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America confronts reality in Iraq

There's little sign that Iraq's government of national unity is bringing together the country's sectarian and ethnic groups -- as hoped -- so that U.S. troops can leave anytime soon.
Iraqis check the site of a car bomb attack at a market in Sadr City
Iraqis check the site of a car bomb attack at a market in Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad on Aug. 17.Kareem Raheem / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Frustration in Washington. Digging in heels in Baghdad. There's little sign that Iraq's government of national unity is bringing together the country's sectarian and ethnic groups -- as hoped -- so that U.S. troops can leave anytime soon.

By nearly every yardstick, the situation in Iraq is getting worse:

Last month, about 3,500 Iraqis died violently -- the highest monthly civilian toll since the war began more than three years ago.

In all, 2,625 explosive devices either detonated or were discovered before they could explode in July -- nearly double the figure for January, U.S. officials said. About 70 percent of the 1,666 bombs that did explode targeted U.S.-led forces.

What the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki needs is breathing space to address the issues and move toward genuine national reconciliation. Instead, the government now worries about whether rockets will crash down on the U.S.-controlled Green Zone or whether key civil servants will be killed on their way to work.

The need to stop the slide toward chaos is behind the new U.S. security crackdown in Baghdad. U.S. commanders are bringing in nearly 12,000 U.S. and Iraqi reinforcements to move through the city, neighborhood by neighborhood, to arrest gunmen, seize weapons and build public confidence.

‘Secure platform’
One senior U.S. official who was familiar with the planning of the operation said the new Iraqi government was being "constantly distracted" by violence and the intent was to provide the government with a "secure platform" so that it could begin to deal with political issues. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

But U.S. military and civilian officials in Baghdad believe that strategy will work only if the Baghdad offensive calms things enough -- and if Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians accept compromises for the good of the country.

American officials used to say that the political process would lead to an end to violence. Now it is clear that the violence must ease before the political process can get going.

The government has been in power only about three months, and no one expected quick success. What's disappointing is the absence of any movement that could eventually bring success.

In June, al-Maliki, a longtime Shiite activist, submitted a 24-point reconciliation plan to parliament. But the program was little more than broad goals. For example, it offered amnesty to insurgents who renounce violence and have not killed American forces or Iraqis.

But it's difficult to understand how an amnesty in a war can have much meaning or impact unless it includes those who have killed people.

After months of bitter sectarian violence, distrust among the religious and ethnic groups runs deep.

Minority Sunni Arabs complain that the majority Shiites have no intention of offering significant compromises. Shiites and their U.S. partners complain that Sunnis show little interest in overtures.

Many local Sunni leaders in Anbar province remain convinced that they can regain power in Baghdad through the armed insurgency. Hard-liners in both camps appear willing to wait for the day the Americans go home so they can run the country the way they want.

Even worse, the divisions aren't limited to the Sunni-Shiite gap.

In fact, al-Maliki will be lucky to keep his own disparate Shiite alliance intact over the coming months. Shiite rivalries have already triggered brief but sharp gunfights this month in at least two major Shiite cities -- Karbala and Basra.

Power struggle
Differences between two powerful Shiite factions are nearly as profound as those dividing Sunnis and Shiites. The factions are locked in a power struggle for leadership. One wants to move quickly to establish a Shiite self-ruled region in the south similar to what the Kurds enjoy in the north. The other, along with Sunnis, strongly opposes the plan, fearing it would break the country apart.

Many Iraqis fear it's only a matter of time before internal Shiite differences explode into open conflict.

"There is no move toward reconciliation," said Khalid al-Obeidi, 60, a community leader in Azamiyah, a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad. "There should be political preparations for reconciliation. It cannot be done in such a short time."

From the U.S. perspective, all this has begun to look like petty squabbling and squandered opportunities -- while more Americans die.

Key U.S. senators complain it's time to tell Iraqis that American troops won't stay indefinitely and to make political compromises to avoid all-out civil war.

From the Iraqi perspective, the Americans are unrealistic and are pushing them along a timetable based more on U.S. domestic political interests than reality on the ground. That's been an Iraqi complaint since the Americans and their allies toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The acid test may come when -- and if -- parliament considers constitutional amendments on issues that Sunnis and Shiites could not agree on during talks last year.

In a deal worked out under U.S. pressure, they agreed to form a parliamentary committee that would have four months to recommend amendments that, if approved by parliament, would go to voters.

Yet four months after parliament convened, it has not managed even to form the committee.