/ 26 December 2006

Shattered Iraq limps into 2007

A shattered Iraq limps into 2007 after a year in which a bloody insurgency escalated into brutal sectarian war, forcing Washington to contemplate a major policy shift to halt total disintegration.

Standing out from the daily bombings, kidnappings and late-night murders that define life in Iraq, one single attack set the tone for the dramatic collapse in security, which now threatens to rip the nation to shreds.

”Iraq’s deadliest terrorist attack killed no one,” wrote Peter Galbraith of the bombing of a golden-domed Shi’ite shrine in Samarra on February 22 by Sunni extremists, in his recent book The End of Iraq.

The destruction of the gilded dome of one of the world’s holiest Shi’ite shrines, the 1 000-year-old Imam Ali al-Hadi mausoleum, lit the fuse of Iraq’s sectarian powder keg. Many now say it was the opening shot of civil war.

Ten months later, United States President George Bush was forced to admit the US was not winning the war in Iraq, reversing years of upbeat commentary about his multibillion-dollar military venture.

”We’re not winning, we’re not losing,” he announced eight weeks after insisting — before his Republican party lost Congress to the Democrats, largely over the Iraq debacle — that ”we’re winning and we will win”.

Since the March 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, Shi’ite gunmen have hunted down partisans of his once all-powerful Ba’ath party, as Sunni insurgents, led by al-Qaeda’s Iraq subsidiary, bayed for Shi’ite blood.

But after Samarra, black-clad Shi’ite militiamen poured into the streets and began hunting down Sunni civilians, transforming Baghdad into one of the most dangerous cities in the world and tormenting mixed communities.

Al-Qaeda threw itself enthusiastically into the slaughter with massive bombs in Shi’ite areas, culminating in a series of November blasts in Baghdad’s neighbourhood of Sadr City that killed an unprecedented 202 people.

Some say that US troops are the only safeguard against total chaos, but Bush is under massive pressure to overhaul his strategy, faced with abysmal public approval of his management of the war and mounting US deaths.

Security in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces is under control of local governors and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki predicts a complete handover to Iraqi forces by mid-2007, despite their poor record in controlling the country.

The Pentagon recognises that violence is at an all-time high. The think-tank, the International Crisis Group, says Iraq is on the brink of total disintegration that could drag its neighbours into a regional war.

The country’s first US-backed premier, Iyad Allawi, now sidelined as leader of Parliament’s unpopular secular bloc, was the first to cry civil war in March when Iraq was ”losing 50 to 60 people per day”.

It was a term that caused shock at the time, but by the end of 2006 it was becoming more and more widely accepted as UN figures revealed that by October more than 120 people were dying daily across the country.

For many, the US military’s killing of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with twin 500-pound bombs in June came three months too late to stop his plot to spark sectarian war from succeeding.

Another once-powerful figure who seemed to slip into obscurity during 2006 was the comparatively moderate Shi’ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose words could once sway presidents and US generals.

Instead, it has been Shi’ite radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr and his vast — albeit loosely organised — Mahdi Army militia that seems likely to exercise greater influence over the fate of the country.

The mounting chaos was noted by Saddam, who spent the year on trial for his life. Several times he stood up in court to call for unity, urging Iraqis ”to forgive those who shed the blood of your sons and brothers”.

But his pleas had little effect on the judges in the Iraqi High Tribunal, who sentenced him to death in November for ”crimes against humanity” in the killing of nearly 150 Shi’ite civilians in the 1980s.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. The hope and chaos that Iraq teetered through in 2005 was supposed to lead to a more stable 2006.

A 2005 general election led to the formation in May this year of a national-unity government tasked with bringing peace and prosperity to an already tired and shell-shocked nation.

But after five months of horse-trading, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government managed only a loose association of bitterly divided parties based on an election in which the masses voted along strictly sectarian lines.

The administration’s performance was, by any measure, disappointing — to the point when in November Maliki actually laid the blame for the continuing sectarian violence at the feet of the politicians in his own Cabinet.

In the second half of the year, US and Iraqi forces met the chaos with ”Operation Together Forward”, a six-month joint military operation to pacify the capital that has been unable to staunch the bloodletting.

Many cleared neighbourhoods have sunk back into violence, largely because Iraqi security forces would not confront or actively colluded with militias, and violence in Baghdad, in fact, increased by 40% during the operation.

More than 700 US troops were killed in Iraq over the past year, and almost 3 000 since the 2003 invasion.

Bush has since ordered Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who must find a plan to pull Iraq back from civil war and bring home the 129 000 US troops, to study a possible increase in the overall size of the US military.

Yet the president has distanced himself from calls by an independent panel, the Iraq Study Group, to pull most combat troops out by early 2008 and as well as for direct dialogue with arch-foes Syria and Iran. — AFP