Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Despite the recent substantial reinforcement of British and American forces in Basra and central Iraq respectively, security in the country only temporarily improved, and the gruesome daily litany of suicide bombings, mortar attacks, targeted killings and ethnic cleansing continues.
In July, at least 1,759 Iraqis were reported killed, a more than seven per cent increase over the 1,640 who are said to have died in June, according to estimates by the Associated Press.
Among the dead were civilians, government officials and members of the Iraqi security forces. The figures are considered only a minimum, and the actual number is thought to be higher with many killings going unreported.
Coalition forces are barely able to prevent the emergence of autonomous zones openly controlled by militias. The ongoing sectarian violence has created an extremely threatening climate. People feel they may be kidnapped or killed at any moment.
The security disaster is having a devastating effect on civilians, reconstruction efforts and economic activity. One out of three Iraqis is in need of emergency aid, according to a recent report by Oxfam.
A full-scale civil war looms. For the time being, United States forces are too strong to let this happen, yet they are too weak to prevent the daily killings. Or as a former member of the US administration in Baghdad put it, “We can only slow down the escalation. But we cannot prevent it, nor can we bring peace.”
The Iraqi security forces, seen by the US government and many external observers as the key to pacifying the country and guaranteeing order, are seen by large parts of the population as part of the problem. A number of army units appear to be controlled by Shia parties and are believed to be deeply involved in the sectarian violence.
Many Iraqis feel that there is no such thing as an independent, non-sectarian government acting for the benefit of the whole country.
At the end of July, the Accord Front, the largest Sunni Arab bloc in central government, announced the resignation of its six ministers. One of the reasons given for the withdrawal was the failure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to respond to a Sunni request to include all groups represented in the government in a concerted attempt to tackle the deteriorating security situation.
"The government is continuing with its arrogance, it is refusing to change its stance and has slammed shut the door to the meaningful reforms needed to save Iraq," said Rafaa al-Issawi, a leading member of the Accord Front.
Apart from three calm northern provinces under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government, the situation now is as volatile as it ever has been in the last few years. Internecine fighting and ethnic cleansing campaigns continue in central Iraq, while Shia militias battle for power and resources in the south.
A series of reports by IWPR journalists in six key regions shows that the rule of law ranges from being woefully inadequate to effectively non-existent.
The arm of the law is not long at all in Iraq. The government in Baghdad has little or no influence on security in Mosul, Basra and Karbala, three of the most troubled cities.
Mosul, which was represented through 2003 and the first half of 2004 as a model for Coalition-assisted reconstruction efforts, has turned into a battleground as horrific as Baghdad. As our story about the persecution of Christians reveals, minorities cannot hope for any protection or support from central or regional government. They are on their own, and many see no remedy but to run for their lives and flee the country.
Our story about Shia infighting in Basra gives some insight into the power dynamic in this important southern city. Several local forces vie for control, but at the same time try to maintain some stability so as not to undermine oil production and public investment from which they all profit through smuggling, corruption and looting.
Nominally, Basra is controlled by British forces, but they have never been able to stop the rise of the militias. Instead, they saw the very forces they trained and equipped turn into criminal gangs, using police facilities as torture centres and kidnapping and killing their opponents.
The rivalry that fuels Shia militia violence in Basra and other southern regional centres such as Amara and Diwaniyah is often evident in central government, with Shia politicians unable to reach compromise amongst themselves on sensitive issues, let alone with their Sunni coalition partners and opposition groups.
IWPR’s story from Kirkuk, an ethnically diverse and oil-rich city in the north, shows how residents are being persecuted as rival political groups compete for supremacy. The people interviewed said implementation of a repatriation process has fuelled ethnic conflict, and this has worsened ahead of an upcoming referendum to decide whether the province should be governed by the Kurdish Regional Government or the central Iraqi authorities.
Even in the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, nominally under the control of the traditional Shia clerical hierarchy, anarchy has led to the emergence of self-appointed ayatollahs such as Sayyid Mahmud Hassani al-Sarkhi, who features in another story in this report. These clerics, who are not accepted by the Shia religious establishment, use their militias to acquire influence.
Our story about checkpoints in Baghdad illustrates the schizophrenic approach adopted by civilians negotiating their way through the innumerable controls in the city. They have to decide within seconds whether to identify themselves as Sunni or Shia, as picking the wrong identity could mean summary execution.
It remains to be seen whether the country will break up along sectarian lines or whether it can somehow be reunited. It is certainly doubtful whether Kurdistan could be reintegrated into a centralised state.
Meanwhile, more than four million people, including a high proportion of the technical, political, cultural elite, have either left the country or fled to more secure areas zones in Iraqi Kurdistan and the south.
This brain drain will make it even more difficult to build up strong institutions, the rule of law and good governance in Iraq.
Susanne Fischer is the IWPR Middle East Programme Manager and has been working in Iraq since fall 2003.
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