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10 years after the war's start: five things to know about Iraq

Ten years ago, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the assumptions many Americans held about the coming war, turned out to be wildly inaccurate. Saddam Hussein, as we now know, did not possess weapons of mass destruction. The conflict would not end quickly. And the cost of the war — in lives and dollars — would far eclipse expectations.

1. The troop surge succeeded.

The surge of 26,000 troops into Baghdad in 2007 had two objectives: tamp down the bloody sectarian civil war and forge a political compromise among the three principal groups in Iraqi society — Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds — that would set the country on a path to stability.

The surge helped accomplish the first goal, but it was not the only reason for the reduced violence. A decision by Sunni tribal leaders to oppose al-Qaida fighters in Iraq also played a major role. So, too, did Iraqi behavior; as mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad became more homogeneous and fortified, opportunities for sectarian violence decreased.

When it came to political compromise, however, the surge was a flop. Majority Shiites did not want to give the Sunnis and Kurds a greater role in the government and security forces, and the hopes of striking a grand bargain in the waning days of the Bush administration fizzled. As a consequence, red-hot embers remain in the tinderbox that is Iraq. Disputes over land and oil could spark another Kurd-Arab civil war in the north. Sunnis in the central part of the country, who have been holding anti-government protests for the past three months, now openly talk of rebellion. Sunni leaders accuse the Shiite-dominated security forces of persecuting them in the name of combating terrorism and purging old members of Hussein's Baath Party.

2. Iraq today is relatively peaceful.

Levels of violence are far lower than they were in 2006, at the height of the civil war, when hundreds of people were being killed every week. But Iraq is far from stable. On Monday, a suicide bomber drove his explosives-laden car into a police station, killing five people; the same day, six more people were killed in various militant attacks in Baghdad. Three days earlier, 19 people died in a string of attacks targeting security personnel.

For the Iraqis who have no ticket out, life is still defined by bloodshed and fear. "The war is not over," a friend in Baghdad wrote to me recently. "There is still killing and bombing. We are still scared."

3. Iraq is a democracy.

It is — on paper. It has held successive national elections; it has a parliament and a modestly functional court system. In practice, however, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is exercising authority and centralizing power in ways that remind many Iraqis of Hussein. His security agencies have rounded up numerous Sunni leaders in recent months, accusing them of supporting the insurgency. Sunni officials contend that Maliki is using terrorism as a pretext to neutralize political foes.

Since he first won election in 2006, Maliki has moved to consolidate control over the country's security forces. He also has presided over the dismantling of the Sons of Iraq, the Sunni tribal militia that was instrumental in the fight against al-Qaida. The militia was supported by the U.S. military, which urged Maliki to integrate its members into the army and police force. Although he pledged to do so, only a fraction of Sunni militiamen have been given positions in the security services.

4. Iraq is in Iran's pocket.

Forget about all the blood and treasure the United States has poured into Iraq. Iran is Iraq's most strategically significant ally. Maliki owes his second term in large part to the pressure that Tehran exerted on rival Shiite political parties in Iraq, many of which received substantial financial support from the Iranian government. And there's plenty of evidence to indicate quid for the quo: Despite objections from Washington, Maliki's government has allowed Iranian cargo airplanes, allegedly filled with munitions, to fly to Syria through Iraqi airspace, enabling Tehran to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

But it would be wrong to assume that Maliki is permitting the flights only because of Iranian pressure. Even though Assad shares much of the Baathist ideology that Hussein espoused, he and his fellow Alawites are Shiites. It's more than kinship, however, that drives Maliki to favor the status quo in Syria. He and other leaders of Iraq's Shiite majority worry that if the Free Syrian Army overthrows Assad, the rebels will establish a radical Sunni government that will collaborate with Iraq's Sunni minority to topple the Baghdad government. "If the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq," Maliki warned in an interview with the Associated Press last month.

Nor do Tehran's money and love guarantee that Iraqi Shiites will do its bidding. Consider Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia was the bete noire of U.S. troops throughout much of the war. He spent years living in Iran, burnishing his religious credentials and rebuilding his political movement. Since his return to Iraq, though, he has sought to fashion himself as more of an Iraqi nationalist, reaching out to Sunni and Kurdish political factions that are Maliki rivals. When Sunnis convened large protests late last year to demand that Maliki amend terrorism and de-Baathification laws, Sadr bucked Tehran's dictates by meeting with Sunni leaders and espousing political compromise.

Iran is still bigger and more powerful. But Iraq's collaboration with Tehran is as often driven by its own interests as those of its neighbor.

5. The Americans have all left.

There are still about 220 U.S. military personnel in Iraq. They work for the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, which handles the sale of military equipment to the Iraqi army and coordinates training. Those personnel work in an annex of the U.S. Embassy in central Baghdad, the largest American diplomatic mission in the world. The massive complex, built on the grounds of the former Green Zone in the capital, houses hundreds of State Department officers, U.S. development specialists and representatives from other federal agencies. Legions of private security contractors guard the compound.

Concerns that the fighting in Syria could spill over into Iraq recently prompted the CIA to increase its support to Iraqi counterterrorism forces, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. Although the agency still intends to reduce its presence to about 300 personnel in Iraq, its station in Baghdad will remain one of the largest in the world.

10 years after the war's start: five things to know about Iraq 03/19/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 8:50pm]
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