BAGHDAD (AFP) — A controversial surge in US troop numbers has cut the death toll in Iraq but prospects for reconciliation between its divided communities remain a distant dream as the conflict enters a New Year.
If 2006 saw a bloody insurgency escalate into a vicious sectarian war, 2007 saw the bloodletting peak in January and then recede each month on policy shifts by Washington and changes on the ground.
In February, a year after sectarian strife erupted with the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, US President George W. Bush changed his Iraq strategy.
He dispatched an extra 28,500 soldiers in a bid to quell intensifying bloodshed since the March 2003 invasion.
The reinforcements were sent in the face of stiff opposition from the Democrat-dominated US Congress, as a last-ditch effort by Bush to restore some stability in Iraq ahead of 2008 presidential elections.
The vicious circle of tit-for-tat sectarian killings began to ease once the extra troops became fully operational in June, although the first signs of improved security had already become evident in Anbar province, west of the capital earlier.
Sunni Arabs who once fought the Americans alongside Al-Qaeda began to turn against the militant group.
By September, Al-Qaeda was pushed out of Anbar, the success spawning many other anti-Qaeda fronts, known as Al-Sahwa, or "the Awakening", across Iraq.
The US military said that by December nearly 80,000 Sunni Arabs, as well as some Shiites, had signed up for the Awakening movements.
Critics accuse Washington of "buying" peace with the former rebels, who are paid an average 300 dollars a month, but US commanders say they are merely offering jobs to "patriots."
The rapid turnaround saw Osama bin Laden make a call for unity among insurgent groups, urging them to "gather under one banner so that justice can be served."
On December 4, an Al-Qaeda front group announced that it had launched a new campaign of bombing targeting the Iraqi army and Awakening militiamen, and a spate of attacks has followed.
Bush hopes that he can end his time in the White House with violence at least under control.
He announced a drawdown of 21,500 combat troops by mid-2008, leaving around 130,000 troops in Iraq.
Washington received a further boost when Shiite radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr ordered a six-month freeze on the activities of his Mahdi Army militia in August.
Sadr's order came after allegations his fighters had been involved in a firefight in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala which killed 52 people.
The combined effect of the anti-Qaeda front, the suspension of the Mahdi militia and the presence of extra US troops led to a drop in violence for the first time since the invasion.
In November Iraq reported the deaths of 606 people, the lowest toll in 21 months and sharply down on the 1,992 killed in January.
The relative peace did not come cheaply and 2007 has been the deadliest year for the US military since the invasion, with around 900 soldiers killed so far.
Iraq also saw its deadliest attack since the invasion this autumn. On August 14, four truck bombs killed more than 400 people from the minority Yazidi community, regarded as infidel by many Muslims, in two northern villages.
But some 10,000 internally displaced Iraqis and 40,000 more who had found refuge in neighbouring countries found the courage to return to their homes, according to Iraqi officials.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned that security remained inadequate for a mass return by the estimated 4.2 million Iraqis who have fled their homes since the invasion.
Iraqi members of parliament have also failed to set aside their differences amid the declining bloodshed to pass legislation touted by Washington as key to wooing the disenchanted Sunni Arab former elite away from the anti-US insurgency.
The controversial oil and de-Baathification bills, which Washington says are "benchmarks" to measure national reconciliation, remain stalled in the bitterly divided parliament.
A bill which aims to rehabilitate middle-ranking members of executed dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath party not implicated in any crimes, came up for debate in parliament but was met with angry protests from Shiite MPs.
The oil bill has not even had a first reading in parliament, a year after it was drafted. It would open up Iraq's long state-dominated oil and gas sector to foreign investment and stipulate that receipts be shared equally among Iraq's 18 provinces.
Political tensions were aggravated by death sentences handed down against three Saddam aides, including his most infamous hatchet man, Ali Hassan al-Majid, or "Chemical Ali".
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki initially postponed the executions because they were scheduled to take place during the holy month of Ramadan.
He now wants them to go ahead but is being opposed by President Jalal Talabani and Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi.
Maliki, who enters the new year with his cabinet still shorthanded after walkouts by Sunnis and hardline Shiites, also failed to realise his own prediction of taking security control of all of Iraq's 18 provinces by mid-2007.
Only nine provinces are currently under Iraqi control.
The year also saw a stand-off between Washington and Baghdad over the role of private security contractors when staff of Blackwater, a company that provides security to US diplomats in Baghdad, killed 17 Iraqis in Baghdad.
There is now a protracted legal row over whether the guards can be prosecuted under Iraqi law.
Washington and Baghdad agreed in November on a crucial military deal that is expected to keep American forces in Iraq beyond 2008, when a UN mandate ends and troops from other nations pull out.
The United States has also slightly softened its stance towards Iran following assurances by the Islamic republic that it will help curb bloodshed in Iraq.
But tensions rose between Iraq and US ally Turkey over the presence of Kurdish rebel rear-bases in the northern mountains with Ankara conducting a series of cross-border raids amid the threat of more aggressive action by ground troops.
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