The Kurds up north again expressed their independence by signing a trade cooperation deal with Qatar. There are thousands of Kurds living in Qatar, which has a lot to do with this agreement. The Kurds do not talk about an independent Kurdish state, but they do practice a lot of autonomy from the central government in Baghdad. The Arabs down south have come to accept this, up to a point. There is still an unresolved dispute over whether Arabs or Kurds will control Kirkuk and the oil fields around it. The Qatar agreement is not the first of its kind. One was already signed with South Korea, and one with France is in the works. A different arrangement is being negotiated with Turkey, which wants a comprehensive trade deal to involve all of the country. This is more possible now that the Kurds have increased their cooperation with the Turks against the separatist PKK rebels who hide out along the Turkish border. These Kurdish nationalists sill have a lot of supporters in northern Iraq, but the Kurds cannot afford to antagonize the Turks. The Iranians also have to be placated, and Iranian artillery is still fired across the border at Kurdish villages harboring PKK type Iranian rebels. The Turks prefer to use aircraft, and regularly bomb suspected PKK targets in northern Iraq.
The U.S. military has, unofficially, shifted its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. A big problem in Iraq now is boredom. Violence has not only declined 90 percent from peak levels two years ago, but Iraqi security forces take care of most of what still occurs. U.S. troops spend more and more of their time training Iraqis inside secure bases and manning quick reaction forces to back up Iraqis doing the heavy lifting. NCOs worry about the lack of danger causing troops to relax their attention to battlefield dangers. These days, there are only about ten terrorist incidents a day for the entire country, and most of these are concentrated in the area between the Kurdish north and Baghdad. Two years ago, there were more than ten times as many daily incidents, and they occurred in a larger area (most of central Iraq.)
The Iraqi government is offering former officers in Saddams army, the opportunity to return to military service. This is being pitched to Iraqis in exile. Ads have been placed in newspapers in favorite exile places like Jordan, Syria and Yemen, announcing that the amnesty program runs from February 14th to March 14th. Many exiled Sunni officers don't trust the Iraqi government, believing the amnesty offer is a trap to get men with blood on their hands to come back, and get punished.
One of the most vulnerable populations in Iraq are the Shia pilgrims who visit the main Shia shrines in the south during several different annual celebrations. One is going on now, and there have already been two bombing attacks. One, by a female suicide bomber, killed over 40 people. These attacks are by al Qaeda, or other hard-core Sunni Arab groups. To these fanatics, Shia are heretics, and thus even more hated than foreign (non-Moslem) soldiers.
Iraq is trying to deal with high unemployment by creating more government jobs (which currently account for over 40 percent of all jobs). This is a common pattern throughout the region, although an increasing number of Arab governments are finding that reducing government bureaucracy (including reducing corruption), and making it easier for entrepreneurs to form companies, is a more effective way to reduce unemployment. Currently, the unemployment rate in Iraq is 18-20 percent.
February 17, 2009: Iraqi police announced that they had arrested the commander of al Qaeda forces in western Iraq (Anbar province). Two years ago, this was an al Qaeda stronghold, but not police say they have infiltrated the remaining al Qaeda organization. This includes the al Qaeda support operations across the border in Syrian and Jordan. The police openly discuss this because al Qaeda already knows what the police intelligence forces have done, and can't do much about it.
February 9, 2009: In a rare attack on American troops, a suicide bomber killed four U.S. Army soldiers near a police checkpoint outside Mosul. Last month, only four American troops died in combat (another ten died from accidents and disease.)