Baghdad. Having largely routed insurgents and nailed down a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops, Iraq will next year confront the mammoth task of rebuilding amid lingering violence.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2008 crushed militia strongholds in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra and wrested concessions from Washington in a landmark accord that will see all US troops depart by the end of 2011. The wide-ranging military agreement will grant Iraqi authorities control over virtually all US military operations and calls for troops to pull out of all Iraqi cities and towns by the end of June.
US President George W. Bush arrived in Baghdad in December to formally sign the accord, but his visit was overshadowed by an incident in which a journalist threw his shoes at the American leader, winning instant global fame.
Muntazer al-Zaidi jumped up as Bush was holding a press conference with Maliki and shouted: “It is the farewell kiss, you dog” before throwing two shoes at the president, who ducked out of the way.
Zaidi, who will be tried for his actions in a Baghdad court on Dec. 31, was praised throughout the Arab world for showing how Iraqis and other Arabs hate Bush, who ordered the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The withdrawal of 146,000 troops currently stationed in over 400 bases across the country could be accelerated by US President-elect Barack Obama, who has vowed to bring all the troops home within 16 months of taking office.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in the coming year that attention will be focused on a new round of local and general elections, and on making use of improved security to press ahead with political reforms. “The 2009 challenge is building democratic institutions,” he said during a visit to Washington. “The elections need to go in parallel with the building up of institutions which protect democracy.”
The sectarian violence that convulsed Iraq in 2006 and 2007 has largely abated as Sunni militias numbering more than 100,000 fighters — the so-called Awakening movement — have allied with US forces to drive out Al Qaeda.
Maliki, meanwhile, moved to disperse the 60,000-strong Mahdi Army militia loyal to the hard-line Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, assaulting their bastions in Baghdad and Basra in the spring. Sadr’s movement has since shifted its attention to charity work and political advocacy, but despite several mass demonstrations the group was unable to derail the US military pact, which it adamantly opposed.
Although security has improved dramatically over the past year the insurgency still rages in some parts of the country including Baghdad, which still sees near-daily bombings, most of them targeting security forces.
Civilian deaths are nevertheless down by two-thirds, with 5,714 people killed in 2008 compared with 16,252 in 2007, according to official Iraqi figures released in December.
Iraq Body Count, a nongovernmental organization, on Sunday put the number of people killed so far in 2008 at from 8,315 to 9,028. US military casualties have dropped by two-thirds, with just over 300 soldiers and marines killed in 2008 compared with more than 900 killed in 2007, according to the independent Web site icasualties.org.
Iraqis will head to the polls in 2009 for the first time since 2005, when elections were held amid fierce fighting across the country and a Sunni boycott helped bring Shiite religious parties to power. This year could see a political realignment, with Maliki building a new coalition of Sunni and Shiite tribes and Sunnis poised to win political power commensurate with the key role they have played in routing Al Qaeda.
“All the key Iraqi communities are participating and playing an active part in running the country,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in an interview. “In 2006 the Sunni community was hesitant, they were afraid. In 2008 they came back.”
The victors in provincial elections on Jan. 31 and general elections at the end of 2009 will confront the daunting task of rebuilding the country after decades of devastating wars and international sanctions. This ambition could be complicated by a proposed referendum in Basra Province on whether to seek regional autonomy and by uncertainty over local elections in Kurdish provinces, which are not voting on Jan. 31.
The Iraqi Finance Ministry estimates that $400 billion is needed to reconstruct the country. The national government has set aside $15 billion for reconstruction in the 2009 budget, but is hoping to entice foreign investors to help it avoid what at that rate would be a nearly 30-year timetable for rebuilding.