What are we to make of the increase in violent deaths in Iraq during June and July? Is it a sign of a long-term upsurge in violence since the U.S. troop withdrawal? Who are the culprits?To begin with, it should be noted that violence in Iraq often follows cyclical patterns. That is, insurgent groups normally step up their operations as summer begins, and around the time of religious festivals, when pilgrims (frequently traveling on foot) are easily exposed to attacks. Thus, in June, there were waves of bomb attacks targeting Shiite pilgrims who were commemorating the death of Moussa al-Kadhim, the great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.
That is why one should be careful in extrapolating from short-term trends to warn of growing sectarian tensions and a return to civil war in the near future. Today, the insurgent groups responsible for attacks on civilians and a large number of attacks on government officials are entirely Sunni, since Shiite militant groups such as Kataeb Hizbullah have disbanded following the pullout of U.S. forces.
The two main organizations are Al-Qaeda in Iraq, now virtually a native force, and the Baathist Naqshibandia, which is led by Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who is still at large. He appeared in a video last April to denounce the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and complain of an Iranian-American-Israeli conspiracy to take over Iraq.
At present, there is no real evidence to suggest that either group is gaining new recruits from Iraq’s Sunni community on the basis of their frustration with problems in the political process. If such an assertion were true, insurgents carrying out the attacks would surely make their specific grievances clear – for example by demanding that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad issue an amnesty for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.
However, there are two ways in which one can link the current state of Iraqi politics with violence.
First, the political impasse can induce frustration among local Sunni Arab populations such that the insurgents are allowed an easier environment in which to conduct their operations. Hence, Sunni Arabs might refuse to disclose the whereabouts of insurgents to the security forces. In turn, the tendency toward heavy-handedness on the part of the Iraqi army and police, which still suffer from major deficiencies in intelligence gathering on militant activities, only exacerbates this problem.
Second, one should not discount violence between political factions accounting for some of the attacks on government officials. Observers have noted that the nature of such operations – for instance, assassinations by means of firearms with silencers – points to meticulous planning and skill at odds with the more simple car bombs and suicide bombers of the Naqshibandia and AQI. It is plausible that political factions employ their own hit men that they can deploy against each other in times of political crisis.
Nevertheless, it is important not to exaggerate the extent of this phenomenon. Indeed, violence between political factions probably accounts for only a minor proportion of these attacks.
In fact, more overt examples of violence between political factions – for example rallying supporters to attack the offices of a rival party – are also fairly rare, with the most recent notable case taking place in the Kurdistan area in early December between Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, which is part of the ruling coalition of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union. The clashes arose after supporters of the latter party attacked liquor stores, among other businesses, owned by Assyrians and Yezidis in the town of Zakho.
In general, the reduction of AQI’s influence since the advent of the Sons of Iraq movement has been exaggerated. The group’s power in central Iraq and Anbar is a shadow of its former self, however AQI has always maintained a strong presence in Mosul, where it behaves like a mafia in extorting money from businesses and other residents. This behavior has been going on for years and has given AQI ample financial means to carry out attacks.
A case-in-point is the murder of the Chaldean archbishop of in early 2008, after churches in the city stopped paying jizya – a traditional, extortionist poll tax imposed on non-Muslims living under Islamic law – to AQI. It should be noted that this incident took place even as AQI was suffering major setbacks further to the south.
Violence has generally stabilized at levels that still make Iraq a very dangerous place. This, in turn, creates numerous problems such as deterring foreign investment, thereby impeding reconstruction efforts and liberalization of the top-down bureaucracy.
In short, the political impasse, heavy-handedness of the security forces and AQI strength in Mosul mean that, overall, violence is unlikely to decrease substantially over the coming years. That is why we can put aside media sensationalism that tends to look only at short-term trends in Iraq, leading to uninformed talk of a return to a full-blown sectarian civil war as in 2006.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His website www.aymennjawad.org. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.