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Commentary: Five Years Later, News From Iraq Not All Bad

Posters promoting national reconciliation going up in Baghdad in 2007 (epa) Politics is a dirty business anywhere in the world, but Iraqi politics today rank among the most divisive. While much has been written about Iraq since 2003 -- the early mistakes that continue to impede progress, the bitter rivalries that leave so many innocents dead, the roles of superpowers and neighbors -- few observers have offered a far-sighted view of the state of affairs.

Like all nation-states forged from strife, Iraq is experiencing growing pains. As the country's diverse ethnic and sectarian groups struggle for a piece of the ruling pie, gains, though slow, have been made. But it will take time. The term "political accommodation" has yet to register in the mind-set of many Shi'ite leaders who were swept to power after the fall of the Hussein regime. Kurds, intent on maintaining their autonomy, say they are being asked to accommodate too much, with Baghdad demanding control over the region's oil while offering little in return. Sunni Arabs, the losers in the war, continue to complain of marginalization by the government.

Iraq is not easy and the problems seem never-ending. A reconciliation conference in Baghdad this week, hastily arranged by the government, proved this. The Sunni Arab-led Iraqi Accordance Front boycotted the meeting altogether, while a Shi'ite bloc affiliated with former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi "declined" to attend. One Sadrist parliamentarian called the meeting "government propaganda." The splits run deep, even among supposed allies.

Three major blocs pulled out of the government in 2007 and have yet to return. Two of those blocs, the Al-Fadilah Party and the Sadrists, were onetime allies of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. All boycotting blocs say the government, dominated by the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, is bent on consolidating power in the hands of the few. Al-Maliki has been promising for months to reshuffle the cabinet and replace powerful political appointees with qualified technocrats. Still, no changes have come, leaving many to conclude that there is no will behind the rhetoric. Or, perhaps, the prime minister is constrained by his own bloc, which has effectively consolidated its control over the country's security forces over the past five years.

Much has been written about Sunni and Shi'ite militias. Less has been written about the militia-controlled security forces, and their ties to supposed benefactors like Iran. Iraqis living in Shi'ite-populated areas whisper about a government project to eliminate Shi'ite opposition. Journalists acknowledge that this goes on but are hesitant to write about it for fear of retribution. Meanwhile, the government says it is cracking down on insurgents.

'Year Of Reconstruction'

Like 2007, 2008 promises to be a decisive year for Iraq. By naming it the year of reconstruction, al-Maliki hopes to build on security gains through robust foreign investment and job creation. On the political front, the country should see nationwide provincial elections. Set for October, the elections threaten to usher in a radically different local leadership that will challenge the halls of power in Baghdad.

These leaders, comprised of tribesmen and homegrown political parties, have a real base of local support, unlike so many opposition parties that came to power in 2005. For Shi'ite leaders like Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who returned to Iraq after 20-some years in Iran, and whose onetime militia, the Badr Corps, has now infiltrated the ranks of police and army, the threat of losing power in governorate elections is very real. Sunni Arabs from the Accordance Front will also have to share space with tribal leaders who have turned their awakening councils into political parties. The awakening councils were initially formed by tribesman in 2007 to fight Al-Qaeda.

The Kurdistan Coalition may be the only coalition to stand unchallenged at the local level.

Indeed, progress is slow, and slower than many in the West would want. Iraqi leaders chose in the first three years after the war to postpone the hard decisions until later. And now, there is mounting pressure from within (not to mention from outside Iraq) to deal with them. The government's passage of a general amnesty law last month was a huge step towards reconciliation. Already, more than 3,000 Iraqis have been released from Iraqi detention.

The Accountability and Justice Law, which serves as a revision of the Coalition Provisional Authority-era de-Ba'athification law, is another step forward. It paves the way for thousands of Ba'athists dismissed from their jobs and from the army, to be reinstated. Though the Shi'ite-led government is moving slowly toward implementing the law, the pressure continues, and progress is being made. The move may be less one of political accommodation and more a need for qualified technocrats. As time goes on, and development takes off, that need for qualified technocrats will only rise. Incorporating awakening forces into the security apparatus has met more resistance from the government. Should the awakening councils not be merged into the police and army, the potential for a breakdown on the security front rises considerably.

Other controversial issues remain. The draft oil law has yet to be passed, obstructing development of the dilapidated oil infrastructure. But technical-support agreements are being signed, and exploration agreements are on the horizon. If al-Maliki succeeds in luring in foreign investment, pressure on the oil industry, the revenues from which make up more than 90 percent of the country's budget, will increase. Last year, Iraq had an estimated $21 billion to $25 billion budget surplus from money not spent on reconstruction projects due to insecurity. With greater parts of the country experiencing security, those surpluses should be expected to fall in coming years.

Corruption continues to be a major impediment to al-Maliki's administration. The government recognizes this and has taken steps to curb corruption. But in one recent high-profile case, it turned a blind eye to the issue, leading many to wonder if there is any substance behind the rhetoric. Last week, al-Maliki cleared two former senior Health Ministry officials, both Shi'a, of corruption charges, even though the Commission on Public Integrity had evidence to substantiate the charges.

The former head of Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity, Judge Radi al-Radi, said in testimony before the U.S. Congress on March 11 that out of 3,000 corruption cases successfully investigated by the commission, only 241 cases to date resulted in guilty verdicts. He estimated the cost of ministry corruption uncovered by the commission at $18 billion, citing the Defense, Trade, Electricity, Transport, Health, Interior, Communications, Housing, Finance and Oil ministries as the most corrupt.

The figures do not include cases dismissed by judges after they were threatened or assassinated, and they do not reflect the full extent of oil corruption, which includes smuggling, theft, and other fraud. The level of corruption affecting the industry because of the activities of Sunni and Shi'ite militias has resulted in the Oil Ministry "effectively financing terrorism through these militias," he said. Al-Radi, a career technocrat, has since sought asylum in the United States after the Iraqi government issued counteraccusations against him and issued its own arrest warrant for him. Al-Radi's replacement, Musa Faraj, said in January that pressure from within Prime Minister al-Maliki's administration -- but not from al-Maliki himself -- has restricted the commission's ability to function.

As Iraq enters the sixth year since the fall of the Hussein regime, the challenges remain daunting. Many questions linger as to the effects of the U.S. military surge, and whether security gains can be maintained. The greater question is whether there is a will on the part of the government to maintain those gains. U.S. support for awakening councils is one reason Iraq is more secure today than it was one year ago.

It remains unclear whether the Shi'ite-led government will continue along that path. To date, there are awakening councils in 11 governorates, including in six Shi'ite-populated governorates. Those too, may see little support from the government down the road, depending on where the councils -- or to be more exact, the tribes that comprise them -- stand politically. Indeed, much work lies ahead for Iraq. But the challenges are not insurmountable. All that is needed is a will to move forward equitably and with transparency.