This is the third in a series of reports from Nation correspondents analyzing the impact of Barack Obama’s international fact-finding tour.
Government officials in Baghdad make two contradictory points about the state of Iraq. On one hand, they say the government is much stronger, having largely crushed the Sunni insurgents last year and severely weakened the Mahdi Army Shia militia in the past six months. They claim journalists like myself do not give them enough credit for these successes. But when I suggest to them that if the government is really so strong, maybe it can do without American support, they immediately look worried. “We cannot really stand on our own,” one official told me. “What would happen if there was a Mahdi Army uprising in Basra, or an army brigade mutinied in Anbar, or the Kurds unilaterally moved to annex Kirkuk?”
In theory, the Iraqi state is becoming strong again. It has security forces numbering a half-million men. Its oil revenues might touch $150 billion next year. It has apparently extended its authority to Basra, Sadr City and Amara province. Sunni Arab states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which had previously hoped that the Shia-Kurdish government in Baghdad was only a passing phase, accept that it is here to stay and are talking of sending ambassadors and reopening their embassies.
But nobody here knows whether this rebirth of the Iraqi state machine is a mirage. The supposed military victories against the Mahdi Army in the first half of the year would not have happened without the support of American firepower. The Iraqi army itself, though more confident than before, wonders what would happen if Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, were to end his ceasefire or the Iranians were to reverse their support for the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Two powerful tribal sheiks from Sadr City told me firmly that the Mahdi Army was on the run. But when I asked if they would oppose it in public, they replied: “Certainly not. We would be shot down next time when we went to the mosque.”
On his visit to Baghdad Barack Obama received the usual encouraging accounts from American generals and Iraqi government officials about how far security has improved and how normality is returning to Iraq. But in the great majority of cases, he will be speaking to people who do not personally set foot in the streets of the Iraqi capital without an armed escort. In one sense Iraq is “better,” but the improvement is only in contrast to the previous bloodbath. In June, 554 Iraqi civilians and security were killed, compared with 1,642 a year earlier. The sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia, which was at its height between the end of 2005 and the first half of 2007, has ebbed. This is not so much because of the Surge, but because there is nobody left to kill. Baghdad has become a largely Shia city. There are few mixed areas remaining.