By Daniel DePetris
It was an ordinary early morning in Baghdad in February 2012. Mothers and fathers were stuck in the grueling traffic of the capital, on their way to work. Their children were all packed up and ready to go to school. Shops were opening up in Baghdad’s market, hoping to profit from the morning rush hour. Then, at a moment’s notice, Iraqis in Baghdad and several other Iraqi cities found themselves in the middle of a coordinated series of terrorist attacks. The streets were literally painted red with blood, human body parts spread all over the concrete. Some of the shops that opened were either completely destroyed or had their windows bashed by the booming effects of the bombs. Frantic Iraqis close to the bombings were quick to get on their phones and call their loved ones, assuring them that they were alive. When the attacks were all said and done, a total of 55 Iraqis were killed in a span of two-hours, with Baghdad the worst hit.
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al-Qaeda’s front group in Iraq, would boast a day later on its website that it was the group responsible for the bombing spree. And in typical al-Qaeda fashion, it was more than happy to explain why it killed those Iraqis and why it was perfectly legitimate to do so.
To the regret of the Iraqi people, the group was only getting started. Two weeks later, Sunni militants would repeat this boldness, this time exclusively against Iraqi police officers in the one-time al-Qaeda stronghold of Haditha, over 100 miles west of Baghdad. Stocked with black SUVs, fake arrest warrants, and official Iraqi police uniforms, the gunmen drove into Haditha and started a shooting spree that would eventually kill a total of 27 officers and two high-ranking police commanders. Using the arrest warrants as credentials, the black SUV convoy trucked to the home of Captain Khalid Dahan—the commander of Haditha’s SWAT team—where the militants dragged him out of his house and killed him shortly afterwards. The former commander of the city’s emergency police, Mohammad Hassan, would also become a victim inside his own home, exhibiting the insurgents’ knack for finding their targets and executing their plans without a hitch.
During its heyday, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was Iraq’s most formidable insurgent group, striking in the heart of Baghdad and contributing to a civil war that claimed the lives of thousands of Iraqis every month. At one point, the affiliate controlled Iraq’s largest province, al-Anbar, declaring it an Islamic caliphate. President George W. Bush clearly grasped the extent of how dangerous al-Qaeda in Iraq was, calling it America’s number-one enemy during the war’s darkest years.
Fast-forward six years, and AQI is a degraded group of jihadist “misfits” whose puritanical version of Islam is rejected by the vast majority of the Iraqi population. But as the recent attacks show, the organization is still capable of mobilizing resources, staking out targets, and killing Iraqis before Iraq’s struggling police force can thwart the attacks.
The Scope of the Attack
Al-Qaeda is no stranger to complicated, mass-casualty attacks. But in Iraq, these attacks are particularly disturbing, for they give Iraqis yet another justification to separate themselves from a group of politicians that the general public views as corrupt and unable to get the country on the right path.
The attack on February 23 occurred in 12 separate cities and on a number of different targets. According to CBS News, 14 of those attacks were against Iraqi security personnel. This violence demonstrates to Iraqis that their soldiers and police officers are unable to prevent attacks before they materialize.
Such attacks also instill an enormous amount of fear among the ranks of the security forces, the first line of defense for the people against terrorist and insurgent groups. If an Iraqi police officer can suddenly get shot up at a traffic checkpoint during daylight, or get slaughtered in his own living room without any prior warning, other young men desperate for work may have second thoughts about joining the police academy. For an Iraq just starting to operate independently, without a U.S. military buffer and without U.S. intelligence capabilities, such a development could be quite destabilizing to the country’s security. It would also be a rebuke to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has staked his legitimacy on his ability to pursue all terrorists without relenting.
Widening the Gap
The Iraqi people are already tired of their politicians fighting with one another instead of doing the nation’s business. These days, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is more concerned with solidifying his grip on the Iraqi government than reaching out to other coalitions. Maliki’s opponents, meanwhile, continue to spend much of their time highlighting the Prime Minister’s abuses. The Iraqi Parliament passed a $100-billion national budget last month, but this was a rare moment of consensus.
Al-Qaeda’s attacks reinforce the divide between the Iraqi people and their government. While their politicians fight with each other in their comfortable, air-conditioned offices, tucked away behind 20-foot cement walls in the International Zone and protected by million-dollar armored cars, ordinary Iraqis continue to deal with horrific violence on a daily basis as a result of the government’s incompetence.
Whether this is actually an accurate portrayal of what is happening on the ground does not really matter. More important is the perception among the Iraqi public that the government is unable or unwilling to provide for their needs. Iraqis have been protesting in Baghdad over encroachments on political freedoms, unemployment, police abuse, and electricity outages. Only 32 percent of Iraqis interviewed by Gallup are satisfied by their current living conditions. And in a figure that reveals that sectarianism is still very much at play in Iraqi politics, only 13 percent of Sunni Muslims interviewed in the same poll hold confidence in the current national unity government.
These numbers are disturbing in their own right, but when coupled with mass-casualty terrorist attacks on civilian and police targets once every few weeks, the frustration, anger, and disappointment of Iraqis can potentially grow out of control if not addressed substantially by Maliki and his administration. “Political differences, bombings, and acts of violence are nothing new to Iraqis,” says one Iraqi storeowner. “We grew accustomed to them years ago.” AQI is hoping that its bombings, shootings, and IED attacks will gradually diminish the confidence and popularity of Iraq’s governing institutions. The terrorist group may not pick up recruits as a result of its bombings, but these attacks nonetheless contribute to the peoples’ disenchantment with their leaders.
