Iraq: It Was A Very Good Year


December 24,2008: U.S. forces currently hold 15,800 Iraqis under arrest. In the next year, all of these will be turned over to the Iraqi government. Most of these prisoners are suspected terrorists. The U.S. has taken custody of so many of them to prevent prisoners getting murdered (by kin of victims of their crimes) or bribing their way out (or using family influence to do so). Corruption and vigilante justice are still very much a fact-of-life in Iraq. Most Iraqis accept it as "the way things are" (and always have been in this part of the world.) Many Iraqis resent American efforts to impose alien concepts like clean government and democracy.  

Overall, though, the four day religious holiday of Eid al Adha that ended on December 12th, Iraqis enjoyed more peace and prosperity than they have witnessed in decades. The few terrorist groups that are still around are constantly being hunted by Iraqi police and soldiers. There is still a lot of hate in Iraq. Diehard Sunni Arabs still want to run the country, like Saddam did. Shia Islamic militants want a religious dictatorship, as do Sunni Islamic militants (except that they want Sunni clerics to be in charge). All three of these groups are still willing to kill for their cause, but because of the growing size and competence of the security forces, are unable to slaughter Iraqis as vigorously as they did a year ago. Iraqis have grown tired of extremists, and their murderous ways.

Corruption and lack of civil society (rule of law, personal responsibility and respect for property rights and individual liberty) continue to hamper reconstruction. Many Iraqis are still more comfortable having some tyrant (local or national) tell them what to do. Blaming someone else (whether it be an Iraqi tyrant or the Americans) for your misfortunes is the preferred way of dealing with failure. Americans new to Iraq are always shocked by this lackadaisical attitude, but not by the misery and poverty it creates. American accept the fact that if you don't "take care of business," things will suck. American soldiers and marines are trained to confront obstacles head on, and deal with them. Watching the Iraqis, all too often,  just stand around waiting for someone else to do something, is dispiriting to U.S. troops. More Iraqis, especially younger ones, are noticing that the American techniques produce better results, and are adapting. But the old ways continue to predominate. Moreover, for decades, many reform minded Iraqis fled the country for the West, and those that have come back since 2003, have gotten a face full of what drove them out in the first place. The crappy attitudes and practices are still there. Too many groups in Iraq, not just the Sunni Arabs, believe a dictatorship (with them running it) would be the best solution for the nation's ills. As long as there is the possibility of some group seizing control, Iraq's democracy is in danger. After all, Iraqi had a democracy before (from 1932-58). That one was a constitutional monarchy. There were elections, political parties and a parliament that passed laws. But it all ended half a century ago when Sunni Arab generals staged a military coup, executed the royal family and shut down the democracy (actually, they pretended the parliament still worked, but the legislators merely followed orders). Saddam run this military government for three decades, and ran the country into the ground. Yet some Iraqis (mostly Sunni Arabs, but even a few Shia Arabs) still admire Saddam, and consider his blood-soaked reign a "golden age."

The arbitrary use, and abuse, of power is still a problem in Iraq. Recently, for example, the government ordered the arrest of three dozen officials in the defense and interior ministries, and accused them of plotting to stage a coup. As soon as these men were in front of a judge, it was obvious that there was no truth to the charges, and they were freed. That, in itself, is a sign of progress. But the initial arrests show that some nasty traditions are still alive and well.

The parliament finally got through haggling over the new "status of forces" agreement for foreign troops. The new plan is for U.S. troops to stick around for another three years. The Brits, and most other foreign contingents, plan to be gone next year. The U.S. has a tradition of getting stuck. U.S. troops are in Europe and Japan, 73 years after the end of World War II. American forces are still in Korea, 55 years after that war ended. Bosnia, which was supposed to be a one year gig, is now a decade and counting. Don't expect Iraq to buck the trend. Many Iraqis want the U.S. troops to stay, as an insurance policy against an invasion (from Iran, or even Turkey) or a coup.

There is also progress in the reconstruction. Through most of the last five years, the various terrorists groups devoted most of their attacks to hampering the rebuilding of utilities (water and electricity) and the oil industry. The sharp decline in terrorist activity in the last year has allowed these projects to move forward. But there is still the corruption to contend with, and various factions arguing over whose electricity or sewers should be restored first.

In the north, Turkish forces continue to bomb Kurdish PKK separatist rebels in their remote camps. The Kurdish government in northern Iraq has finally agreed to work with the Turks to crush the PKK. Whether the Kurds will deliver on this promise is another matter. Most Kurds support the PKK goal of establishing a Kurdish state. But that new country would be put together from parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. All four of those countries refuse to give up territory and population for a new Kurdistan, and vastly outnumber the Kurds. The PKK has a swell idea, if you are a Kurd, but dim prospects of making it happen. The Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq wants to make nice to the Turks, so more attention can be paid to getting Kirkuk, and its nearby oil fields, under Kurdish control.

December 12, 2008: The largest suicide bombing in six months took place at a popular restaurant outside Kirkuk, killing 55 and wounding twice as many. Kirkuk has been a battleground between Kurds and Arabs since the 1970a. Iraqis are deadlocked over the issue of Kurdish control of the city of Kirkuk, and nearby oil fields. Saddam had driven the Kurds out of Kirkuk over the last two decades, and the Kurds want their city back. But both Shia and Sunni Arabs are reluctant to see the Kurds get Kirkuk, and the oil. Historically, at least before the Turks showed up centuries ago, the Kurds were feared for their military prowess and aggression. The great medieval Moslem military hero, Saladin, was a Kurd. The Arabs don't want the Kurds to have all that oil revenue, and the Kurds will settle for nothing less. The Kurds have a powerful army, although most of it consists of reservists (a militia) that is well trained and armed. The Iraqi government, dominated by Shia Arabs, doesn't want to get into a war with the Kurds, because the Kurds would probably win.




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