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If you're looking for an essay that tries to portray the shifting sands of Iraq in the most optimistic light, Bartle Bull's piece in the British Prospect is well worth a read. It almost cheered me up. One of its premises is that sectarianism really isn't that powerful in Iraq and that the various factions in the country are more reliably motivated by their long-term interests. The strongest evidence for this comes in this passage:

This summer, Maliki's office reached out to Baathist ex-soldiers and officers and received 48,600 requests for jobs in uniform; he made room for 5,000 of them, found civil service jobs for another 7,000, and put the rest of them on a full pension. Meanwhile leading Baathists have told Time magazine they want to be in the government; the 1920 Revolution Brigadea Sunni insurgent groupis reportedly patrolling the streets of Diyala with the 3rd infantry division, and the Sunni Islamic Army in Iraq is telling al Jazeera it may negotiate with the Americans. The anecdotes coming out of Baghdad confirm the trend. The drawing rooms of the capital's dealmakers are full of Baathists, cap in hand. They are terrified of the Shia death squads and want to share in the pie when the oil starts flowing. Both Izzat al-Douri, the more prestigious of the two main Baathist leaders, and Mohamed Younis al Ahmed, the more lethal, have been reaching out from neighbouring countries to negotiate an accommodation. Since the summer, the news coming out on the Sunni front has consistently been in this one, inevitable direction.

Meanwhile, the latest data on violence does seem to show real progress from the nightmare levels of last winter. It seems to me extremely premature to believe that there is a national reconciliation going on. We've also learned the hard way not to under-estimate the power of sectarianism. The police force in particular appears to be a stronghold of Shiite sectarianism. But it seems to me also that we should be constantly looking for signs of success, in order to understand this enigmatic country a little better, and to expand on whatever local or regional revival exists. That is not the same as national revival. But it may be the best we can do for now.

(Photo: US soldiers from Alpha Company, 1/38 Infantry Regiment, play football in front of their Stryker Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) at their combat outpost in Baquba, 02 October 2007. By Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty.)

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