Monday, December 05, 2005

The process in Iraq

It's hard to be sure what's going on in Iraq, but there are some encouraging signs. Edward Wong from Najaf for The New York Times, 3 Dec 2005:
"I don't think I'd go so far as to recommend that we totally pull out," said Lt. Col. James Oliver, the commander of the First Battalion, 198th Armor of the 155th Brigade, a National Guard unit from Mississippi that is the main American force here. Nothing less than an American battalion, up to 1,000 troops, should remain in the area through 2006 and perhaps longer, he said.

Yet, for the most part, American officers here praise the work of the Iraqi security forces, saying they have trained well and kept the number of major attacks on American and Iraqi troops to an average of one per month. The American commanders say their soldiers have largely halted combat missions and now play a training and backup role for the Iraqi forces - a model, perhaps, for the 160,000 American troops in other parts of the country.

In early September, the 500 soldiers of Colonel Oliver's battalion moved from a forward base on the outskirts of this city to a larger headquarters in the desert about a 40-minute drive away. A 900-person battalion of the Iraqi Army moved into the old American compound. It was one of the 28 American forward bases in Iraq that had been shut down by mid-November, with 15 of those having been transferred to Iraqi forces, said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a spokesman for the American command. He said the military expects to close four more of the remaining 82 forward bases within three months.

Colonel Oliver's unit, backed by 700 soldiers from a logistics battalion, acts as a guarantor of last resort for the Iraqi forces, remaining on call in case of overwhelming trouble. Emergency requests from the Iraqis come in about once a month, officers say. American advisers also work with Iraqi officers at a security command center inside Najaf, and, since last spring, one company each has been assigned to train and advise the Iraqi police and army. [... According to Sgt. Paul Bedford], part of a reconnaissance platoon that patrols the roads outside Najaf, "Assessment would be more the word than training at this point."
Colonel Oliver said that while some militiamen might have joined the Iraqi forces here, their numbers were probably small. Of greater concern, he said, is the enormous size of the police force. The Interior Ministry has given the police chief permission to hire 5,500 people, he said, but there are now more than 10,000 on the payroll. "The problem that that creates for them is resources," Colonel Oliver said. "I don't know how they're doing it."
In a furious statement issued Wednesday, the provincial council accused the Americans of "a typical crime committed during the Saddam regime - the killing of a young man." The council said he had been stabbed to death by American soldiers in a raid Sunday. Colonel Oliver said the man was killed by Iraqi soldiers during a raid on a house believed to be used by insurgents. The man was reportedly armed with a pistol, and an Iraqi soldier may have lunged at him with a bayonet, the colonel said.
Meanwhile, Ashraf Khalil reports for the FT and the Los Angeles Times on Haifa Street:
US and Iraqi patrols in the street faced daily attacks from an openly hostile population. The apartment blocks, many towering 15 stories over the low-slung capital, turned Haifa Street into a shooting gallery. In January, the US army opened a base at the head of the street. A month later, it became one of the first handed over to Iraqi control. The area has since quietened down.
Young boys busily hung up dozens of posters for a parliamentary candidate in the December 15 elections, a remarkable sight in a neighbourhood where any support for the US-backed political process would have once been life-threatening. A year ago, for example, three employees of the electoral commission were ambushed on Haifa Street and executed amid the morning traffic. And the black flags of Abu Musab Zarqawi’s insurgent group fluttered brazenly from palm trees.

Many residents credit the new atmosphere to the hand-over of security responsibilities to Iraqis in January. At first, relations were tense and the police tactics rough. “When they first arrived, they would just grab people for questioning. But at least they would let him go when they figured out he was clean,” said Haidar Akram, 35, a produce vendor. “Then gradually they started to get to know the residents more.”

At the Iraqi army’s concrete walled base, Sgt Nasser Ali, 31, said the initial crackdown was meant to set a tone. “We identified the heads of the terrorist activity,” he said, “then we cut them off.” Now, he boasted, his soldiers could sit in coffee shops without fear. “The Americans with all their heavy weapons couldn’t control this area. It took Iraqi minds and experience,” said Mr Ali, who complimented the US training they received.

Mr Akram said Iraqi soldiers and residents had since found their comfort level and that soldiers who used to come to work with their uniforms in a bag now hail taxis from outside the base. “We understand them and they understand us,” he said. “The Americans, you couldn’t explain anything to them.”
See also this analysis in The Economist:
At least four groups—the Iraqi Islamic Army, the 1920 Revolution Group, the Mujahideen Army and the al-Jamaa Brigades—may be preparing delegations to meet Mr Talabani. Despite their Islamist names, they probably represent members of Mr Hussein's army, intelligence service and formerly ruling Baath party. The Americans have long hoped to split such “nationalist” guerrillas from the jihadists who follow such leaders as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [... M]any Iraqis say that the nationalist insurgents above all want an amnesty, an investigation into recent human-rights abuses, the political rehabilitation of former Baathists and the rebuilding of the old Iraqi army: a guarantee, in other words, that Iraq's former ruling minority will have a secure place in a new and multi-sectarian Iraq.

A lot of Kurds, who have been comparatively safe in their self-ruling northern zone, are probably ready to discuss such demands. So are many in the American administration. But they are unlikely to get the Islamist Shia parties who now dominate Iraq's government to agree—especially the Iran-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose bitter hatred of Iraq's old Sunni-led army and ruling party goes back to the eight-year war with Iran [...] SCIRI officials sometimes say that the Baathists see negotiations as a tactical ploy to get the Americans out—after which they will try to recover their old place as Iraq's top dogs.
However, the influence of Shia hardliners may be waning. The Sunni Arab minority, which generally boycotted the last general election in January, is expected to vote in large numbers in the coming election. This should water down the Islamist parties' dominance in government.


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