On the surface, the situation in Iraq appears to be stabilising. While attacks on civilians and occupation forces continue, there has been a significant drop in the number of such incidents over the past few months. Legislation required for holding provincial elections has just been adopted and the induction of Sunni paramilitaries into the regular army is scheduled to begin on October 1, 2008. Against this background, commanders of the United States forces in Iraq have be gun to express optimism that a pullback or even a pull-out can begin very soon. However, some of the most difficult issues have been set aside in an exercise of make-believe. While drafting the provincial election law, parliamentarians could not decide on the future status of Kirkuk. The Kurds have not given up their demand that the city be incorporated in one of the three provinces where they have a majority; but the demand is vehemently opposed by Sunnis and Turkomans who also constitute sizable chunks of the population in this oil-rich area. With a parliamentary committee going into this issue, the people of Kirkuk are not likely to vote on the same day as their compatriots elsewhere — for fear of ethnic strife on a horrifying scale should the issue remain unresolved.
The provincial election could also witness outbreaks of internecine strife within Iraq’s Shia and Sunni communities since the groups that are weakly represented in parliament are expected to come into their own at the sub-national level. The Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq and the Dawa party could secure large shares of seats in the federal legislature, mainly because they fought the 2005 election in alliance with the Jaish al Mahdi of Moqtada al Sadr. It is unlikely that the Sadrists, who have consolidated their position in southern Iraq, will give the other two Shia parties a free ride at the provincial level. Likewise, on the Sunni side, the current group of parliamentarians won their seats in an election boycotted by the vast majority of their brethren. The ground could be cut from under the feet of these politicians-without-a-base if the Awakening Councils participate in the next election. Another critical question is whether the Councils, which are basically clusters of tribes in specific localities, will finally opt for the democratic mode. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has promised that the fighters of the Sunni paramilitaries will be either integrated into the regular army or provided other jobs. If this promise is not kept, the Councils could well revive an insurgency that they had suspended in exchange for handouts from the U.S. army