A turning point for Iraq?

In general I think discussions of turning points in Iraq — even in retrospect, much less forward-looking — are over-hyped; Iraq has been, if nothing else, a slow-moving process, much of it predictable based on the failures of governance by US and Iraqi leadership. Spencer Ackerman takes a look at the current landscape, though, and wonders whether the coming weeks might give a clearer picture of where Iraq is heading for the next few years:

Shiites have started to unite as Sunnis have started to expand their power. By some measurements, violence has decreased. November 2007 is a moment to test whether progress on reconciliation is possible, or whether both sides are gearing up for a larger conflict.

As Ackerman says, there are indications that casualties are down, and groups are tentatively reaching out to each other, both intra-sect (the Shia truce between Badr and Sadr is, however tentative, an important symbolic step) and inter-sect (Shia groups have been visiting with some of the resurgent Sunni groups). While one certainly hopes these are indications of broader reconciliation, it’s also just as likely that the sides are gearing up for a broader war. The problem with splintered groups is anarchy; the problem with united groups is potential titanic conflict. Ackerman recognizes this, of course, and rightly acknowledges the usual Iraq dichotomy of opportunity and risk:

There’s breathing room here for negotiations, as shallow a breath as it may be. No one should believe reconciliation is at hand, or that the process of achieving it won’t be protracted and laborious. But consider that with the decline of violence comes a rise in expectations. If those expectations aren’t addressed expeditiously, what will remain will be frustrated sectarian factions that are more consolidated and, in the Sunni case, better armed than ever. It might be a good time to revitalize the stalled forum of leaders from Iraq and its neighbors. That’s Iraq for you: each potentially hopeful situation is intertwined with a combustible one.

There’s nothing yet to indicate, to me at least, that reasonable steps are being made for broad agreement on any major issue, either within the US or Iraqi leadership. Meanwhile, Turkey is poised to invade and Kirkuk remains a flashpoint, Shia groups are fighting under the radar in the south over the vast oil riches of Basra, and we’re arming Sunnis who still hate the Shia government.

To me, the issue is this: We keep talking about whether the glass if half full or half empty. But since the liquid in the glass is gasoline, the real question is, who’s holding the match?

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