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Yearender: Uncertainties remain in Iraq despite political, security pickup
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20:20, December 09, 2008

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For Iraqis, although the end of 2008 marked by relative security improvement and a promised leaving of U.S. forces in sight after five years of chaos, uncertainties still remain ahead and concerns are evident among the Iraqis about whether the war-torn country is on the track of a lasting recovery or just in the lull of a vicious circle.

Armed with dramatic security pickup and support of allies as well as the political opponents, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki''s administration was able to push hard on the U.S. to accept conditions, which could have little chance to survive one year ago.

  EVIDENCE OF SECURITY IMPROVEMENT

Violence has been going down since late last year. Iraq''s civilian death toll plummeted to the lowest level since 2003 of 280 deaths in October, down from the 767 in January and 947 in February.

More than 90,000 Iraqi civilians have died in continuous violence after the U.S.-led invasion, according to the Iraq body count Website, which tracks the war casualties.

Iraq''s national security advisor Mowaffaq al-Rubaie even declared on Nov. 17 that "sectarian deaths have ended in Iraq." He said car bombings reduced 75 percent and roadside bombs 80 percent.

The U.S. force in Iraq, which has lost more than 4,200 lives, saw its lowest monthly death toll of 13 in July this year, said the I casualties Website, which records the coalition force casualties.

Evidence of security improvement could be perceived in the reopening of schools, clinics and markets and in the increasing availability of essential services.

Security improvement came after the large reinforcement of troops by the U.S. in 2007. They changed to strategy by pushing the fight to the side of the insurgents and al-Qaida-linked militants.

Iraq''s Sunnis used to be the mainstay of insurgents. But they have changed course to ally with the government and the Americans to fight against al-Qaida.

Also credited with the violence drop was the truce by the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, though he is warning of fresh attacks against the U.S. troops if they do not pull out soon.

Except these gains, some key laws have been passed in 2008, including the ones relaxing measures against former Baath party members.

In August, the Sunni bloc returned to the Shiite-led government after a year of boycotting mainly due to complains of being marginalized.

In October, a legislation was approved and it paved the way for the provincial election at the end of January. Most of Sunnis and some Shiites stayed away from the previous election three years ago. The upcoming election is believed to be able to redistribute local powers and help ease tension.

As the U.S. is cutting the number of troops in Iraq and expected to turn over the patrol of streets by July 2009 before pulling out by 2012, the Iraqi military is taking more responsibility.

Maliki personally supervised battles against Shiite militias, mostly the Mahdi Army loyal to Sadr, in the southern oil hub of Basra as well as Shiite heartland of Diwaniyah and Kut cities.

With limited involvement of the coalition force, the campaign ended with a controversial victory. Sadr agreed to clear his gunmen from the streets in exchange for the half of further crackdown.

Iraq has taken over security in 13 of the 18 provinces and intends to finish hand-over by the end of this year.

The efforts of restoring security have helped to develop relations with its neighbors. The flying visit by Jordanian King Abdullah II in August this year marked the first tour by a head of Arab state since 2003.

Leaders or senior officials from Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt and United Arab Emirates have also paid visit to Iraq since 2008. Those countries have sent ambassadors back to Baghdad or are prepared to do so.

The high-profile visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Baghdad in March is regarded as a sign of significantly growing relationship between the former foes.

The tour was also an embarrassment to Washington, which overthrew Saddam Hussein''s regime only to see its Shiite allies developed close ties with Iran.
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