Feature: Iraq’s unfinished business

Iraq remains one of the bloodiest countries in the world. As Afghanistan increasingly monopolises the front pages, is the west becoming complacent about this deeply unstable state?

By Alex Stevenson

Less than eight hours after this feature was originally published Baghdad was devastated by what looks like a coordinated attack.

Four separate car bombings, occurring within minutes of each other, left at least 118 people dead, with around 200 others injured.

This did not occur in a state at civil war, or one on the brink of collapse. It took place in the country western leaders claim is emerging out of anarchy and division into a promising new future.

“While challenges remain, there have been real improvements in security, the economy,
and politics in Iraq in recent months and we will continue to work closely with the Iraqi government to deliver progress,” a No 10 spokesman said.

“Those who seek to use violence to undermine these efforts will not succeed.”

But these scores of deaths underline the fragile nature of the country’s security – and the concerns raised below.

Relative improvements

There have been improvements. At the height of sectarian violence in February 2007 3,000 innocent civilians were slaughtered.

Government officials are keen to emphasise the enormous progress seen since then.

Yes, they acknowledge there remains a capacity among the insurgents to stage spectacularly disturbing events. But these have been isolated, it’s argued, and they don’t change the bigger picture.

Nowadays the numbers are significantly less. Only around 200 to 400 people die each month.

Only?

“You can only be optimistic if you compare it to the living hell of 2006/07,” Toby Dodge of London’s Queen Mary University tells politics.co.uk.

“Iraq is not as violent or as nasty as it used to be. But it’s still one of the most dangerous countries in the world.”

Looming elections

Despite this, Iraqis don’t even list security qualms as their number one grievances.

Their complaints focus on the need to improve public services like health and education.

Reconstruction, after all, has barely started, and the coming election is being viewed as a major opportunity to address these problems.

There is real optimism within the Foreign Office about the state of the Iraqi body politic.

Those who have watched its many factions bargain and negotiate at close quarters argue there are promising signs ahead of elections due in 2010.

The polls will be held on open lists, giving a welcome shot in the arm for individual accountability.

Shifts in the structure of alliances appear to reflect a growing consensus the electorate wants to be appealed to beyond straightforwardly sectarian grounds.

And diplomats rub their hands with glee at the prospect of a distinct political culture developing as a result. In particular a Shia floating vote in the south, potentially disenchanted by the performance of their traditional parties, could make things interesting.

The net result of this is that incumbent prime minister Nouri al-Maliki may find himself struggling to form a coalition which restores him to power, however.

There could be a four- or five-month period of negotiating before the formation of a new government, a repeat of the four-month gap which preceded Maliki’s appointment in 2005.

“We then have a vacuum – when politics returns to the street,” Dr Dodge warns.

Simmering tensions

That note of pessimism is a constant refrain in experts’ assessments of Iraq’s prospects in the next 12 months.

There is a genuine hope within the British government that the post-election power-brokering period could be used to help resolve some of the fundamental problems which undermine Iraq.

But Robert Lowe, senior Middle East fellow at the London-based thinktank Chatham House, remains unimpressed.

“They’re not getting through on the really big issues,” he says

Whether it’s the disputed territory of Kirkuk, the fudged hydrocarbons revenues deal or the final structure of the state, the most important questions of all remain “in suspension”.

“While this government has muddled through, I’m not certain there’s been any meaningful progress on those large underlying issues, which Iraq has to be judged on if it is to be seen in a positive light.”

A revealing example of the problem goes all the way back to the 2005 elections, after which a drafting process began for the country’s new constitution. Profound disagreement was only averted following the suggestion that the document could be redrafted at a later date.

“That constitution has never been redrafted,” Dr Dodge adds.

“You don’t have compromises – you have a gruesome fudge that doesn’t sort out the problems animating Iraqi politics.”

There is a sense the Iraqi people will, somehow, have to come through and reach agreement at the last moment. Officials in the Foreign Office have praised the Iraqis’ habitual tendency to hash out deals at the last minute. Dr Dodge is less convinced.

He adds: “What some would describe as compromise, I’d describe as postponement.”

Mr Lowe feels resolving the election’s issues is essential. “It has come to a point when they can’t be deferred,” he says. “I suppose much of it boils down to the resolve and the positions of Iraqi politicians, and whether they can find ways of working together.”

Iraq in reverse?

That seems far from likely. There has been no breakthrough yet, after all, and all the while the threat of another major terrorist attack reigniting sectarian tensions – or an incident in Kirkuk – remains strong.

If the 2010 elections do not resolve the tensions lying at the heart of 21st century Iraq, the country faces a slow stagnation, a drift dominated by further fudges and slow-simmering resentment.

Those within the Foreign Office privately indicate they believe the situation has now permanently moved beyond the horrors of 2006/07.

A diplomatic source told politics.co.uk: “It’s fragile, still, but I’d stick my neck out and say it’s no longer reversible.”

The experts disagree.

“Anyone who claims the undoubted progress Iraq has made is irreversible is either engaged in foolhardy optimism or hubristic spin,” Dr Dodge says.

He is less fearful about the extent of the risk of a slide backwards, however. “There’s so much unresolved that progress could easily be reversed. That doesn’t necessarily take it back to civil war.”

Mr Lowe is gloomier still. He warns: “The situation could deteriorate again, quite speedily, if there was another major attack. It could turn very ugly very quickly.”

He points out the conventional wisdom of the infamous troop surge’s success may be misplaced, arguing that one reason for the lesser level of violence could be the simple separation of communities.

The weekend saw some good news from Iraq: its parliament had finally passed an election law paving the way for the national polls to take place early next year, probably on February 27th.

The Foreign Office is delighted by the news. Its unanimous passage, a spokesperson claimed, was “proof that consensus, inclusion and discussion are replacing violence and division”.

Her comments fail to note that according to the constitution the election should have been held by January at the latest.

“The last national elections in Iraq in 2005 catapulted the country directly into civil war,” Dr Dodge says.

“Let’s not take the next elections… simply as some kind of benign happening. They could be good, they could be bad, we don’t know.”

That uncertainty undermines the tendency of the British government to treat Iraq as a closed book. The reality could not be more uncertain – or unnerving.