Two million more have sought shelter in neighboring states, the majority going to Syria and Jordan. Their flight has been called the largest Arab exodus in the Middle East since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
The past year has seen the installation of the country's first post-Hussein permanent elected government. Led by Shi'ite leader Nuri al-Maliki, the "national unity" government, like its predecessors, was formed through lengthy negotiations between Iraq's Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish coalitions. Ministerial posts were divided among political blocs to reflect the percentage of parliamentary seats won in the election, causing some Sunni Arab politicians to protest the cabinet's sectarian composition.
As the year progressed, Sunni Arab parties complained they were participating in government that was united on paper only -- though members of their parties held cabinet positions, they were powerless in the face of growing Shi'ite dominance.
Tensions between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'a communities were heightened following the February 22, 2006, bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. There is little doubt the escalating tensions thwarted government efforts towards national reconciliation.
As Iraqis pass the four-year mark, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is reportedly lobbying several political parties in an effort to break apart the current ruling blocs in favor of a new national front that would support the establishment of a national-unity government -- which would purportedly be more open to the participation of Sunni Arab "resistance" groups currently outside the government.
Such a plan would allow for the return of former Ba'ath Party members to the political scene in Iraq. Allawi has argued that the majority of party members joined the Ba'ath as a means of getting ahead, but held no loyalty to Saddam Hussein. The controversial plan would likely have the support of some, but not all Iraqis.
Prime Minister al-Maliki committed his administration last year to reviewing the work of the de-Ba'athification Commission.
Bringing In The Ba'athists
Commission Director-General Ali Faysal al-Lami said plans were drawn up in November that would allow all but the highest echelon of Ba'ath Party members to return to their jobs. Thus far, the plans have stalled.
Al-Maliki sponsored the Officers Conference for National Reconciliation in Baghdad on March 4 in an effort to entice some 500 former military men to rejoin the Iraqi Army. Rashid Majid al-Nasiri, director-general of the Iraqi cabinet's Dissolved Entities Department, told attendees that some 85,000 members of the former Iraqi Army, which was dissolved under the Coalition Provisional Authority, have been returned to their jobs, and the new Iraq has room for all those who want to serve their people and country.
Critics have said the government's invitation is not enough. Sunni parliamentarian Salih al-Mutlaq criticized the Shi'a-heavy army, telling RFE/RL earlier this month: "[It's like] asking a former professor to come and be a student for his student. Those [former] army leaders, they have their dignity and they are proud. They defended the country for so long. They cannot come back and be under some people who even do not have the qualification of being an officer. You know the way they brought or they established this army? They [came] with the services of the Badr Brigades [the former armed wing of SCIRI, which has reportedly been dissolved] in Iran, and they gave them promotions according to [the length of] their service in Iran. No self-respecting leader from the previous army will accept to come and work under this leadership."
Iraqi media have reported this week that al-Maliki may make other gestures to Sunnis outside the political process soon. The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus made similar comments last week, but offered no details. According to media reports, the prime minister is rumored to be preparing to offer a pardon to insurgents willing to lay down their arms and join the political process.
Economic Development Key
While the Kurdistan region has thrived economically, areas of the south have continued to falter in recent months. Critics have long said that the failure of the post-Hussein governments to stabilize the country was due to simplistic approaches that sought to address certain aspects of security, while ignoring others. The U.S. military, working alongside the Iraqi government, has taken steps in recent months to forge a more comprehensive approach.
The U.S. administration announced in November that it would boost its support for local governments in Iraq through provincial-reconstruction teams. The teams, which have operated in Iraq since 2005, help encourage political and economic development on the local level.
According to coalition reports, the majority of Iraq's 18 governorates remain free of violence, with the majority of the instability affecting the Baghdad, Al-Anbar, Diyala and Salah Al-Din governorates.
The provincial-reconstruction teams are just part of a push by the Iraqi government to encourage economic development. Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi appealed to UN member states last week to contribute to the rebuilding of Iraq through the International Compact with Iraq. The compact, launched in July, seeks to help the Iraqi reconciliation process through political, economic, and social development over five years.
Ibrahim Gambari, the UN secretary-general's special adviser on the compact, told reporters after the March 16 meeting, "We cannot wait until every situation is settled on the security aspect before we move to support the government of Iraq...."
The cabinet also approved a draft oil and gas law in February for the management of oil resources and an equitable distribution of revenues. Al-Maliki hailed the achievement, telling reporters on February 26 that with the endorsement of the draft law, the government "lays the foundation stone for building the state."
The law, which has yet to go before parliament for ratification, has been criticized by former government officials and some Sunni Arab groups who claim it will lead to the pilfering of Iraqi assets by the West.
Along With Security
Slow but steady progress is being made on the security front, boosted by the killing of Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi in June. Al-Qaeda remained a formidable challenge, as did Shi'ite militias, which set on a path of retribution following the Samarra bombing.
The Sunni-Shi'ite bloodbath that played out on the streets of Baghdad left scores of civilians dead. According to the Interior Ministry, some 1,089 civilians died in September, compared to 769 in August and 1,065 in July. Much of the violence was attributed to Shi'ite death squads, some of which were linked to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army.
Two important initiatives were launched in October. The first, initiated by tribal leaders in the Al-Anbar Governorate and backed by Baghdad, sought to confront Al-Qaeda elements operating in the western region. The second, a joint operation by Iraqi and British forces, targeted militias operating in the southern governorate of Al-Basrah. Both initiatives have improved security on the ground, but stability remains an ongoing challenge.
Coalition and Iraqi forces launched the Baghdad security plan in mid-February, which by all accounts appears to be progressing well. Coalition commanders report a dramatic decline in the number of terrorist attacks and crime in recent weeks, but caution that it will take several months to secure the capital.
Security will remain a challenge due to the lack of support from neighboring states. Iraq's leaders called on its neighbors this month to live up to earlier commitments on border security during the March 10 Iraq neighbors meeting in Baghdad.
As in the past, neighboring states vowed to take steps in support of the government, and pledged to help develop a comprehensive plan at a follow-up meeting slated to be held next month. A key precondition for some will be the government's ability to provide a greater role for Sunnis outside the political process, and a recognition by al-Maliki's government and the United States of the necessity of their role on the regional stage.
Al-Sadr supporters demonstrating against the U.S. presence in Iraq in October 2006 (epa)
A RADICAL CLERIC. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is a key figure in Iraq. He heads the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia and a political bloc that is prominent in parliament and the government. His ties to Iran have also provoked concerns in some quarters.