08.16.11

The Forgotten War

While Afghanistan draws America’s attention away, a wave of deadly bombs terrorized Iraq, renewing fears that al Qaeda could gain a haven out of its political mess.

It was a throwback to the bad old days. Car bomb after car bomb, more than 10 in all, blasting Iraqi civilians in the middle of a blazing summer. Suicide bombers and gunmen targeting security forces. The figures were grim: At least 85 people were killed and more than 300 wounded in 17 cities stretching from the north to the south of Iraq.

Monday was the kind of day that many Iraqis had seen before and hoped they would never see again. Even though no group claimed responsibility for the bloodshed, the use of suicide bombers and the targeting of civilians pointed to al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI in U.S. military shorthand, as the most likely culprit. “AQI remains a determined and capable threat against the Iraqi people,” Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, wrote in an email. “This has been our shared assessment with the Iraqi government for some time.”

With decreasing levels of violence in Iraq over much of the past year, media coverage has focused mostly on the war in Afghanistan. In many ways, Iraq has become the forgotten war. There are still roughly 45,000 U.S. troops in the country, but they will be out by the end of the year unless the U.S. and Iraqi government reach a new agreement. That brings up one key question: Can the Iraqi security forces secure the country on their own?

Monday’s attacks appear to be a clear answer to that question. Despite the billions of dollars the U.S. has spent on training the Iraqi security forces over the past eight years, they are still not ready to take over security duties. But the blame shouldn't fall on the security forces alone. Iraqi politicians haven't helped much, either. Since the beginning of the year, the Iraqi government hasn't appointed a minister of interior, defense, or national security as various political blocs have bitterly fought over the posts. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been responsible for all three ministries. Maliki held a security meeting the day before the attacks and told attendants that security is improving in the country and there's no need to fill the ministry postings, according to Mahmoud Othman, an Iraqi parliamentarian. “The capability of the Iraqi security forces is under question,” says Othman. “But the responsibility for security lies with the government. With the conflict between all the political parties, those terrorists find the ground to commit their crimes.”

The worst attacks on Monday were in the city of Kut, where two bombs went off in a crowded outdoor market, killing 35 and wounding roughly 70 others. In nearby Karbala, a car bomb detonated near a police station, killing three and wounding 20 others. “The terrorists have no religion. There is a political reason for these attacks,” says Akram Salman, a shop owner in Karbala. “They want to show us the government is not able to do anything.” In the northern city of Kirkuk, which is a melting pot of Iraq's various sects, three separate bomb attacks were carried out over a 24-hour period. A church was targeted in one attack and a police station was hit in another, killing three police officers. “These attacks worried many people and brought back memories of the violence and instability of past years,” says Abdul Hamid Obeidi, a journalist working in Kirkuk. “There is no doubt that the withdrawal of the U.S. troops will cause a lot of fear for people.”

In the worst-case scenario, Iraq could become a regional battleground like Lebanon in the 1980s.

The deterioration in security comes at a particularly fraught time in the region. The regime in neighboring Syria is facing its most serious challenge in decades, with widespread antigovernment protests that have rocked the country for five months. Some of the biggest protests in Syria have taken place in the eastern portion of the country, a region that has deep ties with the tribes of western Iraq. If the regime of President Bashar al-Assad continues to attack protesters, it could draw the Iraqi tribesmen into the conflict. A resurgent Qaeda presence in Iraq could also spur Iran to ramp up its support for Shiite militias in the country. That would probably lead Saudi Arabia to step in on behalf of the Sunni community in Iraq. In the worst-case scenario, Iraq could become a regional battleground like Lebanon in the 1980s. And, by the end of the year, there will be no U.S. troops to keep the various armed factions apart.

With reporting by Hussam Ali and Salih Mehdi in Baghdad.