- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Joel Wing
Best Defense guest Iraq analyst
Iraq recently passed a milestone when the United Nations reported over 1,000 people killed in May 2013. That was the highest number of casualties since 2008. People are beginning to fear going out, and businesses are shifting to safer areas and closing earlier. There are also ongoing protests in Sunni provinces such as Anbar, Salahaddin, and Ninewa against the government, which are increasing sectarian tensions in the country. Together this has raised fears that the country is heading back towards civil war. While the situation is obviously getting worse, a more apt analogy would be Iraq in 2003 when the United States was facing a growing insurgency, and had no strategy to confront it.
The April 2013 raid upon the protest site in Hawija incited the current wave of violence in Iraq. The demonstrators there were openly connected to the Baathist Naqshibandi insurgent group. When the government decided to go into the camp looking for the murderers of a soldier killed at a checkpoint just outside the site, the security forces used excessive force leading to dozens of deaths. This was just the event militants were looking for. They claimed Baghdad could not be trusted, and that the authorities were going to crack down on the activists using the military. The insurgents therefore said the only legitimate response was to defend themselves through armed action. Following Hawija there were attacks throughout the north, west, and central parts of Iraq by both militants and tribal groups. This was on top of an ongoing offensive by al Qaeda in Iraq. Together that accounts for the skyrocketing casualty figures, which jumped from 319 in January according to the United Nations to 1,045 in May. Attacks have continued at that pace to the present, marking a new turn in the country’s security situation.
In response, Baghdad has launched a series of raids and large-scale military operations across several provinces, which have proven ineffective. In May for instance, there was "The Ghost," which focused on the desert regions of Anbar province. Currently, Iraqi forces are deployed along the Syrian border in Anbar and Ninewa as those two provinces hold provincial elections. These operations have garnered increasing criticisms from local politicians and the citizenry who claim that there have been arbitrary arrests, roads have been shut down hindering travel, and property has been destroyed during searches of houses. This points to the counterproductive tactics the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are currently employing. Since the United States military departed the country, the ISF has stopped using counterinsurgency tactics. Instead, the military and police man checkpoints with bomb detectors that don’t work, and conduct mass raids in which not only fighting-aged men are arrested, but their families as well. The majority of these detainees are then beaten and tortured before they are released. Human Rights Watch, for example, detailed the Federal Police arresting 41 people, including 29 children, in Taji, Salahaddin in November 2012. 12 women and girls were held for four days in the police headquarters where they were beaten, electrocuted, and suffocated with plastic bags over their heads before they were released. There is no way that these tactics can stop the insurgency. Rather than protecting the public and being proactive, the ISF is doing the opposite, and turning the people against the government in the process.
That places Iraq today much where it was in 2003-2005, immediately following the U.S. invasion — rather than 2005-2008, when the civil war was going on. In the former, American forces were acting much the same way as the ISF. The Americans relied on sweeps and mass arrests with abusive stories emerging. Washington’s political strategy of returning sovereignty and holding elections also backfired as it turned over the government to Shiite and Kurdish parties, while making Sunnis feel like they had no place in the new order. The result was growing resentment against the occupation by those who felt left out, and that bolstered the number of militants. The exact same thing is happening now. The Iraqi forces’ tactics are turning the people away from the government, and increasing support for the insurgency. This is all made worse by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s autocratic tendencies, which have alienated many parties in the government. The country not only needs a better military strategy, but a political one as well that can end the ongoing protests and assure Sunni politicians that they have a role in running the country. Instead, things are going in the opposite direction. That doesn’t mean things are heading towards another sectarian war, but violence is increasing and militants are finding a new life after they were almost extinguished. Iraq is a country that has suffered much more than most, with a series of wars, invasions, and sanctions that have ripped the society apart in the last three decades. Unfortunately, it is heading for more hardships.
Joel Wing is an Iraq analyst at the Musings On Iraq blog.