On Wednesday, the Sunni Arab guerrilla insurgency of Iraq demonstrated it is alive and able to plan and carry out a nation-wide set of terrorist operations. The covert organization set off bombs in 13 cities, killing some 64 and wounding an estimated 274, and targeting mainly police stations and checkpoints. Indeed, the bloody events could be termed a one-day war on the Iraqi police.
In Baghdad, 7 police were killed and 26 wounded in the al-Qahirah district. In Kut, a car bomb struck the central police station, killing 15 and wounding 90. Among those killed was Gen. Walid Sami, the director of the police station, according to al-Hayat. Attacks in Karbala, Muqdadiya, Ramadi, Basra and other cities took smaller tolls but underlined that it is dangerous to be a policeman supporting the new, American-installed order in Iraq. In Mosul an army base was attacked, and in Baghdad a bomb was set off at the entrance to the Kadhemiya district that houses the Shiite shrine of the Seventh Imam, among the holiest sites for Shiites.
The ability of the Sunni Arab insurgents to strike in Kut and Basra is remarkable, given that both are in the Shiite zone. That they have recovered somewhat from their defeat in al-Anbar is made clear by the attacks in Ramadi and Fallujah.
But remember that although these bombings took a lot of lives and maimed a lot of people, they could have been carried out by a relatively small group of people, perhaps as few as 100. In addition, it is not clear what practical gain they could have realized from these attacks. Is anyone really not going to join the police because of a few bombings? Are the police really going to respond by giving the insurgents greater leeway to operate? Would the public really be intimidated? Can the bombings change the government or provoke a coup or revolution? No, no, no and no. Rather, the guerrillas are just making themselves even more hated and are provoking the army and police to improve their counter-terrorism capabilities.
The violence and lack of security, to be sure, is making Iraqis depressed, as Arwa Damon of CNN bravely describes it. But, again, it is hard to see a political gain for the guerrillas in creating such a dark mood in the public.
As for those who argue that the bombing campaign is a reason to halt or reverse the American military withdrawal, I don’t understand their argument. What practical thing could US troops do to stop random bombings in Kut and Muqdadiya? When they were in charge of Iraq, they were unable to stop bombing waves, so how would they do so now? They can support the Iraqi military in counter-terrorism, but they can do that whether the US is in Iraq in strength or not.
The Iraqi military has two major security challenges. One is to patrol the cities and keep them from being in the hands of militias and gangs. In that task, the new Iraqi military seems to perform just all right. They can patrol independently, and will stand and fight if they come under fire from a militia. But the other major task is counter-insurgency, and in that struggle the new Iraqi military is still not very good. They don’t do checkpoint well, and they have a superstitious belief in divining rods that are supposed to discover explosive in the trunk (they don’t). In any case, both these security tasks are best undertaken by Iraqis.
As I argued at CNN on Monday,, the very presence of the US troops in such large numbers may retard Iraqi political parties’ progress toward reconciliation. The Shiites and Kurds are made arrogant by their knowledge that the US will back them, and so haven’t tried very hard for reconciliation with the Sunni Arabs– the only thing that would end the insurgency.
The bombings are getting on the nerves of the Iraqi public in part because of the political uncertainty of the moment. The March 7 parliamentary elections produced a hung parliament (just as all the recent elections in the countries with a Westminster parliamentary system have produced hung parliaments). So far no party has put together a ruling coalition, leaving the state in the hands of a weak caretaker hold-over government.
It would be fairly easy to form a government if the Shiite religious parties formed a super-coalition, as they have in the past. But this time they are divided between the State of Law coalition of incumbent prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and the more fundamentalist parties grouped in the National Iraqi Alliance. The latter include the Sadr Bloc led by clergyman Muqtada al-Sadr, who is studying in the Iranian seminary city of Qom. Sadr does not like al-Maliki because the prime minister sent troops against his Mahdi Army militia in 2008. If Sadr would accept al-Maliki as PM for a second term, the government could be formed tomorrow.
Al-Sharq al-Awsat reports that Muqtada in Iran is coming under strong pressure both from the government of Mahmud Ahmadinejad and from his clerical teachers, the marja`iyyah or spiritual and legal Exemplars to accept al-Maliki for the sake of Shiite power in Iraq. Muqtada has been flirting instead with an alliance with ex-Baathist Iyad Allawi, the darling of the Americans, who is perceived as anti-Iran. Iran really does not want a prime minister Allawi next door in Iraq, and so is trying to strong-arm Muqtada.
Muqtada is not, however, easy to strong-arm, and is now reportedly considering relocating to Beirut as a way of escaping Iranian pressure and also of retaining his independence from the Iraqi political scene. (He may also be thinking he could fill the vacuum created by the death of Lebanese grand ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah.) The rumors were denied by Muqtada’s spokesmen in Baghdad, who said it was much more likely that he would return to Iraq.
It would be so ironic if the American hopes for an Allawi government were made to come true by Muqtada al-Sadr.