By Dean Yates
BAGHDAD, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Iraq’s leaders surprised even their many critics by passing three laws last week that marked an important step toward national reconciliation.
But that is all it represents — a step on the tortuous road to healing divisions among communities still deeply divided and wary of each other despite dramatic cuts in violence.
Analysts and Iraqi politicians cited potential hurdles in the details and implementation of the laws, especially an amnesty bill that might free thousands of prisoners from the disaffected minority Sunni Arab community.
Beyond that, thorny issues remain such as Sunni demands for the Shi’ite-led government to share more power, convincing armed groups to maintain their ceasefires and ensuring U.S. troop levels do not drop too fast, thus jeopardising security gains. Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said passage of the laws was important but "not a thunderclap revolution".
"Progress — absolutely. Encouraging — yes. The end of sectarian struggle in Iraq — no," Biddle told Reuters.
"Implementation is the key and this is likely to involve another series of wrestling matches."
Besides the amnesty, MPs approved the 2008 budget and a provincial powers law defining ties between Baghdad and regional authorities. That law calls for fresh provincial elections by Oct. 1, which could allow groups such as Sunni Arabs who boycotted previous polls to win some local power.
Parliament passed the laws last Wednesday after weeks of bitter debate, delays and walkouts by lawmakers.
Underscoring the mistrust between Shi’ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish MPs, the bills were voted on as a package because of suspicion that if one was voted on separately and approved, the faction that wanted it most would renege on the rest.
PRISONERS FREED SOON?
The amnesty applies to those in Iraqi custody who have not committed major crimes, such as murder.
It is unclear how many prisoners will be freed, but Salim al-Jubouri, a lawmaker and spokesman for the main Sunni Arab bloc, the Accordance Front, said he hoped inmates convicted of lesser crimes could be released within a month.
U.S. forces and Iraqi authorities each hold more than 23,000 prisoners, many of them Sunni Arabs behind the insurgency that erupted after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Parliament also passed a law last month that will allow former members of Saddam’s Baath party to regain their jobs in the government and military, another key demand of Sunni Arabs who were dominant under the former dictator.
But the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has struggled to make headway on other key laws, especially one that would equitably share the country’s vast oil reserves.
U.S. officials in Baghdad say passage of sensitive laws was impossible last year when sectarian violence raged. Emotions were too high to make even the slighted compromise.
Attacks are now down 60 percent since last June, when 30,000 U.S. additional troops became fully deployed and Sunni Arab tribal units, many of them comprised of former insurgents, rebelled against al Qaeda to police their own neighbourhoods.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said making more progress depended on Iraqis reaching an enduring political accommodation and holding elections that had true legitimacy.
And Washington had to remain engaged, Cordesman added.
"If the U.S. provides sustained support to the Iraq government — in security, governance, and development — there is now a very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a secure and stable state," he wrote last week after visiting Iraq.
FOCUS ON U.S. FORCE LEVELS
But U.S. troop levels are a sensitive issue in Washington, with Democratic candidates to be the next president calling for far fewer forces to be involved in an unpopular five-year war that has killed nearly 4,000 American soldiers.
Some Iraqi officials believe troop levels will be critical to sustaining the political progress and the improved security.
Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters last week the security gains were still "fragile" and could be reversed.
That has been recognised by the U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who have both said a pause in U.S. troop cuts might be needed once an initial five combat brigades leave Iraq by July.
That could leave 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq well into the second half of the year, around the same number here just before President George W. Bush sent additional forces in early 2007.
Reaching a political accommodation depends a lot on Maliki, a Shi’ite Islamist leader who has been criticised for keeping decision-making confined to a small circle of Shi’ite advisers.
Since mid-January, however, in an attempt to be more inclusive, he has held weekly meetings with the president, who is a Kurd, and the two vice presidents, respectively a Shi’ite and a Sunni Arab.
"We are still not sure about this, but we can see positive signs," said Jubouri, commenting on Maliki’s approach to ruling.
The Accordance Front withdrew its six ministers from the government last August. It has hinted it might rejoin.
Then there is Moqtada al-Sadr, the reclusive Shi’ite cleric who imposed a six-month ceasefire on his feared Mehdi Army militia on Aug. 29 after clashes with police killed dozens.
If Sadr renews the truce — U.S. military officials believe he will — then the security outlook should be more predictable. That in turn gives politicians more room to compromise.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)