USIP's Iraq program aims to reduce interethnic and interreligious violence, speed up stabilization and democratization, and reduce the need for a U.S. presence in Iraq. As part of this program, USIP has maintained a small office in the Green Zone in Baghdad since early 2004. Rusty Barber, a former political officer in the Foreign Service, has run the office since March 2007. His regular dispatches offer a lively and sobering insider's view of the promise and peril facing U.S. efforts in that country. We'll update this section each week, making only minimal changes for security reasons.

Here in Baghdad, the searing summer temperatures have mercifully receded before the advance of fall. And though the palm fronds don’t turn color, as a New Englander I instinctively welcome autumn as a time for fresh starts. Phrases like "new beginnings" and "fresh starts" are obviously far too pat for a country still convulsed by conflict, but one thing is indisputable—things are a lot calmer now than they were six months ago when I first arrived. Even the most war-cynical among our Baghdad staff are commenting on the improvement in the security situation. Waiting for a flight to the Kurdish region at Baghdad’s airport last week, the drop in tension among my Iraqi fellow travelers was palpable. The customary taut faces and subdued voices had given way to the lively, casual banter typical of airports anywhere in the world. Here in the Green Zone, the absence of incoming rockets and mortars over the past few months has produced a similar sensation of cautious relief. Harbingers of a turning point? It is much too early and far too fragile an environment to say with confidence. Much depends on whether that critical compact between the government and the governed—heretofore absent in Iraq—can somehow be actualized so citizens will start to see and feel the tangible benefits of responsible leadership. Meanwhile, at the local level, there are some encouraging signs of progress.

The Mahmoudiya tribal reconciliation conference for south Baghdad (entitled "Mahmoudiya: Cornerstone for Unity and Peaceful Accord in Iraq"), which USIP recently convened at the request of local leaders, is one such grassroots example that gives cause for hope. For the past three years, this mixed Sunni-Shia tribal region of 500,000 people just 25 miles south of Baghdad has been a cauldron of violence. Al-qaeda, militias and criminal gangs roamed at will, shutting down farming, trade and transport links upon which the region depends for its livelihood. Infrastructure has collapsed and large numbers of citizens have been displaced. Mahmoudiya’s reputation as a haven and feeder for terrorists circulating in and around Baghdad had gotten so bad, even locals referred to it as the "Triangle of Death."

It is said that—in extreme cases—a situation sometimes needs to reach rock bottom before communities, their limits of toleration exceeded, take matters into their own hands. We certainly have examples of that in America: in neighborhoods in LA, Chicago, Detroit and DC and others where residents have decided to confront drug lords and criminal gangs that hold their communities hostage to violence. That is what now appears to be happening in Mahmoudiya and other areas around Baghdad where tribal leaders, fed up with the havoc wrought by terrorists, and encouraged by increasingly successful U.S. and Iraqi military operations against them, have started to cooperate with coalition forces to drive them out. The results are visible and undeniable. In the last five months, kidnappings, killings and attacks on coalition forces in the south Baghdad region have dropped considerably. It was in this context that local tribal and civic leaders decided to seize the opportunity to try and establish common ground between them to forge a path toward lasting stability. For help in this process, they approached the local 10th Mountain Division Brigade Combat Team who, in turn, contacted USIP’s Baghdad office.

Image on right: A sheikh signs the Mahmoudiya compact.

Fast-forward four months to a tribal conciliation conference in Baghdad at which 31 Sunni and Shia sheikhs, representing an estimated 75 percent of the district’s population, signed a compact (PDF - 30KB) putting forth 37 specific goals to consolidate security, restore services, develop the economy, improve local governance and promote the rule of law. I won’t enumerate the many steps it took to get to this outcome—they will be chronicled in a separate report. But I can say that it was not an easy process, nor without cost. Two prominent sheikhs were assassinated before they could attend the conference, several attempts were made on the life of the district’s "mayor," and the regional Iraqi army commander missed a planning meeting after being hit with an IED that took him out of commission for a week while he recovered from a concussion.

For our Baghdad Iraqi and American staff working on this project, it was an extraordinary experience, much of it learned on the job. There are around 45 tribes based in Mahmoudiya—gaining even a rudimentary grasp of their complex internal characters and external relationships would take months of study and engagement. Similarly, the fault lines of conflict in this region are many and varied: inter-tribal, inter-generational, sectarian, rural versus urban, and so on. USIP grantees and contacts in the region provided helpful analysis and field reporting. In the end, however, the parties involved didn’t require experts in the tribal affairs of Mahmoudiya. They just needed a neutral third party to help shape a dialogue process and conference format that could help them reach consensus on goals and courses of action to return the region to stability.

This conference broke new ground in Iraq in two respects: it was the first to combine training in negotiation, mediation and group problem solving with facilitated development of goals and courses of action to achieve them. Second, it was conducted entirely by Iraqi facilitators. The commitment and confidence of these eight gifted individuals (seven men and one woman), who came to Baghdad from around Iraq to participate in this unique event, was extraordinary. We are now working with them on modeling the conference agenda for use in other regions and communities around Iraq.

The relative success of this event does not augur that reconciliation and tranquility lie around the corner for Mahmoudiya; with so many people still displaced, memories fresh and tensions high, that end-state lies down an arduous and very uncertain path. But it can perhaps lay claim to be the first suture in the effort to bind the massive wound this region bears from three years of unrelenting violence.

USIP is publishing a Special Report that will give a closer look at the Mahmoudiya tribal reconciliation initiative.

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