The Surge: From Worse to Worst?

ARBIL – More than four months after the launch of the U.S. government’s new Iraq strategy aimed at curbing violence in this war-torn country, the situation here shows no clear signs of improvement. Indeed, a recent report by a British think-tank warns [.pdf] that Iraq is a "failure" on the verge of "collapse and fragmentation."

While a surge in the number of U.S. troops and a new security plan to make Baghdad safe were at the core of President George W. Bush’s new strategy, there has been no noteworthy progress to that end.

Although the death toll in the capital has considerably decreased, overall casualties across the country have not dropped. Under siege in Baghdad, insurgents have largely shifted their attacks to the neighboring provinces in order to diffuse the increasing pressure on them in the capital.

According to figures by the Iraq Body Count – a group that maintains a database of media-reported civilian deaths attributable to military action and sectarian and criminal violence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion – in January, the month before the start of the Baghdad security plan, 2,800 people were killed.

In February the monthly total dropped slightly to 2,720, while in the first 27 days of this month, 2,500 civilians have been killed, showing no major decline in violence.

Citing the complexity of the situation in Iraq, the report by the prestigious Chatham House think tank notes that "there is not one civil war nor one insurgency, but several civil wars and insurgencies" going on simultaneously.

In the central parts of the country, Shia and Sunni Muslims are fighting each other. In the mixed areas of the north a conflict, though still small, has broken out between Arabs and Kurds. The western parts of the country are witnessing Sunni tribes fighting the al-Qaeda terror network, and in the south Shia political groups are fighting for power and control of oil-rich areas like Basra.

Added to this is a relentless insurgency by various groups against the Iraqi government and foreign troops.

Bilal A. Wahab, a political researcher from Arbil, says that "compared to now, what could be worse for Iraq is an all-out civil war" where everyone would fight everyone.

He criticized the new Iraq strategy for mainly focusing on military actions and putting little effort into the political and economic dimensions. The resulting imbalance, he said, has further shaken people’s faith in the current system.

"Under the present circumstances, what the sect, tribe or political party can offer you [in Iraq], the government cannot, and these groups have become alternative sources of income and protection," Wahab told IPS.

The number of people joining the armed and political groups in Iraq has increased alarmingly, given the high rate of unemployment, estimated at around 60 percent.

"Different patronage networks are being built in the country, and they will be the number-one destabilizer of a unified country in the future," Wahab said.

The high level of corruption in state institutions has further alienated the Iraqi public from the government and has created a deep mistrust between the politicians and the people.

Four years after the invasion, the Iraqi and U.S. governments have basically failed to take any concrete steps to address the essential needs of the people in terms of public services and getting the economy back on its feet.

In the absence of a powerful government capable of bringing law and order to the most volatile parts of the country, Iraq has turned into different hemispheres of influence for the neighboring states.

Mawlud Murad, a senior official of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, said the very make-up of the government has to be changed in order to empower it to take serious action.

"In my opinion, as long as the current government is in place and the current security, military, and regional status quo remains unchanged, no positive change can be expected in the situation in Iraq," said Murad, whose party holds five seats in the Iraqi parliament.

While Iraq is ever deeper stuck in violence and uncertainty, there are increasing calls and pressure in Washington for the U.S. to pull its troops out. But many in Iraq fear that this would turn their country into a real bloodbath with irreversible losses.

A withdrawal "would be very bad and would be an escape by the U.S. from its historic responsibility towards Iraq, since much of the conflict in the country has been created as a result of the U.S. presence," Murad said.