Sunday, October 02, 2005

Iraq's future: Two different perspectives

There are two reports published today in Newsweek and Washington Post about what seems to be lying ahead for Iraq in light of its upcoming constitution election. The one in Newsweek titled " No more illusions," offers a very grim assessment of the current situation in Iraq and warns of the looming violent disintegration of the counry :

The outcome of these conflicts—and Iraq's future as a unified state—may well be riding on a critical nationwide vote planned for next week. Iraqis will decide, in a U.S.-orchestrated referendum on Oct. 15, whether to accept a permanent constitution drafted by the transitional National Assembly. Yet many worry that even if the constitution passes as Washington hopes, it will only worsen the disintegration underway. Key provisions allow for separate regions to control water and new oil wells, dictate tax policy and oversee "internal security forces"—to become autonomous, in effect. A confidential United Nations report, dated Sept. 15 and obtained by NEWSWEEK, cautions that the new constitution is a "model for the territorial division of the State." And in congressional testimony last week, Gen. George Casey, commander of Coalition forces in Iraq, said the U.S. occupation may have to continue longer be—cause the draft constitution "didn't come out as the national compact that we thought it was going to be."

...For many Iraqis, the only sense of security they can find after two and a half years of chaos is in the bosom of their sect or tribe. One central government after another in Baghdad has failed to establish order. After two years of training, the new Iraqi Army has but one fully independent battalion—about 500 men—centcom Commander Gen. John Abizaid told Congress last week. So, not surprisingly, militias and warlords have begun to take over and tend to their own.

All this is the opposite of what was envisioned a year or so ago. As part of the hopeful U.S. vision imposed by then U.S. viceroy L. Paul Bremer, 10 militias nationwide were to have been folded into the new Iraqi military and police. "This decision was never activated," says Ammar al-Mayiahi, Basra chief for the Badr Brigades, the militia of the Iranian-linked SCIRI party. "And Badr is still in control." In fact, several big militias are now operating across the southern Shiite provinces, often warring with one another for political and administrative advantage. All Iraqi Arabs, whether Sunni or Shia, are reluctant to travel to the Kurdish north. The Kurdish peshmerga are by far the biggest native force in the country, some 75,000 strong. They do not fly the Iraqi flag or wear Iraqi Army uniforms. "The most dangerous scenario is that the regions form their own internal-security services and they start operating with the sanction of local authorities," says a Western official in Baghdad who was forbidden by his superiors from speaking on the record. "Then the country could break up."...

David Ignatius's assessment in Washington Post, "Don't Give Up on Iraq Yet", however, offers--with some caution-- a more opptimistic view of the road ahead for the Iraqi people:

...What's crucial is that Sunnis turn out to vote Oct. 15 and that they come back to the polls at year's end, when a new government will be elected. There are encouraging signs that's going to happen, with Sunni clerics now urging people to register. Every commanderI talked with said Sunni registrationis up. That signals a recognition that Iraq's future will be shaped by ballots, not suicide bombers.

The real political milestone is the December balloting to elect a new, permanent government. The good news for people who want to see a secular Iraq is that the Sistani-backed clerical list is almost certain to get fewer votes than it did in the Jan. 30 balloting. And possibly, just possibly, enough Sunnis, Kurds and secular Shiites will vote for alternative lists to allow a new ruling coalition of secular parties, perhaps allied with religious ones, which might link arms across the Shiite-Sunni divide. Such a coalition might be headed by a secular Shiite politician, such as the wily Ahmed Chalabi or former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

Maybe I'm dreaming in imagining that a stable, secular government can still emerge. But the point is that we're finally approaching crunchtime. If the next six months don't produce something like the outcome I have described, there is every likelihood that Iraq will descend into the civil war that has been looming for two years...