Six months ago, the US-led coalition force in Iraq appeared to be largely in self-defense mode, allowing terrorists and insurgents much latitude in parts of Baghdad and the troubled provinces of Anbar and Diyalah. At the same time the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki appeared to be engaged in a broad political offensive.
Today we have what looks like a reversal of the two situations. There is dynamism in the military field but lethargy in the political.
The US-led coalition has increased its effective force by almost 20,000 men and, under its new commander General David Petraeus, has moved into offensive gear.
• The province of Anbar, Iraq's wild west since ancient times, has been partly stabilized with the help of Sunni Arab tribes who have taken up arms against Al Qaeda and its Ba'athist allies.
• In those of Baghdad neighborhoods where terrorists held sway, the Iraqi security forces, backed by US troops, are establishing an effective presence, allowing a slow but steady return to normal. In at least one Baghdad neighborhood, Amiriyah, the inhabitants, reassured by the presence of US and Iraqi troops, have chased away a terror outfit well entrenched there since 2003.
• The Iraqi army, backed by US and British troops, has moved onto the offensive in the Shi'ite south as well. This week a major operation smashed an extensive smuggling ring, ran by the Khazaali brothers, in the province of Maysan, shutting one of the routes through Iranian-made weapons, including the deadly Explosive Formed Penetrators (EFP), were supplied to terrorists.
• For the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, Iraqi forces have designed and led a number of operations aimed at clearing the environs of Baghdad of insurgents and flushing out terrorist cells in Ba'aquba's orange groves.
• After almost three years of uneven progress, the programme to train the new Iraqi army and police has been speeded up. Recruitment in the new army and police is up by almost 10 per cent while the number of battle-tested battalions has increased from 22 to almost 50.
• Iraq's new security forces won good marks earlier this months when they supervised a curfew in Baghdad imposed after a Sunni attack on a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. A similar attack last year had provoked massive violence in Baghdad, claiming dozens of lives and extensive destruction of religious and commercial buildings associated with the Sunni minority. This time, however, there was almost no sectarian clashes and only two Sunni mosques were attacked.
• There is also good news as far as controlling Iraq's porous borders are concerned. It may sound incredible but it is only now that Iraq forces, backed by coalition troops, are in control of the 1483 kilometre land and water borders with Iran that had been left virtually unsupervised since 2003. And it was only last month that the Iraqis and the coalition established control over Qa'em, the key town that controls the border with Syria.
• Although both the Iraqi government and the coalition refuse to publish full statistics regarding losses inflicted on terrorists and insurgents, reports indicate that in the past 10 weeks the various armed enemies of new Iraq have suffered their heaviest losses since the start of the conflict almost four years ago.
• More importantly, perhaps, the insurgents are suffering a significant number of defections while an unknown number are believed to have left Iraq, presumably to pursue " jihad" in other Muslim countries.
• The moral of both American and Iraqi troops has been boosted by the decision by the Democrat Party to abandon its active campaign against continued US military presence in Iraq. There is a growing feeling in Baghdad that the possibility of the US adopting a cut-and-run strategy in Iraq has decreased compared to last autumn. That, in turn, has encouraged the Iraqi military to stop hedging their bets and enter the battle with greater conviction.
While the military situation has improved, however, the political situation has deteriorated. The Maliki government is clearly on life-support. At least eight Cabinet posts are effectively vacant while two key elements in the pro-government bloc, the Fadila (Virtue) Party and Muqtada al-Sadr's group, have walked out of the coalition.
Another influential bloc within the coalition, led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had effectively switched to the opposition and is emerging as the most outspoken critic of the Maliki government.
This means that the Maliki government now lacks an effective majority in the National Assembly (parliament) and, theoretically, could be brought down with a no-confidence motion.
Worse still, the Shi'ite alliance, which provided the core element of political stability by nominating a prime minister, has ceased to exist. It is now clear that even Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the primus inter pares of Shi'ite clerics, no longer enjoys the unifying power he did until a year or so ago.
It may be premature to speak of political paralysis. But the fact is that the Maliki government has been unable to pass key items of its programme through the parliament. The crucial bills on the oil industry and the distribution of the oil income remain bogged down in parliamentary committees. Such explosive problems as the status of Kirkuk, a city disputed between the Kurds and Sunni Arabs, and the creation of new federal entities, are also unresolved.
The government's weakness also prevents it from setting a date, together with the rules, for the municipal elections needed to crate local government units to replace de facto control by militias in many parts of the country.
All this ahs encouraged much talk of a military coup in Baghdad. Some political groups clearly favour a coup, in the mistaken belief that Iraqis cannot order their affairs without some form of dictatorship at the centre. The coup option is also encouraged by some Arab states and, more surprisingly, by Turkey, concerned about the revival of Kurdish terrorism using Iraqi territory against it.
What Iraq needs, however, is not another moustache. It needs to revitalise its political life by forming a new government, with new partners capable of garnering greater support inside and outside parliament. And, if that proves impossible, the way out is through early general elections. The next elections are scheduled for January 2009. But these could be brought forward, although the Kurds, hoping to win Kirkuk with the help of a weak Shi'ite government, oppose that option.
The US-led coalition is making significant progress in handling the military aspect of this complex situation. But all such progress could be undone if Iraq does not get its politics right. It is, perhaps, time for the US and its allies to hold a series of frank talks with the Iraqi parties on how to use the current military success as a basis for ending the political deadlock.