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June 25, 2009

The Other War
Posted by Michael Cohen

With all the attention this week focused on the extraordinary events occurring in Iran, events next door in Iraq are barely registering (in fact Iraq has virtually dropped off the radar screen of the blogosphere). Perhaps folks should be paying attention, because it's a very bloody week and one that does not bode well for the country's future.

First there is the violence. And as is so often the case in Iraq, it's been horrific.Yesterday, a car bomb exploded in Sadr City killing more than 70 people and injuring 135. On Saturday, a massive truck bomb exploded in Northern Iraq killing 68 people and wounding 200. While other scattered bombings might be chalked up to score settling and revenge, these attacks seem intended to undermine the government in Baghdad.

Yet, as terrible as the violence has been in Iraq the even more worrying news may be on the political front. The one thing you often hear from Iraq experts is the potential for sectarian violence, not necessarily between Sunnis and Shias, but between Arabs and Kurds, which makes this news, flagged by Juan Cole, even more disturbing:

Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region hit out at Baghdad on Tuesday, describing oil and gas contracts due to be awarded by the federal government at the end of this month as "unconstitutional". The Iraqi oil ministry and Kurdistan, however, are at loggerheads over how international companies involved in the tapping of the nation's vast energy reserves should be paid. Iraq's decision to award service contracts differs from Kurdistan, where numerous profit-sharing deals have been struck. A statement issued by the Kurdish government said Baghdad's policy was "unconstitutional and against the economic interests of the Iraqi people."

In addition, just yesterday, the autonomous region of Kurdistan passed a new constitution that lays claim to the disputed region of Kirkuk.

These two stories raise even more red flags in light of this piece from the Sunday New York Times:

Popular support for Iraq’s democratic institutions is being undermined steadily by official corruption, yet the country has no comprehensive anticorruption law.  The country’s economy is dependent almost entirely upon oil revenue, but because there is no single law regulating the industry, there is widespread confusion about investment, production and lines of authority.

And parts of northern Iraq continue to be beset by ethnic and sectarian violence that could engulf the rest of the country in a new wave of warfare, but there is little prospect of a political resolution being offered any time soon to settle competing claims in the disputed province of Kirkuk. . .  Also languishing are statutes regarding foreign investment, the environment, elections, price fixing, political corruption, consumer protection, intellectual property rights, building codes and even the design of a new national flag.

Combine this legislative dysfunction with the fact that the Iraqi Parliament has appropriated funds for a national referendum on whether US remain in Iraq until the originally planned departure date - and there is real reason for concern about Iraq's uncertain future. (Oh by the way, US combat troops will be leaving Iraq's urban areas in just six days).

While there are signs of political reconciliation occurring on the local level and across the country there is a real question as to whether Iraq will turn into a stable country or will it turn in a violent and more deadly direction.  While those of us who vehemently opposed this war would like nothing more to be proven wrong - and see a prosperous and stable Iraq rise from the ashes - that possibility is seeming more and more uncertain these days.

So, the next time you hear a commentator talk about the success of the surge or the effectiveness of counter-insurgency tactics or what worked in Iraq can work in Afghanistan or that "the security situation is manageable" in Iraq be very dubious. What we are seeing today in Iraq is pretty compelling evidence that the institutionalized political reconciliation, which was supposed to accompany the US surge in 2007, is not occurring at a pace that inspires confidence.


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