BAGHDAD — With security improved throughout much of Iraq, the constant fear of death is gone, many Iraqis say. The struggle now is how to live.
Buying food is hard. Lighting, cooling or heating a house isn't easy. Fixing the car is a risk. Finding a doctor or a good teacher can be nearly impossible.
"We don't hear any clashes or car bombs. Nobody wakes up to find dead bodies on their stretch of pavement anymore," said Widad Hameed, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Yarmouk, a Sunni Muslim-majority neighborhood in western Baghdad.
But, Hameed said, she and her family have only one or two hours of electricity each day. Kerosene is rarely available in her neighborhood, even on the black market. Last week, she wore three sweaters, a house robe, two pairs of socks and a scarf to warm herself in the winter temperatures. Four of her 13 grandchildren left Iraq to attend college.
"We don't know what to do. We don't trust the government; we don't trust the armed forces. How can we trust their promises of reduced danger?" Hameed said. "Our aspirations have become so small. It's a happy day for me if we have water to cook and bathe and some electricity at 9 p.m. so I can watch Oprah" on satellite television.
Therein lies the challenge of 2008, diplomats, soldiers, politicians and academics said in a rare show of unanimity. The security gains of 2007 were the result not just of the increase in the number of U.S. troops patrolling the capital, but also in an ad hoc strategy that wasn't originally contemplated when President Bush announced the troop buildup last January: the creation of local security groups known as awakening councils in some of Baghdad's most troubled neighborhoods.
Now, those groups, and their U.S.-anointed leaders, must receive official status in Iraq's political system. What relationship they'll have to the central government must be resolved. Until then, the drop in violence won't be sustainable, many Iraqi and American officials fear.
"In some respects, the positive developments in the latter half of 2007 also represent the challenges of 2008," Ryan Crocker, the U.S. envoy to Iraq, said during a roundtable discussion earlier this week. "There will be the ongoing challenges of reconciliation. And if there is a single overarching issue that will determine the future of the country, that's it for me in one word."
Two years after Iraqis swarmed to the polls to ratify a constitution and elect a new government, they're more perplexed then ever about what they can count on from the central government.
Led by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, that government largely was absent from the improved security situation. As parliamentarians bickered — often along sectarian lines — U.S. troops mobilized local leaders, usually tribal sheiks. Some were former insurgents, now paid with American or sometimes provincial money.
Residents no longer waited for the central government and its military and police to protect them. They turned to their new local leaders, most of them Sunnis, and took up arms themselves in exchange for salaries from the American military.
But those unelected local leaders can't provide basic services.
U.S. officials say they're depending on Maliki's regime to find a way to improve services and incorporate the awakening councils.
The central government needs "to move beyond making things work at a minimal level to a better level of performance in Baghdad and the provinces," Ambassador David Satterfield, the senior adviser to the secretary of state and coordinator for Iraq, said in an interview with McClatchy. "Is it bleak, unresolvable and hopeless? I don't think so at all. . . . I think there is reason for a certain degree of hope that was not present six months ago."
The rise of the U.S.-financed local groups also has some analysts wondering about the government's future.
"The leverage of the central government is slipping," said Vali Nasr, an expert in Shiite Islam for the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. research center. That lack of a strong central authority could provoke local leaders to fight among themselves for control.
"The reality of Iraq is that these guys are divided. Local governments could butt up against one another," he said. "The big battle for Iraq is not done."
Iraqi officials share similar worries.
"We believe in a decentralized state, and we believe that we need a strong, united government," said Sami al Askari, a Maliki adviser. "At the same time, the main goal is to keep Iraq united. Some Iraqis are talking about more authority going to local governments, which could break up the country. That is scary. We have to be careful."
Baghdad's relative calm hasn't resolved the core questions, said Mithal Alusi, a secular Sunni member of parliament.
"We must decide the Iraqi identity. What is our way? What is our direction? That is the most important challenge of 2008," he said. "Liberation of Iraq has been done. That is great, but we have a responsibility."
The challenges are many.
Mazin Muzil fled to Syria earlier this year after the sight of bodies stacked in the same spot every day shook him from the Baghdad neighborhood where he grew up. He returned to the Shiite-majority neighborhood last month when his visa and money ran out, thrilled to find that it was safer. He can stay out until 10 p.m., "which meant suicide in the past," he said. Shops are open and fake checkpoints are gone.
But at 28, he's unemployed. He studied tourism in college, then worked at a hotel in Baghdad's once-busy commercial district. But visitors no longer come to Iraq.
"We haven't seen or heard officials or governments or even private companies asking to employ young people," he said. "What about the reconstruction, economy and tourism?"
Increasing jobs and construction are a long way off for some areas in Iraq. In the north, violence by the insurgent group al Qaida in Iraq is picking up. Residents in Kirkuk describe a stagnating city in which Arabs and Kurds won't travel within each other's neighborhoods while each tries to claim the city.
Violence among rival Shiite factions continues in Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, Karbala and Basra provinces in the south.
"We now have army and police deployed everywhere in the city, but we cannot depend on that to feel safe," said Isra Abbas, a 28-year-old resident of Nasiriyah. "There are religious armed groups and political armed groups that can threaten the situation at any moment. Our city needs tremendous effort and honest officials."
(Gumbrecht, of the Lexington Herald-Leader, reported from Baghdad, Youssef from Washington. Warren P. Strobel in Washington and McClatchy special correspondents Sahar Issa, Hussein Kadhim and Jenan Hussein in Baghdad, Qassim Zien in Najaf, Iraq, and Ali al Basri in Nasiriyah, Iraq, contributed to this article.)