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Iraq must make radical shift to combat unrest: Experts

04 December, 2013

Iraq must make radical changes in how it handles security and its Sunni minority to combat a surge in bloodletting but major steps are unlikely with elections looming, experts say.

With violence at its worst since 2008 and the country appealing for international help in combatting militancy, officials have trumpeted operations targeting militants and some concessions to disaffected Sunnis.

But, analysts say, those measures do not go far enough when confronted with bloodshed that has left more than 6,000 people dead already this year and has sparked fears Iraq is slipping back into all-out sectarian war.

"Measures taken by the government so far have not matched the importance of the issues," said Issam al-Faili, a professor of political history at Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad.

"The situation in Iraq is getting serious ... and what the government is doing now is nothing radical, but only minor fixes."

Diplomats, experts and human rights groups have argued for months that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia Arab, must reach out to the country's Sunni minority and start work to reform anti-terror laws and rules barring members of former dictator Saddam Hussein's party from participating in public life.

They also say security forces must stop using heavy-handed tactics in Sunni sections of Baghdad and western and northern Iraq, such as mass arrests and the closing off of entire neighbourhoods.

Sunnis, who were in ascendance during Saddam's rule, have for months protested over alleged mistreatment at the hands of the Shia-led authorities, complaining specifically of wrongful arrest, long periods of detention without trial and abuse in prison.

Analysts say that while most Sunnis do not actively support al Qaeda, a lack of faith in the government may persuade them to stop cooperating with the authorities in their efforts to combat the jihadist network's Iraq affiliates.

"There isn't really an easy fix here for Iraq," said Ayham Kamel, a London-based analyst for the Eurasia Group consultancy. "What they need to do politically, which I don't think Maliki will do in the near term, is really come up with a comprehensive strategic engagement with the Sunni community."

Kamel said that Sunni communities needed to be "empowered" and that security forces had to "completely change" their behaviour in Sunni Arab neighbourhoods, while on a political level, authorities would have to commit to a greater degree of power-sharing.

Iraq's government is ostensibly one of national unity with Shia, Sunni and Kurdish participation but, in fact, members of the cabinet frequently criticise each other in public and little in the way of landmark legislation has been passed since parliamentary elections in March 2010.

Sunni ministers have staged boycotts from time to time over the past few years over what they allege is Maliki's centralisation of power, while the premier insists he is trying to manage an unruly coalition.

Meanwhile, Iraqis often voice frustration over their oil-rich country still providing poor basic services more than a decade after the US-led invasion, and little has been done to tackle rampant corruption and high levels of unemployment.

They also often complain that despite numerous checkpoints in Baghdad and the near-ubiquitous presence of security forces, attacks still rock the capital, as well as the rest of the country, targeting all manner of people from civilians at cafes and public football pitches to soldiers at checkpoints and government officials in their cars.

"Some members of the security forces are inefficient, and others are infiltrators (from militias and other violent groups)," said Ali al-Haidari, a Baghdad-based security analyst.

"Building Iraq's security forces after 2003 happened in a hurry, and a result of that has been they have not been built properly."

"We must take urgent measures, now."

Little in the way of radical steps are likely to be taken ahead of elections due to be held on April 30, however, with no major parties wanting to be seen by their voters as capitulating and politicians often pointing to the polls as a point at which political gridlock could finally be loosened.

"Re-engagement, I think, will take time and it's unlikely to take place before election," Kamel said. "A resolution to the whole security dilemma will not occur before elections. "It's not going to happen."

End.

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