Iraq Making Painstakingly Slow Progress

>> Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A major fault line of Iraqi politics is the sectarian split between Sunni and Shia. After the brutal ethnic cleansing and hardening of tribal loyalties there exists great distrust between large portions of the populations. This distrust caused the minority Sunni to form their own militias and armed forces to fight against not only the American occupiers and the al queda forces operating in Iraq but to protect against Shia Iraqis. The drop in violence that accompanied the surge had many contributing factors and one of these was putting these Sunni forces onto the American payroll, paying them not to shoot at us and to fight on our behalf in some instances. Now as we prepare to leave Iraq there is concern over what happens to the 100,000 sunni we have been paying.

It appears that the melding of the 100,000 strong sunni force known as the son's of iraq is actually being integrated into the Iraq police force.

Iraq's ruling Shiites still view the fighters with suspicion. The hostility reflects the deep mistrust between the country's newly assertive Shiite majority and the onetime Sunni elite, who are angry about their fall from power. If the government alienates the Sunni paramilitary fighters, who number nearly 100,000 countrywide, the fighters could restart their insurgency.

But as the U.S. military prepares to start pulling out of the country, responsibility for the Sons of Iraq was transferred to the Iraqi army. The payments Monday marked the last step in the transition.

"Today's a tremendous day," said Brig. Gen. William Grimsley, deputy commander of the Army's 4th Infantry Division, whose area encompasses Baghdad. He and other U.S. military officials played down concerns expressed by many of the Sunni paramilitary members that the Iraqi government might renege on vows to find them jobs in the future. "We're not worried, necessarily, but it's something we all need to watch long-term," Grimsley said.

The first of the paydays is taking place at 36 stations in west Baghdad. All 21,000 of the paramilitary members in the area controlled by the Iraqi army's 6th Division are to be paid by next Monday.

Other provinces will soon follow. The integration is not perfect however as the sunni fighters have yet to be given a chance at any command or higher level positions. this has added to the distrust between the two camps. Freezing the sunni out of the officer corp is not a viable long term solution for a country struggling with sectarian violence. Segregation is not an effective way of reducing tensions between rival factions.

Keeping the pay coming is an important part of keeping the peace. Many fighters are happy with the money for now even though it represents a pay cut from the amount they were receiving from the americans, 300 down from 350. keeping young men with weapons employed and on your side is a good idea. By keeping them employed and maintaining the peace it offers a chance for a reconciliation. This should not be portrayed as a quick and simple process.

If we analogize to the civil rights movement and race relations in the US feelings of racial hatred receded only over decades as younger people who never experienced jim crow grew up and interacted with African Americans. Even now after electing a black president the lingering effects of racial divide were painfully evident. Is it so unreasonable to expect that it will take similar lengths of time to sure up and heal the cleavages in iraqi society that have been based on tribal and sectarian fights centuries old?

The picture is still not very pretty. Violence on a terrible scale is common in iraq. To suggest that everything is better now that some of the sunni have been integrated into the army and police is not credible. However everything requires first steps and this is an important one. If the sunni are able to successfully integrate themselves into the security forces and al maliki refrains from a power consolidation move against them then Iraq will be in a far better position than it was a couple of months ago.


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