Iraq bombs could kill democracy

This piece appeared in the Guardian on Monday, one day after the devastating attacks in Baghdad that killed at least 200 and injured hundreds more. The Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni extremist group that includes al Qaeda in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for the twin bombings that targeted government buildings including the ministry of municipalities and the justice ministry.

Note however that the blame-game is prevalent in Iraq; in the Bloody Wednesday attacks of August 19 for example, the Iraqi government blamed Syrian based Baathists yet the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for those attacks too. Further, Iraqi officials also pointed to Iranian complicity but this fell on deaf ears.

Major General Ata [spokesman for the Baghdad Operations Command] told Al-Iraqiya TV that eleven officers and 50 cadres from security agencies in Al-Salihiyah [in Baghdad] have been detained – this re-affirms the point made many times before on this blog, in the below article and others before it, that the terrorists must have had inside help. You do not get so close to government ministries without having the checkpoints on the payroll.

Iraq bombs could kill democracy

Two terrorist attacks in Baghdad yesterday killed more than 150 people and injured hundreds. The perpetrators, reported by the Iraqi government to be Sunni extremist Ba’athist elements and/or al-Qaida operatives, once again hit the heart of Baghdad’s political district, as they did on 19 August.

Yesterday’s bombings, like the August bombings, were sophisticated and calculated and were almost certainly facilitated with domestic and/or transnational help from the powerful and influential. The terrorists managed to enter an ultra-sensitive area, preceded by security checkpoints and increased restrictions, with explosives powerful enough to sweep away the blast walls that protected the government buildings and destroy anything and anyone that stood in proximity. One also has to ask how the attackers were able to get their hands on such explosives in the first place.

A broad analysis suggests complicity on the part of the Sunni-Arab world: keep Iraq unstable and you stop the country from becoming an effective Iranian client state when the US withdraws; or, at the very least, facilitate terrorist attacks in the country and you have some form of a counter-measure to Iran’s unmatched influence. Alternatively, the attacks on Kurdish-run and Shia-run ministries may have sought to encourage incorporation of the Sunnis, specifically the Sons of Iraq fighters, into the Shia-led government, which has so far been slow in doing so. The objectives are not necessarily independent of each other.

A more straightforward analysis suggests prime minister Nouri al-Maliki as the prime target of all this: destabilise Iraq in the run-up to January’s parliamentary elections and you hurt Maliki’s chances of success, as he will be campaigning on the same security platform that won him this year’s provincial elections. Indeed, things are not looking too rosy for the premier now that he has lost his security card. Iraqis will struggle to list his achievements in recent times and find the country no closer to better services and increased employment levels.

The Iraqi premier could prefer to have the elections postponed altogether, which may be likely in the light of ongoing disputes over a new election law. This would provide an opportunity to improve on security and strengthen his new State of Law coalition, which is not what he wanted or what others expected. It includes Sunnis, Kurds and Shias but no prominent or representative ones.

Notably, and despite previous predictions, Maliki failed to get popular Sunnis such as Ahmed Abu Risha on board. Could this be linked to his attacks on the Ba’athists? Possibly. Reports in Iraq also suggest Abu Risha was pressured by Saudi Arabia and Jordan to refrain from joining Maliki’s coalition (Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party was exiled in Iran in the late 1980s and enjoyed funds and backing from Tehran).

Maliki needs something quick and effective; electoral success does after all come down to perception. Maliki has exhausted with no positive result the nationalistic rhetoric against the Syrian government, which he accuses of harbouring Ba’athists and complicity in Baghdad’s deadly attacks.

In the past, the premier steeped up security operations: in mid-2008 he controversially arrested hundreds of Sons of Iraq fighters in Baquba of Diyala province and detained political rivals in the area. In the same province, he played to anti-Kurdish sentiments by conducting so-called security operations in the disputed territory of Khanaqin, creating a dangerous standoff with Kurdish security forces (responsible for maintaining security there at the time). Maliki failed to win Diyala province in the provincial elections but his actions will have nevertheless successfully played to anti-Kurdish and nationalistic sentiments elsewhere in the country. This time round, similar security operations could also follow yesterday’s attacks. Clashes by the Syrian-Iraqi border should not be ruled out.

However, the ultimate victim could yet be Iraq’s nascent democracy. That is unless disputes over the election law are resolved and the elections take place as scheduled.

More important still is restoring voter confidence in the electoral process. Anything less will hand a decisive victory to the terrorists. Increased attacks could also increase the chances of retaliatory strikes by the Shia community against the Sunnis, taking Iraq back to the sectarian warfare of previous years (Shia political and religious forces have so far exercised commendable restraint).

But this is assuming Sunni extremists are deemed responsible for the attacks in the first place. If the attacks really were the product of intra-Shia disputes, with Maliki’s coalition up against the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance (which Maliki refused to join much to the dismay of Iran), then Iraq is at a very frightening point indeed.

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