Can Iraqis move past sectarian divides?
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst
Amid rising levels of violence and political uncertainty, is it realistic for US President Barack Obama to go ahead with his planned withdrawal from Iraq?
The clock is ticking.
By August of next year, all American combat troops are due to be withdrawn from Iraq - and the remainder by the end of 2011.
That's the Obama plan. And that's what American voters signalled they wanted when they elected him president.
But are the Iraqis ready to run their country and take charge of their security?
"Iraq today," says Anas Altikriti, a Sunni Islamist, "is half-way between either being on the verge of collapse or on the verge of salvation."
Interviews with Iraqi political figures suggest that Iraqis want the Americans to go, but are far from certain about what will happen if they do.
A new kind of politics
Iraq is between elections.
The last ones - local and provincial elections - were held in January of this year. The next ones - parliamentary elections - are due to take place in January 2010.
That may be five months away, but the politicians are already in electioneering mode.
The lesson of the provincial elections, says Rend Rahim, former Iraqi ambassador to Washington, is that voters are tired of sectarian politics.
She thinks the Islamist parties - both Sunni and Shia - can see which way the wind's blowing, but are still "unable to break out of the shackles of sectarian politics".
Nationalism is now a vote-winner. And one of the first to sense this was Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
Long regarded as a Shia Islamist, Mr Maliki has successfully rebranded himself as a nationalist strongman.
He wants to build on that success in the elections in January.
Driving a wedge
Whatever the voters may want, the old ethnic and sectarian divides - between Arab and Kurd and between Sunni and Shia - persist.
And in the run-up to the elections, extremist groups have an incentive to drive a wedge between the different communities.
Al-Qaeda and other groups are thought to be behind the recent spate of bombings in the capital, Baghdad, and in the volatile northern city of Mosul.
“ Some in Washington argue that only when American troops start coming home will the squabbling Iraqi factions get serious about reconciliation ”
They have been emboldened by the fact that, at the end of June, American troops withdrew from the cities - leaving their security in the hands of the Iraqis.
Maysoon Damluji, a well-known women's rights activist, is a member of parliament for Mosul representing a secular liberal party, the Iraqi National List.
Traditionally, she says, the city's diverse communities - Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Turkomen, Christians and others - were able to co-exist.
But now "people have resorted to their tribal, ethnic and religious backgrounds" and this is creating a lot of tension.
Although Mosul lies south of the largely autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq, a power struggle is under way between Kurds and Arabs in the city.
The veteran Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman sees no easy solution to the problems that divide the Kurds of the north and the Maliki government in Baghdad.
The north has been semi-autonomous for so long, he says, that "a whole generation has been brought up which has no relation with Baghdad".
The young speak Kurdish rather than Arabic and so, not surprisingly, feel more Kurdish than Iraqi.
Reading Obama's mind
Despite talk of reconciliation, the old rifts persist - and if the current level of violence continues, that will make it even harder to heal them.
Some in Washington argue that only when American troops start coming home will the squabbling Iraqi factions get serious about reconciliation.
But Maysoon Damluji argues that, by itself, that is not enough.
Reconciliation is not just about easing sectarian tensions, she says. It's about "bringing all Iraqis into the political process" - and, beyond that, providing more jobs for young men and women.
Mahmoud Othman thinks President Obama may be having second thoughts about his withdrawal timetable.
Anas Altikriti, the Sunni Islamist, distrusts American intentions.
Iraqis were overjoyed, he says, when during his election campaign then-Senator Obama pledged a full withdrawal - then dismayed when that was redefined to mean a phased withdrawal.
Rend Rahim, in contrast, thinks that, barring some catastrophe, the withdrawal will go ahead as planned.
The challenge then, she says, will be for Iraqis to reach a consensus on what sort of country they want to live in.
Roger Hardy's full Analysis programme will run on the BBC World Service on Monday 24 August at 1041 and 2241 GMT.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2009/08/23 15:07:14 GMT
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