March 19, 2013

Iraq torn between progress and chaos

The politics of Baghdad are undercutting Iraq's quest to regain a seminal position in the region.

BAGHDAD — Ten years after the United States barreled into Iraq with extraordinary force and a perilous lack of foresight, the country is neither the failed state that seemed all but inevitable during the darkest days of the war nor the model democracy the Americans set out to build.

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An Iraqi woman carries a bag of recyclable materials at a garbage dump in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sunday. According to the manager of the dump, the people who salvage plastic and aluminum make an average of $8 per day re-selling the materials. The intractable nature of Baghdad politics has widened the country’s ethnic and sectarian fault lines.

The Associated Press

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Haunted by the ghosts of its brutal past, Iraq is teetering between progress and chaos, a country threatened by local and regional conflicts with the potential to draw it back into the sustained bloodshed its citizens know so well.

The nation is no longer defined or notably influenced by its relationship with the United States, despite an investment of roughly $1.7 trillion and the loss of 4,487 American troops. In the end, Washington failed to carve out a role as an honest broker in postwar Iraq, an aspiration borne out of the recognition that the country's future may once again have explosive implications for the region.


The contrasts of today's Iraq are as sharp as they are dangerous. The autonomous Kurdish region in the north is thriving, inching ever closer to independence, buoyed by a lucrative oil boom and bold, ambitious leaders who have kept the region safe.

The Shiite provinces in the south are enjoying a renaissance, reaping millions from improved security and the growth of religious tourism.

Predominantly Sunni areas, however, are seething. The minority that enjoyed elite status under Saddam Hussein's autocratic reign now views itself as increasingly disenfranchised in the Shiite-run state of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; its members have resorted to large-scale protests in a bid to claim a fair share in the new Iraq.

Drawing on Sunnis' widespread anger and frustration, remnants of Iraq's once-mighty insurgency remain a threat, periodically striking at the state.

Undercutting Iraq's quest to regain a seminal position in the region are the politics of Baghdad, which have become more intractable and poisonous since the U.S. military withdrew at the end of 2011. They have widened the country's ethnic and sectarian fault lines and called into question the viability of a parliamentary democracy in a country accustomed to strongman rule.


Pockets of the new Iraq are brimming with optimism. To drive around the southern province of Najaf, home to one of the most sacred shrines in Shiite Islam, is to behold the type of Iraq the United States once hoped to leave behind.

Cranes are ubiquitous as a construction boom reshapes the provincial capital. Struggling to accommodate the more than 2 million pilgrims who each year visit the Imam Ali Mosque, the holy site is adding wings.

"Most people now have a good job and lots of opportunities," Governor Adnan Zurfi said in a recent interview, as he listed a flurry of initiatives the province is funding to improve housing for the poor, health care and education. Baghdad's dysfunctional politics notwithstanding, he noted, democracy is thriving in Najaf. "This is an example of a successful city," added the governor, an Iraqi-born American citizen who spent several years in Dearborn, Mich. "I'm trying to show people in Iraq that there are a lot of benefits to the new system if they manage to elect good people and kick radicals out of power."

Haider Adnan, a 30-year-old merchant who sells fabric to pilgrims visiting the shrine, said business has never been better.

"The economy is good," he said, as hoards of religious tourists made their way through the labyrinth-like shopping arcade adjacent to the shrine. "We have jobs, trade -- it's the best it's ever been."


This side of Iraq stands out as an unlikely success story in a nation where an estimated 120,000 civilians were killed violently during the past decade.

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