by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Matt Duss
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Even as violence in Iraq has declined from the catastrophic levels seen from 2005 to 2007, terrorism has continued to be a daily fact of life. In the past several months, the frequency of suicide bombings has risen to a level unseen in over a year. Just over 400 Iraqi civilians were killed in March, up from 346 in February, and 296 in January. On April 24, two suicide bombers killed at least 75 people outside a Shiite shrine in northern Baghdad. This past Wednesday, five car bombs and a roadside bomb exploded in Baghdad, killing at least 48 people. According to the Washington Post, the attacks "appear designed to discredit Iraq's security forces as the U.S. military starts to withdraw from urban areas." The attacks are also meant to exacerbate sectarian tension, and, according to the Post, "could prompt militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to take up arms to defend their neighborhoods, which many have been eager to do since [Sadr] imposed a cease-fire in the fall of 2007." The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "has blamed Sunni insurgents and members of the Baath Party for the recent attacks."
A DELAYED DRAWDOWN?: According to his withdrawal timeline announced in February, President Obama planned for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30 of this year. The New York Times reported Sunday that, because of continuing violence, the U.S. and Iraq "will begin negotiating possible exceptions to the June 30 deadline for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraqi cities, focusing on the troubled northern city of Mosul, according to military officials. Some parts of Baghdad also will still have combat troops." Representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government, who have complained about what they see as strong-arm tactics by the central government in Baghdad, have requested the U.S. "to retain up to 50,000 troops in the autonomous Kurdish area." Asked at Wednesday's press conference whether the steadily rising violence in Iraq would affect the withdrawal timetable he announced in February, President Obama responded that "part of the reason why I called for a gradual withdrawal as opposed to a precipitous one was precisely because more work needs to be done on the political side to further isolate whatever remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq still exist." An administration official later told McClatchy, however, that "we are not even talking about" changing the withdrawal plan. "The situation would have to get a lot worse for that to change."
IRAQ'S STRONG MAN: Maliki has achieved considerable success in establishing himself as a strong leader and consolidating the central government's power. Recently, Iraqi security forces announced the capture of "a leader of the Sunni insurgency who had been in league with members of Saddam Hussein's ousted Baath Party." This came on the heels of a number of clashes between government troops and members of the Sunni Awakening groups -- former insurgent elements who allied with U.S. forces against Al Qaeda and have received a large share of credit for the improved security in Iraq. Government forces have also been arresting many Awakening leaders on charges of continuing involvement in terrorism and crime. Members of the movement complain that they have not been given promised jobs, and are being abandoned by their U.S. allies to the mercy of Shia-controlled government that has little interest in genuine reconciliation. Noting that a political settlement has not followed the drop in violence, journalist Nir Rosen writes that "the tepid response to the arrest of...Awakening men suggests that a political reconciliation may not have been necessary. The burgeoning Iraqi state, embodied by Maliki himself, can simply continue to expand its power and crush any rivals."
POLITICAL CHALLENGES REMAIN: On April 21, the Senate finally confirmed Christopher Hill as the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Hill "a proven, expert negotiator, a problem-solver and...one of the best diplomats we have." It is believed that Hill's skills as a negotiator make him well-suited to facilitate Iraqi factions overcoming some of the significant political challenges that remain. At his press conference this week, Obama listed some of the key challenges that remain in Iraq, such as "making sure that how they divvy up oil revenues is ultimately settled; what the provincial powers are and boundaries; the relationship between the Kurds and the central government; the relationship between the Shia and the Kurds; are they incorporating effectively Sunnis, Sons of Iraq into the structure of the armed forces in a way that's equitable and just. Those are all issues that have not been settled the way they need to be settled." The president insisted that "we've provided sufficient time for them to get that work done," but that "we've got to keep the pressure up, not just on the military side, but on the diplomatic and development sides, as well."