Whodunnit in Baghdad

Speculation has been flying around in the news media and on the internet about who was behind Wednesday’s gory bombings in Baghdad. Let me lay out the various theories behing put forward, and then I’ll come back and give my view. If my conclusion is correct, it also helps answer the question of whether a return to some US patrolling in Baghdad and Mosul would be helpful.

Al-Hayat, writing in Arabic, says that the bombing attacks on Wednesday in Baghdad targeted the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance and Education.

MP Ammar Tu’mah, deputy chair of the Security Committee in parliament, blamed the failure of the government to forestall these attacks on the lack of coordination among various security forces and the failure of various units to share intelligence, according to al-Hayat. He has a point. The Ministries of Defense and the Interior have different political colorations, and who the various domestic intelligence agencies really report to is not clear.

But the real question is who carried out these bombings and why.

I was watching Aljazeera in Arabic and they interviewed a Sunni Arab analyst from Baghdad who darkly hinted that the bombings might have been the work of a party unhappy with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki dropping them from his coalition. Al-Maliki’s Islamic Mission (Da’wa) Party is thought to be leaving the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition that has in the past grouped fundamentalist parties such as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Sadr Movement, the Islamic Virtue Party, and others. (Several of these parties now have left or have an ambiguous relationship to the UIA, which is attempting to regroup). So the Sunni analyst was implicitly blaming the Islamic Supreme Council or the Sadrists for the bombing. The involvement of ISCI guards in a recent bank robbery in the capital, and of the Sadr splinter group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq in anti-Coalition violence in Basra, may have lent such charges some plausibility.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, al-Hayat says that the Iraqi List (a nationalist grouping led by former appointed prime minister Ayad Allawi) accused Iran of having a hand in the bombings. Allawi is desperate, since his political party, which has 25 seats out of 275, is falling apart. Several prominent members had pulled out, and on Wednesday three more announced they were leaving. They complained that he made all the decisions for the party in a high-handed way, ignoring the counsel of MPs and other party leaders. And, they said, he had engaged in talks with Iran without the permission of the party or the Iraqi government. The Iranian newspaper Tabnak reported in Persian on Allawi’s contacts with Tehran, speculating that he was attempting to improve his chances of doing well in January’s parliamentary elections (Iran is influential with Iraqi Shiites). Allawi’s intemperate blaming of Iran could be seen as a hysterical attempt to shore up his nationalist credentials, or perhaps as a sign that his approach to the ayatollahs in Tehran was rudely rebuffed. (During Allawi’s term as appointed prime minister in 2004, his cabinet was vociferously anti-Iranian).

Likewise, the Sunni Arab nationalist newspaper al-Zaman blamed the Jerusalem brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in a shocking lapse of good journalistic practice, since it offers no evidence whatsoever for this serious allegation.

But I have a refutation. Cabinet ministries in Iraq have thus far been vehicles for party patronage. Thus, the Ministry of Finance is headed by long-time ISCI activist Bayan Jabr Sulagh, and its employees are disproportionately drawn from the Supreme Council. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is headed by Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd from the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and anyone who has dealt with Iraqi diplomats cannot escape the impression that Kurds have special employment opportunities in that ministry. The Ministry of Education is headed by Khudayr al-Khuzai, a former parliamentarian from the Islamic Mission Party (Da’wa) – Iraq Organization, a branch of the same Shiite fundamentalist party to which al-Maliki belongs.

So the guerrillas who hit out at these ministries are very likely to have wanted to punish not only the central government but also the parties that control those ministries.

That ISCI bombed its own ministry of finance is not plausible. Moreover, Iran is closely allied with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and with the Kurds. And we know exactly who hates ISCI, the Islamic Mission Party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party– all three. It is the Sunni Arab guerrilla groups, whether the Baath Party or the radical fundamentalists. So the conspiracy theory put forward by the Sunni Arab analyst just won’t hold water, and nor will the one trotted out by Allawi’s group and al-Zaman.

Al-Hayat says that the Iraqi government is blaming an “alliance of Baathists and al-Qaeda” for the bombings. But terrorist cells don’t work that way. Six coordinated bombings requires tight-knit and cohesive cells along with close command and control. So it was likely one or the other. Given the military discipline and precision of the operation, I suspect former Baath officers of involvement, regardless of their current ideology, whether secular or religious.

Looked at in this way, the attack on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was the most massive in firepower, deaths and woundings, was a continuation of the bombings last week of Shabak and Yazidi Kurdish villages outside the northern, largely Sunni Arab city of Mosul. Mosul is a center for Arab nationalism, Baathism, and Sunni fundamentalism.

The Ilaf newspaper agrees with me that these bombings are a sign that elements in the Sunni Arab community are not reconciled to the rise of Shiite and Kurdish rule over Iraq. The problem cannot be solved either by federalism or democracy, the newspaper argues. Iraqi Sunni Arabs would not benefit from any kind of partition, even soft partition, since they don’t have any developed hydrocarbon fields in their part of Iraq. And the Iraqi parliament is so far set up with a single chamber where there is a tyranny of the Shiite majority.

So as I have hinted, I have a slight preference for the theory that ex-Baathist or neo-Baathist or generally Sunni Arab nationalists were behind the attacks. A lot of ex-Baathist officers and leaders are hiding out in exile in Damascus.

As Al-Watan [The Nation] points our in Arabic, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki visited Syria earlier this week. While he was there, he is said to have given Syrian President Bashar al-Asad a list of Iraqis wanted by Baghdad who were thought to be hiding in Syria (many of these would be Baathist officials or officers of the old Saddam Hussein regime). In return, he offered Syria economic inducements, such as crude Iraqi petroleum at concessionary prices. It was announced that Iraqi security officials would meet in Damascus with Syrian and American counterparts today, to discuss improving border security.

It is possible that elements of the Iraqi Sunni Arab resistance in exile in Syria, who are running terrorist cells inside Iraq, is letting al-Maliki that they will not allow themselves to be extradited and go to the gallows like Saddam Hussein without a fight, and that they can make al-Maliki’s life miserable.

After all, al-Maliki has already more or less been running for prime minister in the upcoming January elections on the basis of his ability to get the American troops out of people’s hair and to supply security in their stead. It is easy for his Sunni Arab foes in Damascus and Mosul to undermine that claim with bombings like those on Wednesday. Al-Maliki has been adamantly against negotiating with the Baathists or, indeed, any guerrilla group with blood on its hands. A portion of the Sunni Arab community let him know Wednesday that they simply will not accept the new status quo. Al-Maliki has surprised a lot of people by being much more assertive and much more successful in restoring security in places like Basra and Amara in the Shiite south, than many expected. But unless he finds a way to reconcile with the Sunni Arabs, his political future is cloudy.

If, in turn, the main problem is that al-Maliki is pursuing a vendetta with elements of the Sunni Arab nationalist leadership, and they are lashing back out at him, then a return to having US troops patrol Baghdad would not in fact resolve the problem. They might be able to make big bombings harder. But these bombings have been going on since 2003, and many big sanguinary explosions were set off under the nose of US troops all through those 6 years. Especially if this is a political struggle, a short-term US military would not be the right solution. The solution is for the Obama administration to play hard ball with al-Maliki in getting him to pursue national reconciliation.

End/ (Not Continued)