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GLIMMER OF HOPE FOR BAGHDAD
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
March 7, 2007

On March 10, Baghdad will host the largest gathering of foreign diplomats it has seen since the 1970s. With more than 200 diplomats representing 70 nations, including all major powers, the gathering is a target of choice for opponents of new Iraq.

Two insurgent groups have warned they would not allow the conference to convene.

Called by the Iraqi government, the conference offers the international community, especially the Arab states, an opportunity to end their unofficial boycott of new Iraq. It also provides an early test for the new plan to secure Baghdad with the help of more than 20,000 additional American troops.

Holding the conference a month after the plan was launched is a gesture of defiance towards terror groups who have promised to challenge any move to normalise the capital.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki called the conference after receiving assurances from two men who may hold the key to the future of Iraq.

One is Lt General David Petraeus, the new commander of the US-led multinational force, who took charge last month. The other is Major General Abboud Qanbar, the Iraqi commander in Baghdad.

Despite being under the limelight of Congressional and media scrutiny for weeks, Petraeus is still regarded as a hard man to read.

He evokes a mixture of admiration and envy within the American military elite.

One recently retired American general, speaking off-the-record last week, described Petraeus as "a precocious general" who had "new ideas" and wanted "to do things differently". Well, maybe that is not a bad thing, seeing that old ways of doing things seem to have trouble with new forms of asymmetric war.

If Petraeus is still a relative unknown, his Iraqi partner Qanbar is even more of an enigma.

The two men have what might be the most difficult task assigned to military commanders in recent history.

They have to work with two dysfunctional governments that, in turn, have to fight hostile legislatures and media. They know that well-organised opponents of new Iraq are determined to portray any setback as proof that the war is lost.

The same retired US general, who spoke of Petraeus with grudging admiration, says he is "impressed and surprised" by Qanbar's performance.

"The guy seems to be the right man in the right place at the right time," said the retired general. "All the feedback on him is positive."

That opinion is shared by some in the Iraqi military elite, including many generals purged under the new regime's de-Baathification programme.

In interviews with the Baghdad daily Al Mada (Perspective), several former Iraqi generals said they were "confident" that Qanbar was "the man needed to clear Baghdad" of terrorists and death-squads.

But is Qanbar the "saviour" (munqidh) that some Baghdadis, desperate for normality, seem to imagine?

Qanbar has some positive features. He is one of the few Shiite soldiers to rise to positions of command in the Iraqi army under the Baath party. Born in Amarah, he comes from the same tribe as Al Maliki and thus is trusted by him. Many purged army officers see Qanbar's return to service as a sign that they, too, might be invited to re-enlist.

Serious error

The Iraqi army has always been the key non-sectarian institution preserving the concept of statehood in a land of different ethnic and religious communities.

Its dissolution was a serious error and its reconstitution, in the service of an elected government, could reassure the aggrieved Arab Sunnis and secularists that new Iraq will not be a Shiite sectarian state.

The success of the Baghdad plan, based on US President George W. Bush's "surge" strategy, depends on too many imponderables beyond the control of Petraeus and Qanbar.

So far only a fifth of the troops promised have arrived, and even fewer have been deployed. The new US Congress may cut funding for the "surge" or impose such constraints on the use of American troops as to render them meaningless in practical terms.

So far, however, things seem to have gone better than expected.

To start with, Iraqi units assigned to Qanbar have all shown up and seem to be performing well. This is in contrast with previous attempts to secure Baghdad when only 10 per cent of Iraqi units promised showed up.

By the time the new build up is complete, Qanbar will have 10 Iraqi brigades in and around Baghdad. Contrary to claims by opponents of new Iraq that the plan would depend on Kurdish units, only 15 per cent of the troops used are Kurds.

There has also been a sharp drop in sectarian killings. More importantly, perhaps, the insurgents appear to have all but stopped infantry style attacks on Iraqi and US positions.

According to Iraqi and US sources, the deployment of new units in Baghdad has persuaded many fence-sitters to stop hedging their bets. Intelligence tip-offs in the five most terrorist-infested districts of the capital have risen four-fold since February.

According to US and Iraqi sources more than 2,000 insurgents and terrorists have been killed and a further 8,000 captured.

Sign

Another sign that the new plan may be working is the virtual disappearance of Moqtada Al Sadr's Mehdi Army, described by some opponents of new Iraq as "the strongest military force in the country".

Al Sadr remains in Iran while more than 100 of his key associates are under arrest. Accompanied by US troops, Qanbar's units control Sadr City, the fugitive's stronghold.

Perhaps the most important sign of confidence in the new plan is Qanbar's invitation to families who have fled to return. Since 2005 an estimated 60,000 Baghdadi families, both Sunnis, Shiites and Christians, have been driven out of their homes in what amounts to ethnic cleansing through intimidation.

Qanbar has declared all seizure of property in Baghdad to be illegal and promised to remove squatters. In the past two weeks some 700 families, mostly Sunnis, have regained their homes in Baghdad.

In recent days Baghdadis have seen Qanbar walking along Haifa Street, the heart of the capital's badlands. They have also seen Al Maliki venture out of the "Green Zone" to press flesh in a campaign-style walkabout, the first by an Iraqi prime minister since 2004.

Does this mean that Petraeus and Qanbar have already succeeded?

It is too early to tell.

What is certain, however, is that they have shown that, given the will and the means, success is possible.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.

 

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