Exit strategy unravels

Insistent warnings from United Nations and United States officials that January’s scheduled nationwide polls in Iraq face delay unless there is swift agreement on disputes about territory and oil seem to be falling on deaf ears.

This could be because the sound of exploding suicide bombers is drowning out reasonable discussion.

An overall improvement in security since the 2006 nadir cannot disguise a gradual increase in terror attacks since June 30, when US troops withdrew from Iraq’s cities.

Bombings and shootings in the northern province of Nineveh and its capital, Mosul, are reported almost daily, for example, as al-Qaeda-linked killers exploit tensions between Arabs and Kurds.

Underlying instability surfaced in Baghdad in August, when hundreds were killed or wounded in the bombing of the foreign and finance ministries. Last weekend horrific attacks on other key ministries — claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq, an al-Qaeda affiliate — killed at least 132 people and reinforced a new trend.

The violence is no longer aimed at occupying forces; nor is it sectarian, pitting Sunnis against Shi’ites.

Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister, said: “These attacks are targeting the symbols of Iraqi ­sovereignty and aim to paralyse the government.”

The desire to disrupt the coming election, seen as the legitimising symbol of a democratic, post-Saddam Iraq, is only one motive. By attacking the nerve centres of government, the apparent aim is to deconstruct the state institutions so painfully reconfigured since 2003.

They also undercut Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, who is basing his re-election bid on improved security.

For the killers, mass mayhem brings additional advantages. If public confidence in the retrained army and police is shaken, people may again turn to undisciplined non-state militias for protection. Similarly, demoralised Iraqis may despair of an imperfect democratic process.

As in Afghanistan, allegations of corruption involving Iraq’s Independent High Election Commission are already flying thick and fast. The row is another reason why the polls may be delayed.

In the bombers’ warped thinking, Iraq’s fragile relations with its neighbours can also be damaged by continuing outrages. When an infuriated Maliki blamed Syria for harbouring pro-Saddam Ba’athists, he dealt a serious setback to the delicate renewal of Iraq’s regional ties.

The biggest external effect of unpicking Iraq’s indigenous defences could be a delay in the US withdrawal. President Barack Obama’s plan is for a phased withdrawal of the 120 000 US troops now in Iraq. By next year the total will have fallen to 50 000 and by end-2011 all are scheduled to leave.

If Maliki asks US troops to return to the cities, or if US commanders feel the situation is getting out of control, this timetable could fold. At that point, Obama’s options in terms of sending reinforcements to Afghanistan shrink. What’s good for al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia is good for the Taliban in Helmand and Kandahar. And that’s bad news for the West.

For these reasons, US pressure on Maliki not to postpone the polls and to quickly resolve long-running ­disputes over territory, sharing oil revenues and the centre’s relationship with the Kurdish government, are likely to intensify.

Right now there’s no sign the squabbling will stop. After six years of strife, tears and some successes, the two great Iraq imponderables remain: the degree to which Iraq’s leaders can help themselves and the willingness of the “international community” — principally the US — to go the extra mile.

Iraq is yesterday’s story, or most US policymakers hope it is. Yet even now, nobody really knows how the story will finish.

“Watching Iraqi politics is like watching a tightrope artist crossing a dangerous cavern,” said columnist Tom Friedman. “At every step it looks as though he is going to fall into the abyss and yet, somehow, he continues.”

Friedman added: “Remember: transform Iraq and it will [affect] the whole Arab-Muslim world. Change Afghanistan and you just change Afghanistan.” —

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