Get the Shia to Overreact
AQI has long predicated its strategy on encouraging Iraq’s Shia to overreact. They got their wish in 2006, when Shia militias operating under a variety of names retaliated by targeting Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad and displacing tens of thousands of people from the capital.
Al-Qaeda’s strategy, however, has been a terrible failure in this regard. Iraq’s sectarian landscape may still have significant problems, but those problems have taken on a new form, far from the tit-for-tat street violence between armed Sunni and Shia factions around Baghdad. Today, a decent chunk of those militias have either disarmed or have deliberately integrated themselves into the Iraqi security forces. Former members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi, and a significant proportion of the Badr Brigade, have become Iraqi police officers. Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a breakaway faction of Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, recently decided to follow suit by elevating politics above violence in its list of preferences. The Shia, in other words, have placed most of their chips in the parliament instead of on the street, knowing full well that their demographic majority provides them with most of the power relative to the Sunnis and Kurds.
This does not mean that the Shia will keep their cool. Prime Minister Maliki and his allies in the Shia umbrella National Iraqi Alliance have ruffled the feathers of the Sunni community since the Iraqi governing coalition was formed in 2010. Maliki has repeatedly disavowed his previous promises to give Sunnis their ministry portfolios, and the looming cloud of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi’s supposed involvement in sectarian crimes is a near guarantee that Sunni suspicion will not dissipate any time soon.
The rationale behind AQI’s bombings in predominately Shia neighborhoods remains the same: compel the Shia to overplay their hand. Yet now, Sunni extremists may be baiting the Shia-dominated Iraqi government and security forces to respond in counterproductive ways.
Play the Iran Card
Anyone who has monitored Iraq since the U.S. invasion and occupation has almost come to expect massive Shia casualties in the face of an aggressive AQI. Al-Qaeda’s publications broadcast their disdain for Shia Muslims by using such words as “heretics,” “dogs,” and “apostates” to describe those following the Shia branch of Islam. But lately, AQI has brought Iran into its public statements, at times citing Tehran’s influence in Iraq as another justification for its operations.
After a string of suicide attacks and bombings on December 22, 2011, AQI mentioned the Iranians in its press release claiming responsibility. In one such statement, AQI branded itself as the defender of Iraq’s Sunnis against a Persian project that seeks to divide and conquer Iraq for its own dominion: “The mujahideen will never stand with their hands tied while the pernicious Iranian project showed its ugly face and what it wants with Sunnis in Iraq became obvious and exposed.” The statement is riddled with sectarianism and repugnance for all Shia, referring to Prime Minister Maliki as the head of a “Safavid government,” which in history is often credited with introducing Shi’ism as the dominant religion in Persia. In other words, Maliki is nothing but an extension of the Safavids centuries earlier, with Iranians supporting his quest to oppress the ambitions of Iraqi Sunnis.
AQI’s anti-Iranian rhetoric is not exactly surprising. Yet its media releases have referenced Iran more than usual, begging the question of whether the group’s support among Iraq’s Sunnis is at a low point. Why else would they refer to the “Persian project” to provide legitimacy to their attacks? The answer may be because Shia-bashing has not worked. Its indiscriminate bombings in Shia neighborhoods have turned off millions of Iraqis—including Sunnis, who have come to view AQI’s Shia-bashing as an attempt to fragment the Iraqi state. Bashing Iran, a country many Iraqis are already suspicious of, just might do the trick instead.
Give Arab Leaders Second Thoughts
For the first time since 1990, Baghdad will play host to a regional meeting of Arab ministers. The occasion is huge one for the Iraqi government, which has been trying to re-assert itself as a central actor in the Middle East whose opinions on regional developments should be taken seriously. That campaign has been lackluster for Prime Minister Maliki thus far, with the monarchies of the Sunni Gulf still distrustful of the direction Iraq is going. Relations between Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and Maliki, although warmer than they were before the appointment of a Saudi ambassador to Baghdad, remain rocky at best. One of the many diplomatic cables released by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks depicts a disgruntled Saudi king laying out his grievances to U.S. officials about the Iraqi prime minister. The Iraqi government’s support for Shia protesters in Bahrain—and its opposition to last year’s GCC intervention—did not help the situation.
This makes the Baghdad summit all the more important, if not for the simple reason of assembling the entire Arab community on Iraqi soil for the first time in decades. The summit would also be an event that AQI would like to disrupt entirely, or at the very least delay. Regional cooperation of any kind, especially around counterterrorism, would put even more pressure on the group, whose loss of commanders and foot-soldiers to joint U.S. and Iraqi raids over the years has hindered its operational reach.
Gone are the days when Baghdad, once the cradle of civilization, was the epicenter of terrorism, sectarian attacks, violent crime, and ethnic cleansing. The country still has its problems, from political inclusion and high unemployment to mass poverty and Arab-Kurdish tensions. But what was once a powerful and dominant al-Qaeda in Iraq, controlling territory and governing the lives of Sunnis in Anbar Province, is now a shadow of its former self—struggling to survive and prove itself relevant.
Yet however unpopular the group has become, AQI has indeed demonstrated its capacity to adapt to an evolving strategic environment. With U.S. and coalition troops out of Iraq for good, AQI has turned its sights on the Shia-dominated central government of Prime Minister Maliki, administering attacks that are occasional yet deadly and destabilizing. The recent uptick in AQI attacks is not only a testament to its lethality, but a graphic example of its ability to capture global headlines and instill fear in the hearts of Iraqis just trying to get through the day. Promoting discord is certainly not an ideology Iraqis are willing to support. But over time, it could give Iraqis reason to doubt the strength and competency of their own government.
Foreign Policy in Focus contributor Daniel R. DePetris is the senior associate editor of the Journal of Terrorism and Security Analysis.