendum that was supposed to take place at the end of 2007 has been postponed for six months.

• Iraqis remain divided over what federalism means and how it will be applied. Will the promoters of a vision of Iraq that is divided into three main regions soften their approach in the face of greater controversy?

• Will power transition in the provinces peacefully or will Iraq see more violence as rivals jockey to position themselves favorably ahead of these elections?

• Can Iraqis resolve their differences over key aspects of their new Constitution?

• Will Iraq's political leaders agree to meaningful and sweeping concessions that could rally average Iraqis together? In the broadest sense, this refers to talked-about amnesty for former regime loyalists, insurgents, militiamen, and those implicated in sectarian violence.

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