Though violence has dipped since June 2012, Iraqis are still a sad and fearful bunch
Yet the monthly toll in 2012 fell steadily and markedly after June. The violence was also increasingly concentrated in a few areas: 43% of the deaths counted by the IBC were in two of the country’s 18 provinces, Baghdad and Nineveh, which abuts Syria and has Mosul at its hub. The rest of the country may be more peaceful than at any time since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraq’s main oil-producing areas, in the south, are generally free of trouble, with exports boosted to 2.8m barrels a day, the highest rate for three decades.
Yet few Iraqis are celebrating. That extra money has yet to improve public services or to raise family incomes appreciably. The underlying violence still amounts to what the IBC terms ‘an entrenched conflict’. Worse, the factors that feed the strife are still at play. In particular, Nuri al-Maliki, the tough Shia Muslim who has been prime minister since 2006, shows increasingly authoritarian, sectarian and democracy-sapping tendencies, ruthlessly ousting or outmanoeuvring rivals, and using underhand methods to impose his will. He is widely viewed as a would-be dictator, tolerant of corruption, reliant on the backing of Iran and willing cynically to stir up strife between Iraq’s minority of Sunni Arabs and its Shia majority, or with Iraq’s fiercely autonomous Kurds in the north, to maintain his grip on power in Baghdad.
A recent wave of protests across the mainly Sunni areas to the north and west of Baghdad, including strikes and sit-ins, has sharpened sectarian strife. Sunnis were particularly outraged last month when the bodyguards of the Sunni finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, were arrested.
That provoked memories of a similar episode a year ago, when Mr Maliki’s men jailed, tortured and sentenced to death the guards of the vice-president, Tareq al-Hashemi, another leading Sunni, accusing them of being part of a death-squad that was targeting Shias. Mr Hashemi fled to the Iraqi Kurds’ capital, Erbil, and now resides in Turkey. He was later sentenced to death in absentia. A serious illness that has recently befallen Iraq’s mainly ceremonial president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who has sometimes acted effectively as a mediator above the sectarian fray, has further jangled Iraqi nerves.
The civil war next door in Syria, with its increasingly bitter sectarian flavour, has not helped. While Iraqi Sunni groups, including some tied to al-Qaeda, lend arms and fighters to Syria’s rebels, Mr Maliki’s government quietly aids Bashar Assad’s embattled regime. Sunni Iraqi insurgents who once attacked Americans are targeting Iraqi Shias and people connected to Mr Maliki’s government. The recent Sunni protests have also gained sympathy from Muqtada al-Sadr, a fiery Shia cleric whose powerful popular movement has grown increasingly critical of Mr Maliki.
Iraq is still a violent mess. Its democracy, imposed by the Americans, looks fragile. And the prospect of real harmony between the three main ethnic and sectarian components ‘Arab Shias, Arab Sunnis and Kurds’ looks as distant as ever.