Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Iraq remains a country with no peace

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On the last day of 2012, a year after the last American troops left Iraq and ended nearly nine years of military occupation, at least 36 Iraqis perished in a wave of bombings and shootings across the country that targeted policemen, government officials and ordinary people of varied sects.

According to Iraq Body Count, a meticulous, mainly American and British monitoring group, the overall toll in deaths of civilians due to political violence last year was 4,471, slightly more than the year before. On average there were 18 bombings and 53 violent deaths a week.

Iraq is hardly a country at peace.

Still, the monthly toll in 2012 fell steadily and markedly after June. The violence also was increasingly concentrated in a few areas, with 43 per cent of the deaths counted by the IBC occurring in two of the country's 18 provinces, Baghdad and Nineveh, the latter of which abuts Syria and has Mosul at its hub.

The rest of the country may be more peaceful than at any time since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraq's main oil-producing areas in the south are generally free of trouble with exports boosted to 2.8 million barrels a day, the highest rate for three decades.

Even so, few Iraqis are celebrating. That extra money has yet to improve public services or to raise family incomes appreciably. The underlying violence still amounts to what the IBC terms "an entrenched conflict."

Worse, the factors that feed the strife are still at play. In particular Nuri al-Maliki, the tough Shia Muslim who has been prime minister since 2006, shows increasingly authoritarian, sectarian and democracy-sapping tendencies, ruthlessly ousting or outmanoeuvring rivals and using underhand methods to impose his will.

He is widely viewed as a would-be dictator, tolerant of corruption, reliant on the backing of Iran and willing cynically to stir up strife between Iraq's minority of Sunni Arabs and its Shia majority, or with Iraq's fiercely autonomous Kurds in the north, to maintain his grip on power in Baghdad.

A recent wave of protests across the mainly Sunni areas to the north and west of Baghdad, including strikes and sit-ins, has sharpened sectarian strife.

Sunnis were particularly outraged last month when the bodyguards of the Sunni finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, were arrested. That provoked memories of a similar episode a year ago, when Maliki's men jailed, tortured and sentenced to death the guards of Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, another leading Sunni, accusing them of being part of a death squad that was targeting Shias.

Hashemi fled to the Iraqi Kurds' capital, Erbil, and now resides in Turkey. He later was sentenced to death in absentia.

A serious illness that recently has befallen Iraq's mainly ceremonial president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who sometimes has acted effectively as a mediator above the sectarian fray, has further jangled Iraqi nerves.

Sunni grievances go deep. Long dominant until Saddam Hussein's fall -- he was executed in 2006 -- and having suffered the brunt of the violence during America's occupation, Iraq's Sunni Arabs reckon that they are now being deliberately marginalized.

Addressing a crowd in the town of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, Issawi complained that Sunnis were being "ghettoized."

Districts where they still predominate in Baghdad had, he said, been turned into "giant prisons ringed by concrete blocks."

The civil war next door in Syria, with its increasingly bitter sectarian flavour, has not helped. While Iraqi Sunni groups, including some tied to al-Qaida, lend arms and fighters to Syria's rebels, Maliki's government quietly aids President Bashar Assad's embattled regime.

Sunni Iraqi insurgents who once attacked Americans are targeting Iraqi Shias and people connected to Maliki's government. The recent Sunni protests also have drawn sympathy from Muqtada al-Sadr, a fiery Shia cleric whose powerful popular movement has grown increasingly critical of Maliki.

Perhaps in an effort to win backing across the Arab sectarian chasm, Maliki has been raising the stakes with the Kurds, who claim areas, including the city of Kirkuk, that have large non-Kurdish populations.

The oil ministry in Baghdad fiercely opposes the increasingly successful efforts of the Kurds to persuade foreign companies to exploit oil in their own region.

Iraq is still a violent mess. Its democracy, imposed by the Americans, looks fragile. And the prospect of real harmony between the three main ethnic and sectarian components -- Arab Shias, Arab Sunnis and Kurds -- looks as distant as ever.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 7, 2013 A10

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