As Iraqis went to the polls Wednesday for the first parliamentary election since the U.S. military withdrew from the country in 2011, something was missing from the streets of Baghdad — cars. In a sign of Iraq’s struggles to tackle rising violence and terrorist attacks, authorities banned all private vehicles from the streets of the capital and other Iraqi cities in an effort to prevent the type of catastrophic car bombings that have killed tens of thousands of Iraqis in recent years.
Though that ban appears to have been successful in preventing car bombs, the elections were still marred by violence. As the polls closed, Agence France-Press (AFP) had recorded at least 53 attacks throughout the country — including mortar attacks, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers — leaving at least 14 people dead and 36 wounded. It was just the latest sign of how violence is surging to levels not seen since the height of the country’s civil war.
The statistics show just how precipitously violence has risen in the years following the American withdrawal. During this year alone, AFP’s Baghdad bureau has recorded more than 3,000 violent deaths, putting the country on pace for more than 12,000 casualties by the end of 2014. By comparison, AFP recorded less than 7,000 violent deaths in all of 2013. In 2012, the Brookings Institute tallied roughly 5,200 casualties among civilians and security forces, and 4,800 such casualties in 2011.
While some of this year’s deaths among civilians and security force personnel have come in clashes with armed militants in areas like Anbar province, where the government has lost partial control to tribal groups and al Qaeda affiliated militias, the insurgents’ preferred weapon in areas they can’t hold is the car bomb. And it’s not hard to see why: They have been called "the poor man’s air force" — cheap to manufacture, extremely mobile, easily concealed, and capable of wreaking extraordinary devastation without requiring militants to lose their own lives in suicide bombings. And they have been used to devastating effect in the run-up to the Iraqi election, as insurgents launched at least five such attacks in the past week alone — primarily targeting Shiite neighborhoods and political rallies — leaving at least 69 people dead and many more wounded.
"You don’t need to be a rocket scientist [to manufacture a car bomb] — a junior high school graduate can probably do it," said Richard Higgins, a former project manager at the Irregular Warfare Support program within the Department of Defense, where he worked with the Special Operations community to mitigate the threat of improvised explosive devices during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. "And you see [al Qaeda] putting out websites that describes this stuff — you see them imparting this knowledge to recruits as a means to attract people, because it is so empowering. ‘I’m an engineer, I’m a bombmaker’ – that’s terrorist credibility."
The Iraqi government is not alone in struggling to contain this threat. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — a category of weapon that includes both roadside bombs and car bombs — were the number one killer of American troops in Iraq, causing nearly two-thirds of U.S. combat deaths through the height of the war. And while Higgins said that the U.S. military developed tactics to go after the networks responsible for manufacturing these weapons, it found itself largely helpless to detect car bombs once a vehicle was actually roaming the streets.
"In terms of a means to stop it…despite an investment of tens of billions of dollars into the IED problem, we haven’t really dealt with it," he said.
The Iraqi government has not fared any better. In fact, as of a few months ago Iraqi security forces were still using fake bomb detectors sold to the government by a con man recently sentenced to 10 years in prison by a British court for his role in the fraud. The design for these detectors was based on a novelty golf ball finder, and have precisely no ability to detect explosives.
One might think that such grievous security failures would harm Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in today’s election, but it’s not clear that’s the case. The rising tide of violence has allowed the premier to position himself as a defender of order and the rule of law: In January, when Iraqi forces lost control of much of Anbar province, pollsters for candidates hostile to Maliki actually recorded a spike in the prime minister’s approval rating.
That’s led Maliki, a savvy politician, to make the country’s rising violence into a central part of his campaign pitch. "Voters have no excuse before God and history if they do not make the right choice," he said recently. "Iraqis know who is supporting the rebuilding of the country and democracy, and who is supporting terrorism and seeking to destroy the country."
If polls are to be believed, the man who has run Iraq during the bloodiest period in its history is likely to once again win more seats in parliament than any of his rivals.