U.S. pushes Iraq to use calm to build unity

In Baghdad Wednesday, Gates urged progress on a range of reconciliation issues, including jobs and services.

With concern growing that the vaunted drop in violence in Iraq may be more a temporary lull than a solid peace, the Bush administration is pressing Iraqi leaders to take advantage of the calm to move toward national reconciliation.

Recognizing that the ultimate success of the US venture in Iraq is at stake, the US wants the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki to take steps that ease sectarian tensions today – before the US forces who have successfully tamped down violence begin to withdraw in significant numbers.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in the northern city of Mosul and then in Baghdad Wednesday to assess the war but also to meet with Prime Minister Maliki to press for progress on a range of issues as complex as sectarian power struggles and as commonplace as jobs and services. That visit follows on the heels of a longer tour of the country by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who wrapped up his visit Sunday by urging the government to take advantage of the improved security.

And on Capitol Hill, Democrats are looking to tie additional funding for the war to political progress in Iraq.
In Iraq, a number of car bombs exploded around the country Wednesday – including one across the Tigris River in Baghdad from the Green Zone where Secretary Gates was meeting with Iraqi officials – providing a worrisome backdrop to the visit and a reminder that violence could surge again. Also Wednesday, the US military announced the deaths of three US soldiers in a bombing and ambush north of Baghdad.

We are sitting on a lot of tinder to hold down the violence, but without progress from the Iraqis on the underlying issues we are simply putting off the day when the flare-ups are even worse,” says Wayne White, a former Iraq expert with the State Department and now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington. Without movement on key issues like oil revenue and de-Baathification legislation, he foresees more violence as US troops leave key areas – perhaps about the time Gen. David Petraeus is to present another Iraq progress report to Congress in March.

For some experts, the renewed talk of reconciliation measures is more of the same US preoccupation with “benchmarks” like hydrocarbon legislation, the de-Baathification law, and provincial elections. But Iraqis are effectively outflanking the inertia of the central government, these experts argue, by actions at the grass-roots level on everything from security to providing services.

But others say that local action by sectarian groups can never substitute for action by the government, which holds the purse strings on Iraq’s booming oil revenues and is largely the gatekeeper to thousands of jobs and provision of basic services.

The argument that the Iraqis are working things through without formal legislation is just not true,” says Judith Yaphe, a former Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency and now at the National Defense University in Washington. “It’s dreaming to think these interim measures would ever be enough.”

US officials are also indicating that working at the grass-roots level can only be an interim solution to the Iraqi conflict. At a Baghdad press conference Sunday, Mr. Negroponte said, “It is clear that Iraqis at both local and provincial levels are standing up to take control of their territories from violent extremists.”

But he adds that while “it’s one thing to have brought the violence under some semblance of control ... it’s another now to follow up with the necessary reconstruction and stabilization projects that will help guard these regions and protect them from a recurrence of this type of violence.”

Mr. White notes, for example, that some backers of the theory that “things are working out in the absence of formal government action” point to the provision of $100 million by the Shiite-dominated Maliki government to the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province.

“That’s not revenue sharing, especially when you consider the government has been earning billions of dollars on oil sales. The fact is,” he adds, “that the Sunnis are not getting anything close to their fair share” and won’t as long as they must count on government largess rather than law.

The hiring of tens of thousands of Sunnis to provide security to their own community – many of them former insurgents who were fighting both the security forces of the central government and US forces – is also cited as an example of how Iraq is being pacified despite the lack of central-government action.

But analysts note that only a small fraction of those Sunni forces have been hired into the Iraqi national security forces.

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