A subtle turning point occurred in Iraq in the fall of 2007 when
security improved and violence abated to a point where grassroots
reconciliation and community rebuilding efforts could take root.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, deputy spokesman for the Multi-National
Corps-Iraq, reported in November that terrorist attacks were 55
percent lower than when the troop surge began in June 2007. Iraqi
civilian deaths fell by 60 percent and Iraqi security forces deaths
dropped 40 percent since the beginning of the troop increase,
he said, though he noted that suicide attacks by the al-Qaida
in Iraq group are continuing.
progress has been remarkable," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior
fellow at the Brookings Institution. Helping contribute to the
reduction in violence are the emergence of "awakening councils"
-- Sunni fighters cooperating with U.S. counterinsurgency efforts
in places such as al-Anbar province -- and improved patrolling
by the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces in Baghdad, he
In addition, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi
Army, which had been battling coalition forces, announced a six-month
cease-fire in August.
Not only were Iraqis able to hit one of their national reconciliation
targets -- adopting a law allowing Baath Party members back into
the government -- but local-level programs aimed at resolving
differences and rebuilding neighborhoods began taking off as well.
"The continued improvement in the security situation has,
among other things, resulted in a surge of outreach from PRTs
(provincial reconstruction teams) and Iraqis and local leaders
for assistance in conflict mitigation/reconciliation efforts aimed
at trying to capture the momentum here and prevent a backslide,"
said Rusty Barber, chief of party in Baghdad for the U.S.
Institute of Peace.
USIP's first major grassroots mediation effort was just south
of Baghdad in Mahmoudiya, a one-time center of agriculture before
the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The turmoil following the ouster of
Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein led to gang and sectarian violence
and terrorist attacks that caused many in the community of 500,000
to leave, according to USIP.
But once the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces restored
some stability to the region in mid-2007, USIP and the military
were able to facilitate a dialogue between Mahmoudiya's mostly
Shia political and military leaders and the area's Sunni sheiks.
The Sunni sheiks traditionally held a major role in the community
but had fled to Amman, Jordan, for their own safety.
After coaxing them back, USIP-trained Iraqi facilitators led
the participants through a goal-setting process based on the premise
of where they wanted to see the region in three years.
"It was quite intense. ... We focused on what they could
do and work toward making happen," said Barber.
The result of a three-day conference in October was an agreement
on 37 goals to improve security and services, from rebuilding
roads and bridges to re-establishing the court system and developing
a monitoring system for elections, he said.
USIP is using Mahmoudiya as a model for other parts of Iraq,
including in Baiji, a major fuel-processing city in the north,
in the midlands region and in areas of the South, Barber said.
Currently, USIP has 15 to 20 Iraqi facilitators but is working
to expand that force to 100 -- representing different ethnic and
religious groups, including Shia, Sunni, Kurd, Turkmen and Christians
-- by the fall.
"There's a real sense of urgency right now because we do
have a limited timeframe," Barber explained. During this
period of relative calm, progress made through negotiations must
be underpinned with job restoration or people will start to feel
frustrated and things could fall apart, he said.
Conflict mitigation programs also are sprouting up in Iraq. In
October, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced
it awarded a $22 million contract to Relief International of California
and Columbia University's Center for International Conflict Resolution
in New York to assess communities' conflicts and develop quick
responses to them.
Relief International is setting up offices in each of Iraq's
18 governorates and using Columbia University's existing network
of Iraqi academics to help Iraqis analyze their sources of conflict,
designate people as peacekeepers and create educational and recreational
activities for Iraqi youth.
While the groups are helping Iraqis with training, they don't
want to be too directive, said Silja Paasilinna, program director
International. "This is something that really has to
come from the communities," she said. "What we want
to do is help Iraqis create a future for themselves."
The United Nations Development Programme-Iraq also is working
with academic institutions, local authorities, community representatives
and nongovernmental organizations to help with local development
issues and planning, according to Ali'a Al-Dalli, team leader
in UNDP-Iraq for the Poverty and Human Development Unit.
"Local steering committees have been set up in Sulaimaniya,
Hilla and the Marshlands governorates of Basra, Missan and Thi
Qar," she said. "They include representatives from civil
society, while universities have been commissioned to survey and
assess development needs in these areas."
Joost Hiltermann, deputy Middle East program director at the
International Crisis Group, sounded a cautionary note. Despite
the relative calm in places such as Baghdad, many people have
not returned to their homes and communities are more segregated
than they've ever been.
"In those Baghdad neighborhoods that remain mixed, I doubt
there will be reconciliation efforts, as sectarianism was not
strong enough there to divide the communities," he said.
According to Hiltermann, Iraqis are new to sectarianism -- something
that was introduced by political actors, including al-Qaida in
Iraq, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and
the al-Sadr movement. Those groups must reconcile or work out
some kind of accommodation, which can only be done at the national
level, he said.
National reconciliation efforts are moving forward, albeit at
a slow pace. One major mark of progress was the Iraqi parliament's
passage of a law on Jan. 12 to let members of Saddam's Baath Party
return to the now Shiite-led government or in some cases to receive
their pensions. The law is part of a series of measures aimed
at bringing the Sunni minority back into the political scene.
Other national efforts are taking longer, such as approval of
an oil and gas revenue distribution law. Oil reserves are located
mainly in the Shiite south and Kurdish north, so Sunni Arabs who
live in areas of little oil reserves worry that they will be denied
But in general, Iraq's headway on the national front and other
more localized objectives, including sharing resources, hiring
Sunni volunteers in security and other services, and establishing
a fair legal system, prompted O'Hanlon to describe the situation
as: "The glass is one-third full."
The key, he said, is for the United States to maintain pressure
on Iraq and make continued assistance conditional on continued
progress. Observers also must be patient, he added. "Despite
the pressure from the media ... and from the political debate,
don't expect immediate results."