- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

Violent deaths of Iraqis, which dropped dramatically in the second half of last year, have been trending up again since January, undermining Iraqi public confidence just weeks before Gen. David Petraeus is to deliver a key report to Congress.

Ambassador Charles Ries, minister for economic affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said yesterday he did not believe the uptick would derail the Iraq economy, which is “poised for growth” as a result of reduced inflation, higher oil production and improved security since the start of last year’s troop surge.

But nongovernment experts said the fragile gains since last summer are at risk of unraveling if the trend continues. At least 422 persons have been killed this month, almost as many as the 544 in all of January.

The February death toll for Iraqi civilians and security forces was 674, according to Iraq Coalition Casualties’ Web site.

Mr. Ries, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it was hard to track the impact of a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad, which have killed hundreds of Iraqis in the past month.

Two particularly brutal attacks were conducted by female suicide bombers in two of the capital’s popular weekend pet markets.

Mr. Ries said he had asked members of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams to estimate the impact, and they reported there was “no noticeable difference after this horrific event.”

“Things have turned around,” he said of the overall drop in violence. “The trick will be to sustain that.”

But experts Rend al-Rahim Francke, senior fellow of the United States Institute of Peace, and Zainab Salbi, with Women for Women International — both Iraqis who recently returned from the country — said the recent violence has affected people’s outlook.

“It takes a toll on the people. These things immediately take you backward. There is no hope now” among many people, Ms. Salbi said.

Some 70 percent of women in Iraq say they still do not have their basic daily needs met, she said.

Mrs. Francke said those elements that the U.S. military has credited for helping to reduce violence in the country — a Shi’ite cease-fire, the Sunnis pushing back al Qaeda and Iran stepping back — appeared to be fracturing.

“It is not clear at all that [Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr] gave a clear enough signal on a cease-fire,” Mrs. Francke said. “The signal was somewhat mixed, because he said ‘yes, we will renew,’ however we will not tolerate attacks.”

The Sunni groups cooperating with the U.S forces, known broadly as the Sahwa, or Concerned Local Citizens and Sons of Iraq, “could be feeling they had not received enough political or economic recognition from the government” for taking on al Qaeda, Mrs. Francke added.

Other concerns include Iran’s ability to “calibrate the level of instability” in Iraq through its links with Shi’ite militias and the lack of a swift, comprehensive military push against al Qaeda in its northern stronghold of Mosul.

“It is quite possible that what we are seeing in part is a backlash by al Qaeda, oozing out of Mosul and hitting out in other places,” Mrs. Francke said.

The rise in violence could take some of the gloss off what is expected to be a generally upbeat performance when Gen. Petraeus delivers his next report to Congress in early to mid-April.

Amnesty International, which is to release a report on human rights conditions in Iraq on Monday , said people were still living in fear.

“You still have nonstate actors operating with impunity, and a government that fails to enact the rule of law and to impose international human rights standards,” said Zahir Janmohamed, a Middle East specialist at Amnesty International USA.

“You have a collapsed economy and social structure … It is a daily battle for resources, employment, housing and schooling,” said Mr. Janmohamed.

“There has been a failure by all parties to the conflict to address that, the conflict is still very much there. There is a decrease, but the fact is there is still violence, even if it is occurring less frequently, you still have people living in fear.”

Mr. Ries said the security advances were “fragile and reversible” and tough political compromises were still ahead, but that Iraq was making great progress at the national economic level.

Iraq’s inflation was down to 13 percent in 2007 from 32 percent in 2006; the national budget was up to $49 million; and the government has a capital investment budget of $13.2 billion this year, up from $10 billion last year, said Mr. Ries.

Some $3 billion is earmarked for oil and gas capital investment — Iraq’s major source of revenue.

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