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World News

Fall in Iraq violence may prove short-lived

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A fall in violence across Iraq offers some hope for Iraqis numbed by four years of bloodshed, but owes more to potentially short-lived battlefield gains than progress resolving the country’s bitter conflicts.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say September’s lower casualty figures show that a “surge” in U.S. troop levels and a joint Iraqi-U.S. security plan around Baghdad are yielding results.

A six-month ceasefire by the Shi’ite Mehdi Army and a campaign to recruit tribal leaders to fight Sunni al Qaeda militants have also put a brake on the spiralling violence.

But U.S. troop numbers have already peaked, with President George W. Bush planning to bring around 20,000 combat soldiers home by July.

The Mehdi Army ceasefire expires early next year and the tactical U.S. alliance with tribal leaders may not last and is yet to be tried in major urban centres.

Analysts say unless Iraq’s government addresses underlying grievances which fuel the violence, then the achievements of the surge, the ceasefire and the tribal alliances will be wasted.

“The reason why these three fronts are fragile is that we’ve seen military efforts to suppress violent actors, but we haven’t seen political efforts to remove the rationale for them to strike,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.

“They can declare a ceasefire or temporarily switch sides. But there has been no effort for compromise ... So once the Americans pull out they will start again.”

Bush committed extra troops to the unpopular war in Iraq this year, ignoring domestic calls for a swift reduction in force levels, saying the move aimed to give breathing space to Iraq’s government to reconcile warring Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs.

But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s fractured government has so far failed to push through laws aimed at sharing the country’s oil wealth and allowing members of executed former President Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party back into public life.

Minority Sunni Arabs, who held power for decades until Saddam’s overthrow in 2003, complain of marginalisation under the Shi’ite-led government and persecution by Shi’ite militias.

30 DEATHS A DAY

September’s civilian death toll was the lowest in Iraq this year, but still revealed a relentless level of violence.

Figures compiled by Iraq’s health, interior and defence ministries suggest 884 civilians were killed in Iraq last month, or nearly 30 people a day. Sixty-six U.S. soldiers and 78 members of the Iraqi security forces were also killed.

Four million Iraqis have fled, seeking sanctuary as refugees in Jordan and Syria or ending up displaced inside Iraq.

The scale of the sectarian “cleansing” of once mixed Sunni and Shi’ite Arab districts may have contributed to the fall in violence, as militants have fewer chances to target other sects.

The instruction by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in late August for his Mehdi Army to cease fire eased some of the violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

But the top U.S. military commander in Iraq said on Tuesday that ceasefire was only partially honoured by Sadr’s supporters.

“There are signs that some elements have been obedient and there are clearly signs that others are bent on being criminals,” General David Petraeus told reporters.

Petraeus has highlighted the decision by mostly Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq, many of whom once supported the anti-U.S. insurgency, to join the American campaign against suspected al Qaeda militants as another security breakthrough.

But it is unclear how durable that alliance will prove.

An al Qaeda-led group, the Islamic State in Iraq, said last month it had killed a prominent sheikh working with U.S. forces and threatened other tribal leaders cooperating with Washington.

The alliance has also angered majority Shi’ites, who say U.S. forces are creating dangerous and unaccountable militias.

A statement by Maliki’s United Iraqi Alliance said this week many of the new fighters were stirring up trouble around Baghdad under the pretext of combating al Qaeda.

“We reject and condemn the recruiting of these terrorist elements which carried out the worst crimes at the expense of the Iraqi people,” the statement said.

Some of the new recruits in turn complain that Shi’ite security forces are obstructing their work.

The continued distrust, which undermines Iraq’s security and political institutions in equal measure, reinforces a sense of the country’s vulnerability once the drawdown of U.S. forces begins in the next few months.

“Few Iraqi forces can stand up by themselves,” Hiltermann said. “American forces cannot stay in great numbers beyond summer 2008 and I don’t see Iraqi forces ready even by then to take over security tasks.”

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