The long road ahead

26 May 2006

It was not the most auspicious of starts. On 20 May, the newly elected government was sworn in amid simultaneous bombings across Baghdad that saw 19 people killed and countless others injured.

The latest incidents emphasise quite how precarious the security situation is in the capital. Figures released by the city morgue indicate that it is now receiving more than 1,000 dead bodies each month, many of them victims of the spiralling sectarian violence in the capital.

Many Iraqis speculate whether a civil war has already broken out. In the same breath, talk of Kurdish secession has grown louder. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) created its own parliament in mid-April, forming a government that incorporates not only rival factions but also, significantly, its own oil ministry. That decision has only stoked the flames in Baghdad as the national ministry fights off accusations of corruption and impotency and struggles to maintain production above 1.3 million barrels a day.

The formation of the cabinet has been heralded as the start of a new beginning for Iraq. But many of the same players are still in power; Sectarian tensions are still running high - as highlighted by the walkout of a handful of Sunni lawmakers on hearing the cabinet announcement; and the cabinet lacks ministers for the defence, interior and national security portfolios, which together control the army and police respectively. 'I'm keeping my fingers crossed,' says Nabael Atta, deputy transport minister, who has served in the interim government since 2003. 'What we need is tough and just government. You cannot have justice without being tough on the people that make mistakes and you cannot allow people to make mistakes without being tough on them.'

Whatever its deficiencies, most agree that the true test for the new government will be its ability to maintain security. In a bid to placate critics, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has nominated himself and two deputies to temporarily fill the positions. 'Just as we did away with the tyrant [Saddam Hussein] and the days of oppression and despotism, we will do away with terrorism and sabotage,' he said on 20 May. Many others see light at the end of the tunnel. According to US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, 14 of the country's 18 provinces have seen little or no violence.

Yet casualty numbers are not falling, while key infrastructure and oil installations remain as vulnerable as ever to attack. No longer is the lawlessness blamed solely on foreign insurgents. Internal sectarian violence has soared since the attack on the golden-domed Shia Askariya mosque in Samarra on 22 February.

Unemployment, central government neglect and dilapidated services are compounding the issue. According to Electricity Ministry estimates, power is only available for an average of 8.5 hours a day. One of the worst affected areas is Anbar governorate, home to the trouble spots of Ramadi and Fallujah, which houses a quarter of the country's population. Little has been invested in local infrastructure, despite Anbar having some of the country's richest raw material reserves. The provincial governor says there is only one specialist hospital for 1.4 million people.

'We were neglected by the previous regime, but three years on our cities and our rural areas have had no attention,' says Mamoun Sami Rasheed, whose predecessor was kidnapped and murdered in 2005. 'What do you expect people to do when they have nothing? We are all in the same boat. If part of the ship is damaged, the whole boat will sink. The government and the ministries must support us in terms of legislation and institutions, otherwise we will all end up as before.'

The government has formed a multi-pronged approach to curbing the violence. Top of the list is reconciliation with militant groups. Talks have been held with insurgent leaders with a view to convincing groups to either lay down their arms and reintegrat

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