The promise of democracy and the threat of civil war

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The Independent Online

Three months after Iraq's elections, the flame of hope that flared up looks more and more like a feeble and short-lived flicker than the harbinger of a new dawn. The swearing in of the new - and still partial - government this week has been accompanied by a bout of killings as vicious as anything Iraq has experienced in the past year. Scarce wonder the US top brass has not repeated its view that the tide has turned.

Three months after Iraq's elections, the flame of hope that flared up looks more and more like a feeble and short-lived flicker than the harbinger of a new dawn. The swearing in of the new - and still partial - government this week has been accompanied by a bout of killings as vicious as anything Iraq has experienced in the past year. Scarce wonder the US top brass has not repeated its view that the tide has turned.

Yesterday, another two dozen people were killed in Baghdad. The day before that, as many as 60 people died in the northern city of Arbil. The death toll since the provisional government was approved last week stands at 200. As disturbing as the scale of the carnage is the geographic spread. Arbil is in the generally peaceful Kurdish north of the country and it was a Kurdish Democratic Party office doubling as a police recruiting station that was targeted.

Earlier in the week, Britain suffered its latest casualty: Guardsman Anthony Wakefield, killed by a roadside bomb while on night patrol. Like the Kurdish north, the Shia south - where the British are based - had been far quieter than central Iraq, where the bulk of the US forces serve. In ones and twos, the Americans continue to suffer losses: So commonplace have they become that they go almost unreported.

The banality of the violence, however, is not the only reason why the latest deterioration in security has gone virtually unremarked upon. Even six months ago, this level of violence would have been widely reported and drawn despairing comment from outside Iraq. Now, the casualties are predominantly Iraqis. Not just any Iraqis, of course, but those deemed to be complicit with the occupying forces by volunteering to serve in the new Iraqi army or police force. Recruiting offices are the most frequent focus of attack. The sad fact is that Iraqi losses provoke less interest outside Iraq than the loss of US or British servicemen - especially now that Iraq supposedly has its own elected government.

A second reason is that reporting from Iraq is now even more circumscribed by the lack of security than it was before the elections. Foreign reporters walk the streets and travel by road at their peril. They are now targets for killing or kidnapping every bit as much as foreign military personnel or civilian contractors. They are tarred with the same brush of occupation. There is a fine line between courage and foolhardiness where information is to be gathered in what increasingly resembles a guerrilla war zone. With communications also not improving, the breadth and depth of the mayhem is only gradually becoming clear.

A further reason is a shared fear of painting the situation in too dark a colour, lest loss of faith in improvement encourages the anarchy to spread. The elections offered hope, in part because so many people, Iraqis included, wanted them to succeed. And while turn-out was creditable, the voting followed ethnic loyalties and the Sunni boycott left a gaping hole in the centre. The three-month delay in forming even an incomplete Cabinet shows how difficult it will be for true co-operative government to evolve. The recently expressed hope of Iraq's new ministers that they would be able to meet outside the secure "green zone" seems even less realistic. But so long as they require this level of protection, their mandate and authority will be defective.

It would be premature - and irresponsible - to write off Iraq's prospects of embarking on a course of peaceful reconstruction. The new government has not yet been tested. That we are hearing less about the promise of democracy and more about the imperative to avert civil war, however, reflects how quickly and totally the post-election euphoria has dissipated.

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