BAGHDAD – Sunni and Shiite lawmakers on Thursday warned that political and economic challenges could derail Iraq's progress toward stability as the country enters its seventh year of war.
After five years of conflict and tens of thousands of deaths, violence has declined sharply nationwide, although attacks continue and the insurgency remains potent in northern Iraq.
Both the Sunni and Shiite communities also face internal power struggles that are likely to intensify ahead of national elections expected later this year.
"The political process is full of tensions and contradictions and the situation in Iraqi will deteriorate if political progress isn't made," Sunni lawmaker Osama al-Nujaifi said. "There are still a lot of challenges ahead, including unemployment and the immigration millions of Iraqis abroad."
He also pointed to the country's budget crisis after severe cuts had to be made following a steep drop in oil prices from a high of $150 per barrel to just over $50 per barrel on Thursday.
"We live in a critical economic situation," he said. "There is a lot to be accomplished before we can express our optimism."
Political and economic problems have grown even as U.S. combat troops are due to leave by September 2010, with all American soldiers gone by the end of the following year according to a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement.
The U.S. military is hoping to leave without allowing the country to disintegrate into chaos.
The decline in violence is largely attributed to a 2007 U.S. troop buildup, a Sunni revolt against Al Qaeda in Iraq and a militia cease-fire called by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
A key Sadrist aide on Thursday demanded a faster U.S. withdrawal.
"Iraq will never see stabilization unless all occupation forces are withdrawn. Any presence on any military base will exacerbate the problems," Sheik Salah al-Obeidi said.
"We haven't seen any change from the last anniversary until now," he added. "Other challenges are the ethical and financial corruption that Iraq will likely have to live with for years due to this occupation."
Al-Sadr, who led the feared Mahdi Army militia, ordered most of his followers to lay down their arms to form a new social welfare network, although he retained a small fighting force.
He renewed his call for members of the network known as Momahidoun — or "those who pave the way" — to denounce violence in a statement issued Wednesday by his office in the holy city of Najaf.
"We praise and highly appreciate the work of those who are leading or participating in the big and effective Momahidoun project," al-Sadr said. "We hope they will continue to denounce violence and to raise science and culture as a weapon."
Al-Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, is trying to position himself as a political force ahead of national elections expected later this year. He also faces a challenge from breakaway Shiite militia groups that continue to stage attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa also said the withdrawal of U.S. forces will be a key factor in achieving national reconciliation in Iraq.
"Iraq's stability can only be achieved through two key things ... to stop all sectarianism polarization and the withdrawal of the U.S. forces," Moussa said after meeting Iraq's senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf. "These two things are linked."
Moussa's mostly Sunni 22-nation organization has begun to engage with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government after shunning it for years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
His visit and push for reconciliation comes as many of his member nations are seeking to prevent Iran from gaining dominant influence in Iraq with the impending withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011.
Separately, the U.S. military released about 100 more detainees as part of a security agreement with Iraq that took effect Jan. 1.
The inmates were greeted with hugs and cheers by relatives in Baghdad after they were released from the Camp Bucca detention center in southern Iraq.
The U.S. military said earlier this month that the number of detainees held by the Americans in Iraq — many without charge — has dropped to 13,832 from a peak of 26,000 in 2007.