Thursday, January 24, 2008

The latest on Iraq

Something to smile about: a United States soldier plays paper, scissors and stone with an Iraqi boy
[Photo: courtesy of US Department of Defense]

It was interesting to hear the distinctly confident tone of Ambassador David Satterfield when he spoke on Iraq at a meeting organised by the Global Strategy Forum on Monday night. Satterfield advises Condoleezza Rice, and is the State Department's Coordinator for Iraq. He made a compelling case four nights ago that things are getting better - "by any metric", as he put it in his opening remarks. With the surge seemingly responsible for a demonstrable reduction in the violence in Iraq, he said that he was more confident about the future than he had been "ninety - or even twenty - days ago." To be fair to him, he described himself as "cautiously optimistic."

With Satterfield's impressive pitch a memory, re-reading my scribbled notes, it is the problems that stand out however. Although the violence was now dropping, the "laggard", as Satterfield admitted, was the national political process that the surge was designed to give space to breathe.
Although a law designed to rehabilitate some former Baath party officials has now gone through, other legislation setting out how Iraq's oil will be exploited and its proceeds shared out and, secondly, the balance between federal and provincial government has made little progress: and laws on both are vital if Iraq is to become a stable state.

Satterfield was scathing about the Iraqi government at times: it had to govern "more effectively and ... in a national manner", he warned, and he said that it had been "very slow" to respond to the challenges posed by the return of refugees from Syria and Jordan who found that their homes were now occupied by others.

Satterfield described the scale of Iran's diplomatic presence in Iraq as "not appropriate, not helpful", and said Syria was "the primary source of Al Qaeda's suicide bombers". In this respect, this recent report in The Times makes interesting reading.

Questioned about the "Anbar Awakening" - the effort by the Sunnis in Anbar province to root out foreign terrorism, he was categoric that the US government had provided "not a single weapon." "They were very well armed to begin with", he added, drily. He put the number of "concerned citizens" as the vigilantes have been dubbed, at 80,000. However, as this excellent short report from the New York Times shows, the denial, while technically true, is rather academic. Watch the brick of banknotes being passed to one local leader 1 min 37 seconds into the film. Who knows where that cash is going. The film makes it clear that the Sunni awakening poses its own particular problems. As Satterfield observed, "the challenge posed by all the armed elements ... is a considerable one."

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