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Divisions appear to deepen in Iraq despite relative calm

December 10, 2007|Ned Parker | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The U.S. troop buildup in Iraq was meant to freeze the country's civil war so political leaders could rebuild their fractured nation. Ten months later, the country's bloodshed has dropped, but the military strategy has failed to reverse Iraq's disintegration into areas dominated by militias, tribes and parties, with a weak central government struggling to assert its influence.

In the south, Shiite Muslim militias are at war over the lucrative oil resources in the Basra region. To the west, in Anbar province, Sunni Arab tribes that once fought U.S. forces now help police the streets and control the highways to Jordan and Syria. In the north, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens are locked in a battle for the regions around Kirkuk and Mosul. In Baghdad, blast walls partition neighborhoods policed by Sunni paramilitary groups and Shiite militias.

"Iraq is moving in the direction of a failed state, a highly decentralized situation -- totally unplanned, of course -- with competing centers of power run by warlords and militias," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. "The central government has no political control whatsoever beyond Baghdad, maybe not even beyond the Green Zone."

The capital's Green Zone mirrors the chaos outside. Once the base of Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime, it is now the seat of Iraq's fractured and dysfunctional representative government. The U.S. troop buildup was intended to help Iraq's national leaders overcome differences and give them space to pass compromise measures to end the country's sectarian war, but lawmakers remain divided and continue to harbor suspicions about each other's motives.

In the summer, the country's Sunni Arab minority quit the coalition government, leaving Shiites and Kurds with a razor-thin majority in parliament. They appear unable to push forward any solution to the country's problems, whether a national oil law, a review of Iraq's new constitution or legislation defining the powers of provincial councils. All efforts to define relations between Baghdad and outlying regions are stalled.

"The absence of government in a lot of areas has allowed others to move in, whether militias or others," said an American diplomat, who like others, spoke on condition of anonymity.

He said that in the next year, the Iraqi government must step in and assert itself as the dominant force. "The No. 1 priority on the mind of the prime minister has got to be, 2008 is the year of services," he said. "It's difficult, but the window hasn't closed."

With such a goal in mind, the Iraqi government has budgeted more than $19 billion for public sector investment for 2008, but official spending is beset by corruption and sectarianism. U.S. military officers regularly complain that the education, health and water ministries bypass Sunni neighborhoods in west Baghdad.

Western analysts question whether a government made up of only Shiites and Kurds will be able to impose order on a country so splintered that even provinces with homogenous Shiite and Sunni populations are beset by conflict.

The national government's dysfunction sets the stage for more violence as different groups vie for dominance in cities, provinces and regions. Although the bloodshed is not likely to reach the levels seen at the height of the civil war in 2006, analysts expect more strife.

No quick solution

"It is like a baby being born, struggling and shouting," said Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitaa, the director of the Al-Thaqalayn Center for Strategic Studies, which advises the Iraqi government.

Ghitaa predicted that the government would have to enact legislation such as that dealing with oil revenue and provincial powers by spring -- when the drawdown of U.S. combat brigades for the Baghdad security plan begins in earnest. Otherwise, the stalemate would just drag on.

Even then, he warned, the passage of legislation would intensify the violence for at least a six-month period as winners sought to claim the spoils in the provinces. "We are going to see some problems between Shia and Shia and problems among Sunnis and Kurds, especially in Mosul," he said.

Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, would also see an increase in violence as Sunni tribal groups maneuvered for power, he added. "This is the price of democracy."

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has sought to address the splintering of the country, particularly in the south, where most of Iraq's Shiite population lives. There, Maliki, who is with the Islamic Dawa Party, is working with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the leading Shiite party in the ruling coalition, to try to stabilize cities torn by militia infighting.

"They agree on what needs to be done in the south," said an official from Maliki's office. "This is a test for the government on whether they can establish control in a very volatile area," the official said.

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