Inside the beige church guarded by the men with the AK-47s, a choir sang Christmas songs in Arabic. An old woman in black closed her eyes while a girl in a cherry-red dress, with tights and shoes to match, craned her neck toward rows of empty pews near the back.
“Last year it was full,” said Yusef Hanna, a parishioner. “So many people have left – gone up north, or out of the country.”
In a safe neighborhood, in the midst of the relative calm of the current relative downturn in violence, this is still less than a Merry Christmas.
Iraq’s Christians have fared poorly since the fall of Saddam Hussein, with their houses or businesses frequently attacked. Some priests estimate that as much as two-thirds of the community, or about one million people, have fled, making Sacred Heart typical. Though a handful have recently returned from abroad, only 120 people attended Mass on Monday night, down from 400 two years ago.
But, of course, that was in a safe neighborhood. Elsewhere, the violence continues, irrespective of religion or season. The Washington Post reports:
Gunmen stopped a minibus driving north of Baghdad on Monday and abducted 13 Iraqi civilians inside, Iraqi police reported. The mass kidnapping was a renewed tactic that has grown increasingly rare as violence has ebbed in Iraq.
An ominous sign?
In a separate development Monday south of Baghdad, hundreds of people in Babil province staged a protest over the appointment of a new police chief for Hilla, the provincial capital. The demonstrators think the new chief, Maj. Gen. Fadhil Radam Kadim al-Sultani, is affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a leading Shiite political party, whose militia, the Badr Organization, is involved in a power struggle in southern Iraq with another pervasive militia, the Mahdi Army.
More ominous? After all, as the New York Times already reported, earlier this month:
Mr. Sadr was able to pull his militias back in large part because his community of poor Shiites was no longer under attack by Sunni militants. But if the broader Sunni population is not integrated into the new Shiite-dominated power structure, it is likely that the old divisions will rapidly resurface as the United States reduces its troop levels. If that happens, extremist Sunnis will renew their assaults on Shiites and Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia will respond in kind.
The Post continues:
Protesters set up tents along the road to the governor’s office in Hilla, chanted denunciations of Sultani and held signs calling for appointment of an independent police chief, said Capt. Muthanna Ahmed, a spokesman for the Babil police.
Officials close to Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, called Sultani’s appointment illegal.
This, more than anything, is what we need keep an eye on. If al-Sadr calls off the truce, when the six months end, early next year, the situation in Iraq could change. For the worse. Quickly. And it doesn’t sound like he’s happy, right now.
The Post also had this Christmas news:
Also Monday, a car bomb exploded near the Green Zone in central Baghdad, killing two people and wounding at least five, according to Iraqi police. The bomb detonated near the office of the governor of Baghdad province.
And Agence France-Presse had this:
Two suicide bombings killed 29 people in Iraq on Tuesday, including 25 who died when a bomber slammed his vehicle into a truck carrying gas cylinders at an Iraqi army checkpoint near Baiji.
Shortly after the Baiji bombing, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the midst of a funeral procession in the city of Baquba, north of Baghdad, killing four people from a similar group fighting Al-Qaeda, police and medics said.
An AFP correspondent on the scene reported that among those killed was Haj Farhan al-Baharzawi, the provincial head of the Brigades of 20th Revolution, a former Sunni insurgent group turned ally of the US military.
Oh, about that funeral procession:
Baquba police Lieutenant Colonel Najim al-Sumaidaie said the funeral procession was marking the death of two members of the Brigades of 20th Revolution who were killed on Monday by the US military.
Overall, the BBC reports that there is more optimism in Baghdad than there was a year ago. For whatever that’s worth. As Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post, and author of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, explained, in an online chat recounted on the Editor & Publisher website:
Well, things are going better. I just got back from Baghdad last week, and it was clear that violence has decreased. But it hasn’t gone away. It is only back down to the 2005 level — which to my mind is kind of like moving from the eighth circle of hell to the fifth.
I interviewed dozens of officers and none were willing to say we are winning. What they were saying is that at least now, we are not losing. But to a man, they were enormously frustrated by what they see as the foot-dragging of the Baghdad government.
And the meat of the BBC report is this:
One of the main stated objectives of the US troop surge was to clear a space for the Iraqi politicians to enact nation-building legislation and pursue national reconciliation as the cornerstone of the New Iraq.
But virtually none of the key pieces of required legislation has yet been passed by a fractious Iraqi parliament which has been wracked by factional disputes.
There is still no shared and agreed vision of Iraq’s future. Kurds and some Shias want a loose, federal arrangement, while Sunnis and some others want a stronger, more centralised state.
The hoped for grass-roots bottom-to-top progress has not shown conclusive results. More importantly:
Despite the progress in the security arena, the story is far from over. The casualty figures are down, but people are still being killed every day.
While things have improved greatly in Baghdad, inter-Shia power struggles in the south of the country remain intense, and insurgent activity continues strong around Mosul and Kirkuk in the north.
And, of course, there’s also that continuing little problem between Turkey and the Kurds. Reuters is reporting another Turkish bombing run into northern Iraq. The New York Times has the official U.S. response:
American military officials in Iraq said Monday that they had no operational reports that Turkey bombed northern Iraq on Sunday, contrary to Kurdish claims of Turkish airstrikes that day.
The officials said that while Turkey did not seek American consent for its raids on separatist Kurdish rebels, there was an understanding that it would notify the American Embassy in Ankara before attacking. And in this case, that did not happen.
Which returns to the point: if we need the Kurds’s help to stabilize and unify Iraq, and we’re approving Turkish attacks on the Kurds, what are the odds of our helping create a stabilized and unified Iraq? Looking across the broad swathe of today’s reports, draw your own conclusions.