Bombings In Baghdad And Basra

Bombings in Baghdad and Basra

The Washington Post reports Thursday, in the wake of the huge car bomb in Karrada, Baghdad, on Wednesday that demolished the Mount Lebanon Hotel and surrounding buildings::

“Near Baqubah, a machine-gun toting man opened fire on a small bus carrying employees of a U.S. funded radio and TV station, killing three and injuring at least ten. A hotel in the southern city of Basra, which is under British control, was hit by a car bomb that claimed five lives, according to early reports from wire services. And in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, guerrillas with rocket-propelled grenades exchanged fire with U.S. troops at the municipal council building. At least two Iraqis were killed, wire services reported.

What is going on here? The incidents in Baqubah and Fallujah are probably local Iraqi guerrillas, and targeted Americans an their employees. The bombings in Baghdad and Basra, however, are different. The Basra hotel that was hit on Thursday had been used by the British authorities in that city for briefings and meetings. The Mount Lebanon Hotel was not associated with the CPA or its Western contractors, but rather was mainly a place where Egyptian and other contractors stayed. (There is a chance that the hotel was not actually the target of the bombing, since the vehicle was in the middle of the street; but any 1000-pound bomb set off anywhere in Baghdad would instill a sense of profound insecurity).

The recent bombings seem to me driven by a strategy of harming the investment climate in Iraq. This strategy becomes important to the insurgency precisely because the Coalition Provisional Authority is gearing up to spend $5 billion of the $18 billion in reconstruction money that Congress authorized last fall. Many CPA officials are convinced that this huge influx of cash will turn the situation around in Iraq, providing employment and stimulating the economy, and draining support from the guerrillas. But the CPA can’t disburse the money into the economy if contractors and subcontractors are afraid to operate in Iraq. The al-Jihad al-Islami of Ayman al-Zawahiri had pursued a similar campaign in Egypt in the 1990s, aimed at destroying the tourist industry, which is a big source of foreign exchange for the Mubarak government. The similarity in methods does not prove that the hotel bombings are being done by foreign jihadi fighters, since it is an obvious strategy for anyone who wanted to disrupt Iraq. Whoever is behind it is using terror to wage economic warfare against the CPA and its Iraqi allies.

The strategy did not work in Egypt, though it occasionally hurt the tourist trade pretty badly. The 1997 al-Jihad al-Islami attack on tourists in Luxor horrified the Egyptian public and turned them against the jihadis. The Egyptian government jailed some 20,000 to 30,000 Islamists and killed 1500 or so in street battles in the 1990s. In the end, even the leadership of the radical al-Gamaa al-Islamiyah, which was in jail, decided to give up violence. It was rebuked for this decision by the blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, and by Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The difference between Iraq and Egypt in this regard, however, makes me reluctant to predict that the Iraqi government can repeat Hosni Mubarak’s relative success. Mubarak had a powerful military and secret police, whereas Iraq’s army was dissolved. Iraq is occupied by a Western power, whereas Egypt’s regime could plausibly claim to be a champion of Arab nationalism. There are many more arms depots in Iraq than there were in Egypt, and the Sunni Arab ex-Baath elite is a powerful and numerous force for instability, whereas in Egypt the dissidents were mainly students, lower middle class neighborhoods, and persons from provincial cities like Asyut– i.e. they were socially marginal people, not key elements of the Egyptian elite. The ex-Baathists and Sunni fundamentalists probably cannot stage a Sunni Arab return to power, but they could act as spoilers for a good long time.