By Daniel DePetris
In the most violent day in Iraq since the United States pulled out its remaining troops last December, a series of well-thought-out and coordinated terrorist strikes across the country killed approximately 80 Iraqis last Wednesday. As is usually the case in Iraq, members of the Shia community constituted most of the casualties, with some of the most powerfully built bombs detonated in neighborhoods jammed packed with Shia worshipers making their way to northern Baghdad on a religious commemoration ceremony. The BBC puts the death toll at 84, with police and security forces included in the number. The British-based Independent placed the number in the seventies. Yet whatever the casualty count actually happens to be, the attacks this week demonstrated just how insecure life in Iraq still is, even if overall violence in the country is at an all-time low since 2003.The assault is disturbingly familiar to the types of attacks that Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, has executed over the past decade. Explosives-packed cars, suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices along busy roadways, and mortar attacks on Shia neighborhoods have been, when taken together, Al-Qaeda’s preferred set of tactics. And indeed, Wednesday’s attack made use of many of these same devices—a car bomb explosion near a busy restaurant packed with Shia pilgrims one hour, and a targeted killing of an Iraqi government employee in the next.
The total of 130 Iraqi civilians killed last month will surely be surpassed in June, with more than a week to go before the month is finally over. As if to underscore how deadly the past week has been for Iraq’s Shia community, Sunni militants followed up their Wednesday attack with a pair of car bomb explosions last Saturday, on the final day of the religious commemoration, killing 26. An additional 22 Iraqis died two days later, when an unidentified suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt in a roomful of packed mourners for a high-level Shia tribal figure in the city of Baquba.
As usual, those responsible for the bombings this week were hardly original in either choosing their targets orjustifying the violence. The Iraqi government’s opponents, particularly those Sunni Islamist groups who have yet to lay down their weapons, have long marked Shia religious holidays as an opportunity to kill as many of that sect’s members as possible. In the first week of the year, militants from Al-Qaeda in Iraq quietly unleashed a suicide attacker disguised as a pilgrim into a crowd of Shia worshipers commemorating the Arbaeenholiday, a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. Over 50 pilgrims were killed in that breach of security, leading some Iraqis to fear that Al-Qaeda was regaining steam after years of being battered by U.S. and Iraqi troops.
Practically speaking, it would take a tremendous amount of sustainable violence to return to the dark days of 2006 and 2007. The impulse of revenge that Shia militias acted on after an Al-Qaeda attack is not as large as it once was, partly because the Shia are now in nominal control of the central government.
As long as Shia leaders feel that they have the upper hand, this dream is unlikely to come true. However, the secondary affect of these bombings—contributing to a general sense of insecurity among the Iraqi people and less confidence in their government—may be just as important for militants like AQI in the long run. Every major act of violence feeds into a disturbing narrative that has become all too often normal in everyday Iraqi discourse; the Iraqi security forces are incapable of stopping or minimizing the costs and damage of terrorism.
It is unlikely that this year’s version of AQI will set off another round of sectarian clashes in the capital. Nevertheless, if massive terrorist attacks continue to be a recurring problem, a large wedge may well be driven between the Iraqi people and their leaders. Coupled with the Iraqi government’s inability to pass key legislation (the only major law that has gotten through the parliament this year has been the national budget) and the internal deadlock within Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s governing coalition over power-sharing, the already poor legitimacy of the current political system could decline even further. Ultimately, itis mass resentment and a lack of faithin the political process that will prove to be more threatening to Iraq than the rekindling of a sectarian civil war.
The more frequently that terrorists are able to execute bold operations successfully, the more likely that the Iraqi people will continue to lose confidence in their politicians. Terrorism will not be eradicated from Iraq completely, but it can be diminished or contained at an acceptable level. Although it would surely be portrayed as a blow to Iraq’s newfound sense of national sovereignty and independence, it may be time for the prime minister to elicit additional assistance from the United States—a level of cooperation that has gone down since Washington withdrew its military last yearand redeployed some of its intelligence capability.
Yet even help from the United States on the counterterrorism front will not bridge the gap betweenthe people and their representatives in the long term. Only Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems, starting with an easing of the numerous political crises that are engulfing Baghdad, can begin to achieve that objective. There is no greater defeat for a young democratic system than if citizens turn away from the very same people they elected in the first place. Allowing thestatus quo to persist will virtually guarantee such a result for Iraq.
Daniel R. DePetris is the senior associate editor of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus.