Patrick Cockburn: Fragile Iraq threatened by the return of civil war

A special dispatch from Baghdad: While the country is less dangerous, it is still plagued by sectarian divisions – which could increase as the last American soldiers withdraw this week

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Iraqis are worried. The last American soldiers leave the country in the next few days and they are waiting to see how the outcome of the struggle for power in Syria will affect them. "We are afraid about the future," said a businessman in Baghdad. "We are importing goods for two months ahead maximum, and not six months, as we usually do."

The nervousness of Iraqis is inspired in part by memories of the traumatising years between 2003 and 2009, when tens of thousands were slaughtered. Many were victims of "identity card" killings, when a Sunni or Shia caught at the wrong checkpoint or in the wrong area was routinely killed.

Baghdad today is quiet by its previous grim standards, but the old fears lie half-buried just beneath the surface. Not all the reasons for the lack of sectarian confrontation are encouraging. One woman journalist said, "There are less sectarian killings now partly because there are so few mixed areas [containing both Sunni and Shia] left in Baghdad."

Could civil war erupt again? How fragile is the ramshackle coalition government of Shia, Kurd and Sunni led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki? Iraqi leaders I spoke to say the capacity to keep the present power-sharing agreement going is far more significant for the stability of the country than any enhanced security threat from al-Qa'ida following the departure of the last American soldiers. "The leaders behave like adversaries even when they are in the same government," says Dr Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of parliament. "It would be better to have a government and an opposition, but nobody in Iraq feels safe enough to be in the opposition."

Despite this anxious mood, Baghdad is less dangerous than it was in 2009, and infinitely better than it was in 2007, when more than a thousand bodies were turning up in the city every month. There are fewer checkpoints and hence less of the spectacular traffic jams that used to create permanent gridlock. More shops are open and they stay open longer in previously blighted areas. Some of the concrete blast walls that snake though the city are being demolished. The main roads from the capital to Jordan, Mosul, Najaf and Basra are open and relatively safe. Electricity supply is better, one woman telling me: "Everything is fine. We are getting five and sometimes even seven hours' supply a day, though, of course, it is not so good in summer."

The improvements are comparative and violence has by no means gone away. Four hours after I arrived at the Al-Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone, a bomb exploded a couple of hundred yards away in a car that was part of an official convoy entering the parliament car park. It killed at least one person, wounded several others and was at first attributed to a Katyusha rocket, then to a suicide bomb, and finally to a bomb assembled in the Green Zone in an attempt to assassinate Mr Maliki. Earlier a suicide bomber had rammed his vehicle into the gates of a prison at Taji, north of Baghdad, killing 18 people.

The outside world has become used to violence in Iraq and so, to a lesser degree, have Iraqis. Hoshyar Zebari, the Foreign Minister, said: "This latest bomb was about 2.5kg of explosives, while, in 2009, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was reduced to rubble by a bomb with 2.5 tons of explosives in it."

There is no doubt about which community is in charge in Baghdad. The military checkpoints on the airport road and in the Green Zone are decorated with Shia posters and flags in preparation for Ashura, the Shia period of mourning and celebration. Driving along Abu Nawas, beside the Tigris, traditionally a street of restaurants and entertainment, I noticed that one nightclub was putting up a giant portrait of the Shia martyr Imam Hussein by its front door, along with black flags. Since 2006-07, when as much as half the Sunni population was forced out or moved to an enclave in the south-west of the capital, Baghdad has very much become a Shia city.

However much one tries in Baghdad not to judge too harshly and keep in mind the 30-year legacy of war, civil war and sanctions, the failures and inertia of the government stand out. For instance, soldiers and police at checkpoints are still using a bomb detector with two metal prongs, which is entirely useless and has no power source. It has long been notorious that the detector was bought for tens of millions of dollars when it costs only a few dollars to make. Its most sophisticated piece of technology is a chip used in supermarket check-out counters. Yet, three years after this fraud was exposed, I could still see soldiers using the detectors.

The most significant development in Iraq over the past few years has been the signing of billion-dollar contracts with international oil companies to upgrade and develop the oilfields in the south around Basra. In theory, by 2017, Iraq should have a production capacity of 12 million barrels a day of crude. Basra is becoming the heart of a giant oil industry. But the last time I thought of flying to Basra from Baghdad, Iraqi Airways said it had just one flight that week, and it was uncertain when that would leave.

Sectarianism may produce less violence today than it used to, but politically it remains dominant. In the run-up to the American military departure, some 600 people, many of them army and police officers, have been arrested and accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Sunni provinces see this as a further attempt to marginalise them in terms of jobs and power. Iraq may have a coalition government, but Mr Maliki is acting Minister of Defence, the Interior and National Security. All divisional commanders are "acting commanders" appointed by the Prime Minister. The Shia provide some 78 per cent of the top officials in the Interior Ministry and 90 per cent of those in the Defence Ministry. These in turn employ almost one million soldiers, police and border guards, giving the Shia a big advantage in the job market.

Iraq is unlikely to break apart because all communities have an interest in getting their share of the oil revenues. Most disputes are about how to cut up the cake of national wealth. The government's paranoia about neo-Baathist plots to stage a military coup d'état is probably overblown (though one officer said quietly that, since the government is concentrated in the Green Zone, it would take only a brigade to take over). If there was a coup, it would have to come from Shia officers, given their grip on the security forces.

Real destabilisation of Iraq would also require the foreign patrons of the Iraqi parties – such as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – to want to change the balance of power between communities. There is no sign of this. The most likely future for Iraq is fragile stability with a permanently high level of violence, presided over by a divided and dysfunctional government.

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