Best Defense

The real problem in Iraq is the stalemate behind the current surge in violence there

By Joel Wing Best Defense officer of Iraqi statistical analysis Iraq recently saw a huge increase in the number of attacks and casualties in April 2013. Iraq Body Count recorded 561 deaths for the month, the highest since August 2009, while the United Nations reported 712 killed, the most since June 2008. That caused Prime ...


By Joel Wing

Best Defense officer of Iraqi statistical analysis

Iraq recently saw a huge increase in the number of attacks and casualties in April 2013. Iraq Body Count recorded 561 deaths for the month, the highest since August 2009, while the United Nations reported 712 killed, the most since June 2008. That caused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to go on national TV to call for calm, and warn against the rise of sectarianism and violence. (3) The cause of the deterioration in security is the combination of an ongoing offensive by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and retaliatory attacks by other insurgent groups for the government raiding a protest site in the town of Hawija in Kirkuk province. The former will eventually end, while the latter could lead to increased support for militants. Either way, it appears that talk of a renewed civil war is premature. Yes, militants are becoming more active in the country, but they are for the most part isolated in certain areas; Shiites are relying upon the government to respond to them rather than militias, and the majority of the population is going about their business.

Al Qaeda in Iraq launched its latest offensive in December 2012. That was marked by increased casualty rates, high profile, mass casualty attacks, and bombings in southern parts of the country. On April 29, for instance, two car bombs went off in central Karbala, two more detonated in Amarah in Maysan governorate, followed by another vehicle-based device exploding in Diwaniya the next day. Operations in southern Iraq are a hallmark of AQI’s offensives, and take advanced planning, intelligence gathering, and the stocking of supplies, because they take place outside of where the group usually works. Recently, al Qaeda has been able to launch larger offensives and sustain them for longer, because they have witnessed an increase in fighters, and a lack of resistance by the Iraqi security forces. After the U.S. withdrew in 2011, it emptied its prisons leading to many detainees going right back to fighting. The Iraqi army and police also no longer carry out counterinsurgency operations after the exit of the Americans, and are more of a reactive force now carrying out raids and mass arrests, which cannot prevent attacks, and cause resentment against those areas that are targeted. This campaign will eventually end, likely in a month or two, as AQI runs out of supplies and has to restock. That will cause a decrease in deaths, until it ramps up again in the summer as it has during the last few years. The media usually misses this ebb and flow in insurgent operations, focusing instead upon the monthly casualty totals, rather than analyzing the larger trends.

Another source of increased instability is the reaction to the government’s raid upon a protest site in the town of Hawija. On April 23, Iraqi security forces moved into the camp looking for assailants who had attacked a nearby checkpoint, which killed one soldier and left three wounded. The demonstrators had been given an ultimatum to turn over the attackers, but did not respond. The organizers were also connected to the Baathist Naqshibandi Army insurgent group, providing another impetus for the government to act. Following the raid, protesters and militants carried out a series of retaliatory strikes across Anbar, Salahaddin, Diyala, Ninewa, and Tamim provinces, while several activists said they were giving up peaceful protests and taking up armed opposition to Baghdad. This is far more dangerous than the al Qaeda in Iraq offensive because it could mark a sea change in public opinion amongst some Sunnis. Some protest leaders like Sheikh Abu Risha of the Awakening Movement in Ramadi have called for moderation since the Hawija incident, but the vast majority is pushing for arming themselves, at least in self-defense, if not outright opposition to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This could turn many young Sunni men towards militancy, and give groups like the Naqshibandi and the Islamic Army of Iraq a new source of support and recruitment. These organizations have a much broader appeal to Iraqis than al Qaeda, because they have presented themselves as nationalist groups out to protect Sunnis from the Shiite government, rather than being part of a global jihad against the West. If the insurgents are able to make headway with the demonstrators, that could increase violence over the long-term.

Still, the combination of al Qaeda in Iraq’s offensives and growing support for the wider insurgency does not mean that Iraq is heading towards a new civil war. First, most operations by militants are in specific cities, and even then only affect a small percentage of the population. (10) Even cities like Baghdad, that have the largest number of deaths, might only have 100-150 per month out of population of over 7 million. Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar can see a steady stream of dead and wounded each month, while Haditha and Rutba hardly have any throughout the entire year. This localized nature of violence means that the vast majority of Iraqis are not affected unless they live in certain areas or neighborhoods. Second, the Iraqi civil war from 2005-2008 was marked by Sunni insurgents being met by Shiite militias. So far, the Shiite community is relying upon the government to take care of security rather than taking matters into their own hands. This is despite constant efforts by al Qaeda in Iraq to incite them by bombing every religious holiday and event. All together that means that Iraq is in for a rough immediate future with casualty figures likely going up, but it is nothing like the peak of violence when Sunnis and Shiites were at each others’ throats and large swaths of the country were being cleansed. The real problem in Iraq is not the activities of the insurgency, but rather the political deadlock in Baghdad. That’s likely to take a generation to resolve, and should get a lot more attention than the daily images of bombings and shootings in the country.

Joel Wing is an Iraq analyst at the Musings On Iraq blog.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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