Good News for Iraq?

It's a strange thought to entertain while the Turks consider invading Iraqi Kurdistan, but November 2007 is could be a fairly auspicious moment for sectarian reconciliation in Iraq. I know, I know, vain hopes exist to be crushed, and Iraq is a vale of tears and all that, but maybe, just maybe … OK, to be less flippant: Shiites have started to unite as Sunnis have started to expand their power. By some measurements, violence has decreased. November 2007 is a moment to test whether progress on reconciliation is possible, or whether both sides are gearing up for a larger conflict.

Start with the Shiites, who are knitting back together their frayed internal politics. In late August, over 50 Shiite civilians were killed during a power struggle in the holy city of Karbala between Mahdi Army militiamen and government forces -- which, in that city, are largely dominated by militiamen from the Badr Organization, the Mahdi Army's fiercest Shiite rival. The ensuing chaos caused so much disgust among Shiites that Moqtada al-Sadr, fearing his political fortunes might be at risk, ordered the Mahdi Army to stand down for six months. Then, on October 7, something nearly unthinkable happened: Badr overlord Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), signed a truce with Sadr. Imagine 50 Cent appearing on Ja Rule's comeback album and you'll get a sense of the significance here.

It doesn't follow from the truce that Shiite politics are healed. Last week in Basra, where Badr, Sadr and the Fadhila Party (which is not part of the truce) vie for power over the port through which much of Iraq's oil exports travel, Mahdi-linked gunmen nearly assassinated the Fadhila-linked police chief. (So much for the Mahdi Army stand-down.) Furthermore, Babak Rahimi, an astute analyst of Iraqi Shiite politics with the Jamestown Foundation, recently wrote that the truce "lacks a genuine effort for reconciliation, as the two rival groups still maintain their ideological differences by defining each other as military foes on the street level, rather than as political competitors in the political arena." No one expects Sadr and Hakim -- who reportedly hate each other -- to lock arms. Each is probably buying time to shiv his rival at a more opportune moment. But neither would have inked the deal unless he felt unable to resist a Shiite urge for unity. Rahimi is careful not to read too much significance into the deal, but nevertheless says it represents "a huge step in improving intra-Shiite relations."

One reason that consolidation is occurring is because of the alarming rise of Sunni power. Rahimi observes that Iran threw its weight behind the Badr-Sadr pact as an insurance policy against a U.S. attack on Iran that might involve Sunni tribal proxies. Crazy as that might seem to Americans, to Iranians -- and to Iraqi Shiites -- it's not so easily dismissed, as proxy wars have a rich tradition in both Iraq and Iran. More fundamentally, the Sunnis are in their most commanding position since the war began, as General David Petraeus has rewarded Sunni tribal figures with cash, weapons and other support if they're willing to turn against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Petraeus's subordinate commanders in Anbar, Diyala, Ninewah and Salahuddin provinces have blessed Sunni (and in some cases Shiite) tribal militias that they call "concerned local citizens."

These "concerned local citizens" number as many as 67,000, according to the U.S. military. And the rise in Sunni military power has coincided, unsurprisingly, with a renewed focus on political strength. Tarek al-Hashemi, an Iraqi vice president whose Sunni bloc walked out of the Maliki government in July, pressed Nouri al-Maliki last week to commit to an amnesty for thousands of detained Sunnis as a gesture to break the current political impasse.

There is trepidation among the Shiites when viewing an expanded Sunni militia structure. But there have also been some signs of receptivity. Anti-al-Qaeda Sunnis held a sprawling military parade last week in Ramadi, last year's declared capital of the Islamic State of Iraq (big mistake, it turned out). An important Shiite political figure, national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, attended, which last year would have meant his certain death, and delivered a paean to national unity.

Similarly, Hakim's son Ammar, who's played a large role in the SIIC since his father came down with cancer, similarly visited with Anbar Province notables lately -- with representatives of Badr in tow. Since Badr is known for taking power drills to Sunni skulls, the fact that the Ammar al-Hakim visit went off without violence suggests that the Anbar tribals are, at the least, willing to entertain once-feared Shiite enemies. And since earlier this month the Shiite bloc in the Baghdad government condemned the U.S.-Sunni rapprochement as "embracing those terrorist elements which committed the most hideous crimes against our people," Ammar's visit could represent a furtive exploration of reconciliation possibilities. In other words, precisely the sort of thing that U.S. diplomats have tried to encourage.

It would come at an opportune time. There is a mass of confusion, and indeed deception, about the tabulation of statistics on Iraqi civilian casualties. But the Associated Press, which keeps a tally of civilian casualty statistics, reported that October saw a significant drop, in sectarian killings -- about 284 bodies this month showed signs of sectarian-driven murder, compared with 507 in September. According to the AP, Iraq is on pace to record fewer than 900 civilian deaths this month, over 100 fewer than September and nearly 1,000 fewer than August. The latest United Nations quarterly report on Iraq found a "marked decline" in civilian casualties in Baghdad, but doesn't make an overall assessment about violence countrywide.

That doesn't mean security is good. But security is as good as it's been in Iraq since -- well, since last October, going by the civilian-casualties estimate. And give the surge its due for that. But it's perhaps even more important that the accelerants of sectarian violence appear diminished. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, while never as powerful as the administration portrayed, is without a Sunni base of support. (Some in the U.S. military are even ready to declare that al-Qaida is defeated in Iraq.) The Mahdi Army appears interested in curbing its excesses at the moment. Taken together, both Sunnis and Shiites have reason to see their greatest bogeymen on the defensive, at the least. Shiites are more united than they have been in at least a year, and Sunnis are able to negotiate from a position of strength.

There's breathing room here for negotiations, as shallow a breath as it may be. No one should believe reconciliation is at hand, or that the process of achieving it won't be protracted and laborious. But consider that with the decline of violence comes a rise in expectations. If those expectations aren't addressed expeditiously, what will remain will be frustrated sectarian factions that are more consolidated and, in the Sunni case, better armed than ever. It might be a good time to revitalize the stalled forum of leaders from Iraq and its neighbors. That's Iraq for you: each potentially hopeful situation is intertwined with a combustible one.

Oh, and as a postscript: The Turks are bombing northern Iraq. Meanwhile, the U.S. general with responsibility for the area plans to do, in his own words, "absolutely nothing" to go after Kurdish terrorists who prompt the Turkish bombardment, even as Washington begs Ankara not to invade. Awesome!