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Is Baghdad turning into Beirut?

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Robin Lustig | 15:31 UK time, Thursday, 20 December 2007

Michael Howard has a fascinating and detailed report in today’s Guardian about the burgeoning local armed patrol groups springing up in Baghdad. They’re bringing a semblance of peace to their neighbourhoods and even arranging to provide local services like rubbish collection.

But I can’t help wondering if there’s a downside too. Sure, they’ve played a major part in reducing the number of sectarian killings in recent months. But they are, in effect, new mini-militias, loyal to their families and neighbours but not to the government or any other central authority.

It’s possible, of course, that their sense of community could put pressure on the government to deliver more in the way of real benefits to the Iraqi people. But it’s also possible that they will over time coalesce into new armed factions, in control of their little slice of urban territory, but answerable to no one outside that territory.

Major General Abdul-Kareem Khalaf of the interior ministry is quoted in The Guardian piece as saying: "It is important that there must never be armed groups outside the framework of the law." Quite so, but these groups already exist, thanks largely to the active encouragement of the US military. So now the challenge will be to develop a proper working relationship between these armed groups and the hitherto far from impressive Maliki government.

I remember Beirut in the 1980s, when it too was controlled by neighbourhood armed groups. It was not a pretty sight.


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