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Iraq: Not All the News Is Bad

by Andrew C. Schneider
There's no end in sight to Iraq's troubles. But a few new trends may at least offer some chance for progress.

As the debate over war funding rages in Washington, some good news from Iraq is being drowned out. To be sure, the country is still suffering a deep crisis, and life for the typical Iraqi is defined by risk and insecurity. But some recent developments offer a narrow ray of hope that Iraq might soon end its downward spiral.

Violence is easing, notably in Baghdad, where a large proportion of the bloody attacks by insurgents have taken place since the war began in 2003. One indicator of a less perilous situation: The monthly tally of U.S. troop fatalities for March is on track to be the lowest in a year. Iraq's government is also hanging together, despite ongoing political tensions among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is likely to hold on to power after weathering many challenges.

Regional peace efforts are also gaining steam, thanks in part to the new tough but diplomatic strategy recently adopted by the Bush administration. On the one hand, the White House is increasing U.S. troop strength in Iraq and showing other countries in the region that the U.S. doesn't intend to back down from its military commitment. On the other hand, President Bush is providing openings for Iran and Syria to participate in discussions about Iraq's future. They and the other key players -- notably Saudi Arabia and Jordan -- finally seem ready to talk seriously about how to stabilize Iraq. It's hoped that such talks will provide a way to convince these outside parties to end their cash and safe-haven support to Iraq's Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.

"What Bush did by declaring a surge was militarily irrelevant. But it changed the psychology of the region by causing Iran and others to reevaluate their positions and their willingness to negotiate with the U.S.," says George Friedman, CEO of private intelligence firm Stratfor.

But there are still plenty of high hurdles to peace. A regional deal requires promises that Bush will be loath to make to entice Iran and Syria to stop meddling in Iraq. Among them: Guaranteeing to remove regime change from the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Easing the pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear work. And assuring Syria that it will get a chance to regain some influence over neighbor Lebanon.

What's more, Bush is probably in no mood to make any concessions to Tehran just after the Iranian navy seized 15 British Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines in the Persian Gulf. The incident, which apparently took place outside Iranian waters, raises serious questions about whether Iran can play a good-faith role in talks over Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iraq's domestic politics are approaching a dangerous oil slick. An agreement on sharing oil revenue is crucial to making peace among the country's three main factions. After long, arduous negotiations, the government is ready to send a draft proposal to parliament by May. But it could easily unravel and trigger yet more internal strife. The draft agreement is sketchy on many key details, such as the status of oil-rich Kirkuk in northern Iraq. The Kurds want to control it, but the oil-poor Sunnis don't agree. Neighboring Turkey is also very concerned about Kirkuk's becoming a Kurdish entity. Ankara fears it would allow Iraq's Kurds to declare independence and encourage Turkey's own Kurdish separatists to do the same.

Even in the best-case scenario for Iraq, violence will linger for years. The insurgents don't necessarily need external support to continue their attacks. These groups have developed homegrown financing from Mafia-like activities such as smuggling -- notably oil across the border -- and protection rackets. They've also amassed big stocks of weaponry composed of items that were left behind by Saddam Hussein's army.

Talk in Congress of a U.S. pullout by August 2008 is unrealistic. This proposal, included in the House version of a supplementary spending bill, is aimed mainly at keeping political pressure on Bush ahead of the 2008 elections. But in the end, look for Congress to approve at least $100 billion more for spending on Iraq this year, without conditions linking the money to setting an official withdrawal target date.

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