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Iraq Sees Security Gains, but Political Progress Lags

The recent U.S. troop surge in Iraq helped reduce violence in the country, giving Iraqi lawmakers time to sort out long-held political and sectarian divisions. A journalist and a regional expert discuss lingering political stalemates in Iraq.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    When President Bush sent an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq last year, the aim was to improve security and thereby give Iraqi politicians enough breathing space to work out their political and sectarian differences.

    The last of these additional troops left Iraq late last month after making major progress on their first mission: reducing the violence.

    But political reconciliation has not followed as hoped. Today the Iraqi parliament announced it had failed once again to meet a key benchmark: enacting a new provincial election law. The lawmakers then adjourned for their five-week summer break.

    And for more on the two threads of the unfolding story in Iraq, we turn to Nancy Youssef, Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. She was their Baghdad bureau chief from 2004 to 2007 and has visited frequently since then. And she just got back from Iraq this week.

    And Joost Hiltermann, deputy program director for the Middle East at the International Crisis Group, he's also an adviser to the United Nations. He was last in Iraq at the end of June.

    Welcome to you both. Nancy, let's start with the encouraging news. How different did Baghdad feel to you in this recent visit than, say, last March?

  • NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers:

    Well, it was certainly safer. And Iraqis were out and venturing out at night. And you'd see young men gathering on the bridge and drinking out in public, revelers celebrating weddings out in public.

    But all of it was within the confined walls — walled-off communities in which they live. And while people were embracing the change, they were still not sure whether it was sustainable or not. So there was a sense of sort of testing the waters and enjoying it for now.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Now, when you say "walled-off communities," do you mean ethnically homogeneous communities?

  • NANCY YOUSSEF:

    Well, because there are so many walls dividing each neighborhood from one another, so while people are out later, by 9 o'clock, they're back in their homes, and they don't go outside of their neighborhoods, because there's a wall separating one neighborhood from the next.

    And it's seemingly better, in that people are going out, but it's not the Baghdad as they knew it. It's a better community within where they live, but not one where they feel yet that they can go out and really enjoy the security situation long term.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And then how do you — what tells you that they wonder if it's sustainable? Did they tell you this?

  • NANCY YOUSSEF:

    They sure did. They said, "You know, we don't see who's going to keep it going? Will it be the Iraqi security forces or will it be the U.S. Army?" Lacking political reconciliation, they don't see the system in place that can keep it going.

    And also part of it was that it happened so suddenly, that after the Basra offensive, things turned around so quickly. So I think there's a real fear that it could disappear just as quickly. One order from Muqtada al-Sadr telling his Mahdi Army forces to go back in the street and everything changes.