Baghdad suffered its deadliest day in months during a series of attacks Wednesday. The carnage not only shocked the capital, but also raised questions about whether Iraqi security forces are capable of reclaiming Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which has been occupied for almost two years by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
One obvious question is how Iraqi security forces can retake and secure Mosul if they cannot protect Baghdad from three suicide bombings in a matter of hours. But the picture is more complicated, and indeed, more problematic even than that.
The bombings targeted Shia neighborhoods in what appears to be part of the continuing ISIS effort to provoke a frenzy of ethnic cleansing similar to that of a decade ago. As one U.S. official immersed in the anti-ISIS war puts it, “Sunnis see ISIS as their protection—their wall against Shia revenge.”
The estimates of those killed Wednesday are as high as 150, with hundreds more injured. Among those reportedly killed were several women at a hair salon struck by a truck bomb as they prepared for their wedding day.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State claimed responsibility for at least one of the attacks, the deadliest of the three.
U.S. and Iraqi officials were quick to say the attacks were an act of desperation by ISIS as it has suffered major territorial losses in Iraq. Indeed, in recent months, ISIS has lost control of the cities of Ramadi, Tikrit, and Hit.
“As we have seen as the enemy loses more and more terrain, they resort to these more desperate attacks,” Maj Gen. Gary Volesky, commander, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command-Operation Inherent Resolve, told Pentagon reporters Wednesday.
Iraq’s government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said during a television appearance Wednesday that ISIS’s territorial hold had shrunk to 14 percent of the country, from a high of 40 percent.
But the attacks suggest ISIS has crafted an alternative strategy to keep the Iraqi territory they still have, observers said and military officials privately conceded. Rather than try to expand its land grab, it appears the terror group wants to hold on to its key territory, including Mosul, in part by keeping Iraqi security forces thin.
“ISIS knows they can no longer have a strategy to territorial expansion. If ISIS can get off a spectacular attack, that is going to force Iraqi security forces to be in a defensive posture not an offensive one,” said Christopher Harmer, a naval analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “If ISIS can expose the ISF [Iraqi Security Force] as incompetent and incapable of defending Baghdad, there is no way they will be able to lead an offensive against Mosul.”
The U.S. had made the battle for Mosul a key part of its effort there, training forces specifically to reclaim the city from ISIS. Not all of those troops have been trained yet, U.S. officials said. Meanwhile, the terror group has booby-trapped the city and set up a number of defenses in anticipation of the attack.
The U.S. has repeatedly pushed back the date for a potential Mosul offensive as they train Iraqi forces that don’t have the proper logistics, staffing or strategy for reclaiming Mosul.
But the problems run deeper than that, and sectarian issues are central to them. Mosul is a predominantly Sunni city, and both the Iraqi government and its U.S. advisors are leery of using Shia militias—many of them supported, trained and advised by Iran—as part of the military mélange arrayed against ISIS there.
Instead, there is an attempt to coordinate Iraqi government troops, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters from the Kurdish Regional Government, and forces loyal to local Sunni sheikhs who have decided, for the moment, to turn against ISIS. As The Daily Beast reported in detail in April, that mix has proved less than reliable.
It was against this backdrop of compromised and overextended Iraqi government forces, which Maj. Gen. Volesky conceded are stretched thin now, that the attacks happened on Wednesday.
The first and biggest of the attacks was in Baghdad’s impoverished community of Sadr City when a truck bomb detonated near a hair salon, where several brides reportedly were getting ready for their weddings. In all, at least 80 people were killed there.
A second suicide bombing then detonated in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kadimiyeh, killing another 35, including five policemen. That attack was followed by a third bombing nearby, killing at least eight more.
Volesky said the attack Wednesday has not changed the deployment or level of alert among U.S. security forces around the Green Zone, where most of the embassy employees and commanders are based.
But not all officials are so optimistic. One suggested privately that “an embassy evac plan may be getting dusted off and a crisis action team stood up.”
An Iraqi official, speaking on background, said he did not expect the militias loyal to the Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr, who fought against American troops in 2004 and were at the center of ethnic cleansing terror a decade ago, would repeat the kinds of atrocities carried out back then. “The focus of the Sadrists now is political,” he told The Daily Beast. Indeed, partisans of Sadr recently occupied the Iraqi parliament as part of a power play.
Not the least of the concerns among U.S. officials working on the ISIS war is that if the so-called Islamic State is defeated (a very big if), then Iran will turn its proxies against the Americans once again. Indeed, much depends on the complex political calculations made by Qassem Suleimani. He is Iran’s virtual proconsul in Iraq and its leader of external operations, both covert and overt.
“Suleimani is currently still prohibited by the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khaemeni in Tehran] from attacking Americans in Iraq, although everyone thinks he’s trigger happy to do so,” the same U.S. official immersed in the ISIS war told us.
For the moment, Iran and the United States are on the same side in this fight. But driving them apart, and encouraging them to turn on each other, is clearly something ISIS would like to do. The massive bombings on Wednesday most likely are one small part of that larger strategy.