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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 September 2007, 23:26 GMT 00:26 UK
Iraq surge brings few political rewards
By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC Arab Affairs analyst

US soldiers in Iraq
The US troop surge has not yet paid political dividends in Iraq
There is a popular Iraqi song that sums up the mood of distrust many Iraqis feel towards their beleaguered government.

The song, by Hossam al-Rassam, says "no-one can tell the difference between the thief and the policeman any longer".

It is an apt metaphor for what Iraqis - particularly the Sunni Arab minority - feel about their security forces.

They are accused of being controlled - or at best infiltrated - by Shia militias, which are blamed for a great deal of the sectarian violence during the run up to the surge.

Purging the security forces of militias was one of the 18 benchmarks laid down by Washington for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government, which it has apparently failed.

The idea behind the surge was that quelling sectarian violence would create an environment conducive for Iraqi politicians to putting the sectarian genie back in the bottle.

Genuine desire to make compromises and reach national reconciliation appears sorely lacking in politicians on both sides of the sectarian divide

So far, it appears that the surge has broken the cycle of the tit-for-tat killing, but the political dividends have failed to materialise.

On the contrary, the gap between the Sunni Arab and the Shia political leaders has widened with the withdrawal of Sunni parties from the government, leaving Mr Maliki scrambling for new partners without much success.

The leader of the Iraqi Islamic party - one of the Sunni parties that pulled out of the government - Usama al-Tikriti, told the BBC why his party left the government.

"We need a strong non-partisan government, unlike the current one. Most of the members of the current government work for their organisations, not for Iraq," he said.

"Maliki has shown that he's incapable of doing what he came into office for and which the parliament voted for.

"He has achieved nothing - no national reconciliation... no reform of the army, no reform of security bodies, no services. He failed in each and everyone of them."

'Sense' of progress

This harsh verdict cannot be easily dismissed, because it is strikingly similar to what the non-partisan report by the American Government Accountability Office, which was released earlier this week, has concluded.

One of the few achievements Mr Maliki's government has managed was to draft, after months of wrangling, a new bill on sharing oil wealth among Iraq's three main regions.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki

But that has yet to be approved by parliament, and it is far from clear it will be, because of strong opposition to the power it gives foreign oil companies over the country's oil resources.

Plans to hold a summit last month to persuade Sunni Arabs back into the government never materialised. Instead, the four parties remaining in the cabinet - two Shias and two Kurdish - announced a new alliance.

They apparently wanted to create the sense of political progress, while in reality there was none. And the move failed to show Washington that Mr Maliki was doing his best to reach out to Sunnis.

One of the key political benchmarks that Iraq's government has failed to meet is amending the controversial law removing former members of the ruling Baath party from office, a process known as de-Baathification.

Changing that law has been a key demand for Sunni politicians to rejoin the political process.

US Congressman Joe Sestak, who was in Iraq in April, told the BBC that Mr Maliki's government still believes that allowing former Baathists back into public life is "an appeasement to the Sunnis and not important".

"If that was the mindset of the political leadership in Baghdad, it was not surprising [that] no progress had been made in the political benchmarks," Mr Sestak said.

'Waning fortunes'

There was no progress either on another crucial issue - revising the constitution, a long-standing demand of Sunni Arabs and another political benchmark that Washington has set for the Iraqi parliament.

Woman in Iraqi holy city of Najaf
The surge has momentarily broken the cycle of the tit-for-tat killing

Sunnis are worried that constitutional provisions for the federal structure of the state could leave them with little power or influence over the future of Iraq, and may even lead to the break-up of the country.

But that revision has not yet happened.

Mr Maliki made yet another attempt to breathe new life into the moribund political process when he said he was considering a government of technocrats and protecting the country's holy sites, the scene of much carnage over the past few years.

It is unlikely that these last-minute measures will reverse Mr Maliki's waning political fortunes.

The question is whether renewed pressure on his government - or even new benchmarks - are likely to deliver results when genuine desire to make compromises and reach national reconciliation appears sorely lacking in politicians on both sides of the sectarian divide.

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