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Skirting the Abyss in Iraq

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

KIRKUK, Iraq -- With its volatile mix of Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs, this city is often described as a sectarian time bomb. But for now, the bomb is ticking a little more slowly thanks to that rare Iraqi event -- a compromise.

Iraq has had too few of these political accommodations during its downward spiral over most of the past four years. But the Kirkuk deal announced yesterday illustrates that there can be virtuous cycles, too, even in a country as bitterly divided as this one. The success of the U.S. troop surge seems to be bolstering, ever so slightly, the advocates of conciliation and weakening the partisans of sectarian war.

Kirkuk was facing a potentially disastrous Dec. 31 deadline for a referendum on its political future. The Kurds, who claim a majority of the population in the province, wanted the vote, and with it control of Kirkuk's huge oil reserves. The Turkmens and their patrons in Ankara threatened a full-scale Turkish army invasion if the Kurds took power -- and rattled sabers this week with air raids and military attacks across the border against Kurdish rebels. The Arabs, also wary of being displaced by Kurds, were boycotting the provincial council.

It was a classic Iraqi formula for sectarian disaster. Worse, the Turkish raids raised the threat of a wider regional war.

But the Kirkuk bomb was defused, at least temporarily, thanks to two factors that Iraq desperately needs -- internal compromise among its warring ethnic forces and international support from the United Nations. The compromise plan, hammered out by U.S. diplomats working with the new U.N. representative here, Staffan de Mistura, calls for a six-month delay of the referendum while the United Nations assesses the situation. It's a face-saving deal that allows everyone to step back from the brink. And it's the most important U.N. intervention in Iraq since a 2003 car bomb destroyed the organization's headquarters in Baghdad.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unscheduled stop in Kirkuk yesterday to bless the deal and meet with the provincial council that includes all of the battling factions. She told them to fight against Iraq's history of ethnic differences and cited her own experience as an African American child of slavery. She then flew on to Baghdad to convey a similar message about reconciliation to Iraq's battling Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish national politicians.

Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, warns against premature enthusiasm. With the wary skepticism that led President Bush to dub him in jest "Mr. Sunshine" during a recent teleconference, Crocker said in an interview yesterday, "We have some very positive developments, but it is all fragile and could snap back."

Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, in a separate interview expressed a similar guarded optimism: "You don't go here from bad to good. You go from bad to less bad. Progress accumulates."

Is political reconciliation possible in Iraq on the national level? The answer still isn't clear, despite the success of the surge in reducing the level of violence. Baghdad, seen from the distant lens of a Black Hawk helicopter, certainly looks calmer today than it did six months ago: You see a tidier, more orderly city, with more people in their homes and more traffic on the streets.

The recent progress in Iraq has resulted from bottom-up efforts to build trust, neighborhood by neighborhood. That's true in Kirkuk, where a U.S. provincial reconstruction team has been working for months to prepare the ground for this week's agreement to delay the referendum. Maj. Sean Wilson, a spokesman for the joint civilian-military team, says it held about 200 meetings with local tribal leaders and provincial politicians to broker a deal. The Arabs, who had been boycotting the provincial council, agreed to come back after one of their group was named deputy governor. Bolstering the process was a tribal group of 6,500 known as "Concerned Local Citizens," which mirrors similar efforts in Anbar province.

Wilson, who is on his third tour in Iraq, says these small steps toward reconciliation reassure him that the Iraq effort isn't a waste of lives and money. "We want to make sure our sacrifices are worth something," he says.

Crocker and other U.S. officials don't talk about reconciliation as an end state but as a process. As security improves, they say, so do the local economy and the government's ability to provide services. They hope to see an upward spiral, with an increasing return to stability and order. Just as no Iraqi wanted to be the last to abandon what appeared to be a sinking ship, neither will any want to be the last to clamber back aboard.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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