Fragile Calm in Mahmoudiyah

It felt more like a high school graduation than the signing of a peace accord in the Al-Rasheed hotel's wood-paneled auditorium the other day. Tribal sheiks from Mahmoudiya, a region of southern Baghdad, were wrapping up a three-day reconciliation conference, and each shook hands with the meeting's facilitators before receiving a certificate saying that he had participated. Senior officials made speeches, praising God and the people of Mahmoudiya, and urged Iraq's national government to look to their region for guidance on how to rebuild the rest of the country. Depending on what happens next, the government may want to do just that.

With the number of violent attacks down in some parts of Iraq, the question facing Iraqis now is how best to take advantage of it. The answer is critical, particularly for a place like Mahmoudiya where the fault lines of conflict run in multiple directions. Tribal, religious and generational clashes divide its 400,000 residents, making the region in some ways a microcosm of the country as a whole. Up until about three months ago, violence was widespread, with criminal gangs and sectarian fighting forcing people from their homes and destroying local infrastructure. But thanks in part to the "surge" of U.S. troops and in part to the high degree of cooperation between the American and Iraqi soldiers working together in the area, a fragile window of calm has opened.

Local leaders want to make sure this peace lasts. In August, they approached an American-led reconstruction team for advice on how to make sure their situation continues to improve. The U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP, an institution funded by Congress) stepped in, first arranging a weeklong workshop for a delegation from Mahmoudiya in the Jordanian capital of Amman, and then a three-day conference in Baghdad for the region's tribal sheiks. The USIP provided the framework for how to identify objectives, but it was quick to stress that this is an Iraqi-driven initiative.

The end product of the meetings is a cooperative pledge, signed at the Al-Rasheed, naming the goals Mahmoudiya hopes to achieve over the next three years in terms of governance, rule of law, economic development, social well being and security. It also includes a four-page to do list of tasks that range in importance from the critical(rehabilitating the main water system, providing ambulance services to its citizens) to the perhaps not so critical (re-opening illiteracy centers for the elderly, for example.)

After the ceremony, I spoke to Iraqi General Commander Ali Jessim who told me the conference had been a successful experience. He praised Mahmoudiya's citizens who, tired of watching Al Qaeda try to destroytheir country, have finally started working together to fight back. "To reach forgiveness," he said, "we need first to begin with ourselves before anyone else helps."

But some were skeptical that the pledge would lead to any longterm progress. One American official described the situation in Mahmoudiya as a "fragile, fragile, fragile calm" and another journalist quipped that if USIP had tried to give the sheiks different colored folders instead of all identical blue ones, the entire accord would have collapsed. Thaer Turky, a sheik representing the Alghrtan tribe, was particularly harsh. He said he regretted coming, pointing out that only 26 of the region's over 50 tribes were represented at the event and predicting that only about two to three percent of the goals set out were achievable. "I don't want [the tribal sheiks] just to sign a paper. I want them to work, " said Turky. "They'll sign a paper and then do nothing." Either way, if what goes on in Mahmoudiyah is in fact an indicator of what will work in Iraq as a whole, both Americans and Iraqis will want to pay close attention.