Any Iraqis who had dared believe that security was returning to their troubled country had their illusions shattered when, on 23 November, an explosion at al-Ghazl pet market in central Baghdad claimed the lives of 15 Iraqis and injured about 60 more.
Four members of a Shia cell were arrested by Iraqi and US forces and admitted that they had carried out the attack, planting the bombs in crates to blend innocently with those of traders selling chickens, pigeons and sheep for household use. They claimed under interrogation that they had hoped local people would assume al-Qaeda had targeted the market – as it has many times in the past – and turn to the Shia militias for protection.
Twenty-four hours earlier, in Karradah, a Shia-controlled district of central Baghdad, two of my Iraqi colleagues, a husband and wife working for al-Hayat newspaper, had survived an assas sination attempt while taking their daughter to school. Elsewhere that day, an unknown group fired more than 15 shells or missiles towards the fortified Green Zone that houses the diplomatic enclave and government buildings.
The escalation in confrontations between US-led forces and Shia militias controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr threatens the six-month truce announced by Sadr on 26 October. Observers believe the volatile relationship between Sadr’s followers and those of his Shia rival Sayed Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, another Iranian-backed ally, could bring further instability to the capital. According to Sadrists, US forces are closer to Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The rivalries between Hakim and Sadr clan members stretch back generations and, mishandled, could lead to the security situation degenerating further. Hakim recently expressed interest in seeing his party seize the premiership of the government from the Daawa Party, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose leadership of Iraq was secured with votes from Sadr supporters.
Analysts use the return of tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees as an indicator of stabilisation in the country. The reality, however, is that many have been forced to leave their host countries because they have run out of cash, or because visas granting them temporary leave to remain have expired. Furthermore, international organisations such as the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have been warning would-be returnees living in Syria and Jordan against leaving their host countries.
Arming the Sunni militias
Security has not improved enough to enable a safe return to their former homes, the refugees have been told. But Syria, suffering under the weight of more than 1.5 million Iraqis since the outbreak of the war in 2003, has been taking advantage of refugees – many of whom are civil servants and travel to collect their government salaries in Baghdad – by refusing them re-entry visas. In Jordan, there are estimated to be between 500,000 and 700,000 refugees. According to a survey of more than a hundred families conducted by an Iraqi non-governmental organisation, lack of money, along with the high cost of living and expiry of visas, are common reasons they give for deciding to return to Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has been luring its citizens back with the offer of financial aid of $700-$800 plus free transport from Damascus to Baghdad, with the result that 46,000 returnees, at an average rate of 1,500 a day, have been flooding across the Syrian border in the past few weeks.
I talked to Iraqis of different sects, religions and political affiliations, and opinions on the improvement in security are contradictory. The Sunni political leadership tries to distance itself from al-Qaeda-affiliated elements and to rally the Sunni militias to fight al-Qaeda in their areas. However, their opponents question the impact of this rhetoric on the ground, particularly as al-Qaeda supporters regularly move from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, thereby escaping arrest or shooting by US-led forces: searches and curfews have become the main strategies US forces use against al-Qaeda-supported elements and the Shia Mahdi Army.
Meanwhile, the Sunni leadership feels ignored by the Maliki-led government, a Shia coalition, and accuses the Iraqi prime minister of not accommodating Sunni concerns and demands. In the past, Sunni leaders considered the US-led coalition to be siding with the Shias, but they now talk openly about a better understanding between themselves and the Americans, especially for the purpose of forcing al-Qaeda and its supporters to flee Anbar Province. This is a region, one-third of the country’s land mass, that the US has had particular problems in controlling. Only a few months ago, this was reflected in a high number of US casualties there. The figures fell considerably after a high-profile visit in September by President Bush to an airbase in the province, where he met local Sunnis, led by Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, in the presence of high-ranking US officers.
US military commanders have begun working with these tribal leaders, arming their men to fight alongside US troops. Communication between the two sides has greatly improved, with tribes calling for US assistance in tackling al-Qaeda. US commanders I met during a visit to Fallujah, in Anbar Province, categorically denied funding and arming Sunni militias, but a leader for the new Iraqi Alliance (with the Americans) in Baghdad, based in the insurgent-riddled Ama riyah quarter, said otherwise. He told me he participates in meetings with the Americans at the highest level and has already met General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, to try to co-ordinate the fight against al-Qaeda in Baghdad and neighbouring towns.
The Iraqi Sunni militia leader known as Abu al-Abed claimed that the group he leads consists of 600 men who receive on average $360 per month plus up-to-date weapons from the US forces, as well as logistical and military support during confrontations with al-Qaeda forces.
It was clear that US commanders and senior figures working with the construction provisional team in Anbar Province had high hopes of convincing more Sunni tribal elders to join hands in rebuilding the local infrastructure and fighting al-Qaeda under the leadership of Sahwat al-Iraq (the “Iraq Awakening” coalition), previously known as Sahwat al-Anbar (the “Anbar Awakening” coalition), which has also expanded to include Shia tribal leaders in neighbouring provinces.
