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Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images

After the bloodbath

Iraq | War is hell, but rebuilding Iraq's political infrastructure is no picnic. Organizers for provincial and national elections must combat mass migration, continuing violence, and cross-party intrigue

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

IN MOSUL, KIRKUK, ERBIL, and HAMDANIYAH, Iraq-When Eveline Aoraha goes to work, she wraps a handgun in a soft print scarf and pushes it into the bottom of a black leather purse. She always zips the bag. Within 10 miles of Mosul, she slips the gun from her bag, hands it to her driver, and wraps the scarf over her head.

Aoraha is one of three Assyrian Christians on a governing council of 41 in Nineveh province. Mosul is its capital. In the last four years, terrorist insurgents have killed 12 council members. Aoraha's colleagues, whom she calls "martyrs" to democracy, were Arab Muslims, Assyrian Christians, and Kurds; the oldest was 80, the youngest was a 34-year-old veterinarian and a mother.

All Mosul's leaders feel the terrorists' wrath. Duraid Kashmoula, a Muslim, has had his 17-year-old son and two brothers killed in the four years he has been governor of the province. He himself has narrowly escaped bombs at least three times, and just last month attended the funeral for his administrative assistant. The purpose of the terrorists, Aoraha said, "is to stop life here, and to stop development."

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In so many ways the insurgents have succeeded. Iraq's third-largest city was one of its most picturesque: Parks and restaurants line one shady bank of the Tigris while ancient ruins front the other. The Nineveh bridge crosses the river into the city center where covered stalls sell melons and vegetables along the main traffic circle. Now the parks, the restaurants, and the hotels are all shuttered. The streets leading into the city center are lined with concrete barriers or simple dirt barricades topped with razor wire-anything to stop a bomb-laden car.

Checkpoints bottleneck traffic for hours, as nearly every vehicle is stopped and searched. Officials say overall violence in Mosul is down from one year ago. But during the week that I visited, insurgents bombed the house of a Sunni member of parliament from Mosul, wounding bystanders (the lawmaker himself was in Baghdad at the time); exploded a bomb near a soccer ground, killing five children; injured one resident using a roadside bomb; and detonated a vehicle near a police building, killing two and wounding about 40, including 15 policemen. Before the week was out, gunmen also killed an Assyrian Christian named Bashar al-Hazin, residents said, as he was walking between his church and home.

Improvements mean traffic is moving and people are walking the streets again, but Mosul feels like the neglected stepchild of the U.S. surge that has worked elsewhere. "Because of the success of the surge in Anbar, Diyala, and Baghdad, the insurgents come up to Mosul," said Khasro Goran, deputy governor of the province, and a Kurd. "Their intent now is to deform relationships for the next elections."

Aoraha contends, "The center of the Islamic [jihadist] state is in Mosul now. It is worse than Baghdad or Diyala." Two years ago Aoraha and her family moved 45 miles north of Mosul to a town where they feel safe, and she commutes to work three or four days a week, usually with five armed bodyguards. Her car speeds through town and into fortified government office compounds. Sometimes meetings are held outside the city at the nearby U.S. base-all meaning little interaction with residents. But many of her constituents also have fled. Officials say about 250,000 have left the city of about 1.7 million. Buses carry students and some workers from rural areas where they've taken refuge to universities in Mosul or to offices and return them to their villages of exile each day. Many say they've left Mosul for good.

No matter who the next U.S. president is, he will need new benchmarks for progress in Iraq because the venture that has cost about $500 billion will become his to own. Beyond accounting for combat forces, he will have to gauge political development and assess U.S. reconstruction teams and many nonmilitary programs. Local leaders are mindful that on the eve of U.S. elections and over 18 months into a proven counterinsurgency strategy, it's time for lasting political improvement. "To defeat terror, political powers must unite groups between military and politics," said Kashmoula.

To that end, Iraqis are scheduled to return to the polls for two pivotal elections-provincial balloting before the end of this year, then national elections in 2009. It has taken the surge by U.S. and Iraqi forces to make those elections possible. Now it will take full-fledged elections to make safety-and further minimizing of the U.S. role-possible.

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