These commanders, like American and British civil servants, speak highly of the improvements to security achieved in Fallujah, a city of roughly 300,000 and until recently a hotbed of al-Qaeda. In the dusty military base near the city they told me they could now walk freely in the main market to buy fresh food. But my request to experience this progress was at first met with silence. After a consultation in a side room, I was told to get ready for a ride into Fallujah.
Bulletproof jackets and helmets were distributed before we boarded a new military vehicle, designed to protect passengers from roadside bombs. It was about four in the afternoon when our convoy, consisting of four Bradleys and a tank, approached the entrance to the city, where a long queue of civilian cars was being checked.
All side roads have been sealed off by concrete walls decorated with drawings and graffiti denouncing terrorism, and calling on the population to be vigilant and inform the authorities about suspicious elements.
After driving around for about 20 minutes, I asked the commander if we could make a stop in the market. I wanted to ask local people about the improved security situation in Anbar Pro vince and particularly Fallujah. We were told the situation was not an appropriate one for venturing outside the armoured Bradley.
How could we tell the outside world that life in Fallujah was back to normal when roads were blocked and checkpoints were everywhere and if we had to wear helmets and bulletproof vests? Other commanders concede that progress in security in the nearby provincial capital city, Ramadi, is no greater than in Fallujah. Certainly, the coalition has made efforts to lure the population of Anbar to join in efforts to rebuild the province. According to US officials, more than $7m has been spent in Fallujah alone in the past seven months to create almost 14,000 jobs.
In the past year, senior figures in the coalition have acknowledged that dissolving the Sunni-led army that had been full of members of the failed Ba’ath Party led to high unemployment and unrest. Left without jobs, the ex-soldiers had little option but to join the ranks of various insurgent groups active in the province. They believed this would give them a voice in the future of their country after the Shia-dominated alliance came to power through the ballot box in two consecutive general elections.
Security in Baghdad receives much press coverage, but incidents in other parts of the country such as Mosul and Kirkuk go mostly unreported. When I wanted to visit the city of Kirkuk, a senior Kurdish security figure in Suleymaniye advised me not to go because of the volatile situation in the town. The area will remain unstable if its future is not decided in a way that is approved by all minorities and inhabitants – Sunni, Shia, Turkmen and Kurd.
I had met Bacchar, an old friend from a Christian family who lives in Kirkuk, on the plane from Amman to Irbil, in the Kurdish-controlled part of northern Iraq. He told me he chose to fly to Irbil to meet his brother-in-law and his sister rather than risk visiting them in their home town of Kirkuk. He warned me not to visit Kirkuk, as bombings, killings and assassinations had become part of daily life in the city. Mosul has also become a hotbed of al-Qaeda activity and a no-go area for Arab and foreign journalists. Many local Iraqi journalists have been killed there and others face death threats.
Iraqis, their fellow Arabs and others all hope for news of improvements in security. But there is still a long way to go. Shia militias have replaced Sunni insurgents in fighting the US-led coalition. At the same time, ordinary Iraqis fear it is impossible to maintain the heavy military presence – checkpoints and patrols every few hundred metres – on which the fragile peace rests.
In Fallujah, an un declared war is under way which will be won either by the US-led coalition or by al-Qaeda, according to Barry Edwards, a spokesman for the US forces in Fallujah. He told me they had been involved in two earlier wars in the city: one in early 2004, which had been won by al-Qaeda, and another in late 2004, lost by al-Qaeda. This third war, he said, was about winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Progress was slow, he admitted.
Besides being armed and supported by the resident US forces, the Sunni militiamen joining the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq are receiving military back-up from Iraqi forces during their confrontations with al-Qaeda fighters, and are bringing some semblance of security to their towns and villages. Nonetheless, there is concern among many Shias, who feel they are being singled out when they come across checkpoints or patrols manned by Sunni fighters controlling their areas. They claim that some of these fighters worked with al-Qaeda before they turned against it just over six months ago.
It is widely known that if al-Maliki’s government would embrace them as part of the security forces, the Sunni fighters would be ready to accept. Others told me of their fear that incorporating Sunni militiamen (whose numbers exceed 50,000) as part of the new security measures would lead to a confrontation between Sunni and Shia militias the minute the United States started to withdraw its forces from Iraq. This would be particularly likely if the Sunnis were to continue feeling that they were the underdogs in a new Iraqi state.
In such an environment, it is impossible to see the apparent improvement in security as more than a short-term gain, and a flimsy, after-the-event justification for Washington’s decision last summer to increase its fighting manpower in Iraq by 30,000 in what it called its “troop surge” (bringing the US forces total to 170,000).
And, as Sunni militias threaten to turn against the Maliki Shia coalition government and the armed Shia militias, the long-term prognosis must be further suffering.
Zaki Chehab is the author of “Iraq Ablaze: Inside the Insurgency” (I B Tauris, £20)