Violence in Iraq spikes. Are US security interests in jeopardy?

A recent rise in civilian deaths and injuries in Iraq is cause for concern, but Pentagon personnel say Iraqi security forces are proving to be 'very capable' in the year since US troops departed.

Ako Rasheed/Reuters
Security personnel inspect the site of a car bomb attack in Kirkuk, 155 miles north of Baghdad, in November.

Violence in Iraq from July to October hit its highest level in two years, a discouraging sign that – one year after the last US military vehicles exited the country – prompts questions about whether the situation on the ground in Iraq jeopardizes America's national security interests.

The question is one that defense analysts and Pentagon personnel are tracking, with particular attention to the response of US-trained Iraqi security forces to the rising numbers of deaths and injuries of civilians. So far, the assessment of both is guardedly positive.

“The levels of violence there are still extremely high – and lethal,” says Nora Bensahel, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), who notes that more people are dying in Iraq today than in Afghanistan, where America’s war is ongoing.

That said, “there were people who argued that the moment the last US troops left the country it would disintegrate into civil wars and the Iraqi security forces wouldn’t be able to stand,” adds Ms. Bensahel, who co-wrote a report released by CNAS this week, "Revitalizing the Partnership: The United States and Iraq a Year after Withdrawal." “That hasn’t happened yet. It’s clear that the [Iraqi] security forces were strong enough to be able to hold together and maintain certain levels of capabilities.” 

The violence in Iraq is marked by considerable brutality, including sectarian killing. From July to October 2012, 854 civilians were killed and 1,640 were wounded. 

“The Iraqi security forces are continuing to demonstrate themselves to be very capable in handling their country’s security,” says Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman. “Obviously, today we no longer have a real military footprint inside the country that would make us an authority on the actual security situation there.”

Between 200 and 300 US military personnel remain on the ground in Iraq, training the Iraqi military and overseeing foreign military sales. “It’s more classroom stuff, dealing at the higher levels – it’s certainly not range training or basic combat. Obviously we’ve gotten beyond that,” says Speaks.

Those who have been on the ground recently hold a similar view. Lt. Col. Mark Cheadle was in Baghdad for four months after the official end of the war. “I would have to say things have gone as expected. I wouldn’t say their progress is worse than expected.”

Still, “it’s not what we would necessarily consider a success from a US or traditional Western point of view,” adds Cheadle, who served as a strategic analyst and adviser for Iraqi key leader engagements. 

US military officials expected “some violence and tribal fault lines to continue. They have," he notes. "I also think we expected business to begin to thrive and security conditions to trend upward. I think they have.”

Even amid this violence, restaurants and car dealerships – unofficial barometers analysts use to track development – are beginning to open with some frequency, says Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

But there is also a sense throughout the country that a “Damocles sword” hangs over Iraq in the form of the Syrian conflict to the west and disputes over oil wealth to the north, he adds. 

“There’s a real fear that the Syrian civil war is going to blow back into Iraq, and people worry about all of these unresolved issues with the Kurds,” Mr. Rubin says.

Less feared by Iraqi Shiites, but of more concern to Pentagon officials, is a growing Iranian influence to the east.  

“By the US withdrawing its forces, we ceded a lot of ground to the Iranians, and the Iraqis aren’t able to resist them as easily,” Rubin says. 

Iranian Air Force flyovers – which analysts suspect is to deliver aid to Syria's besieged regime – are of concern to Congress, so much so that some US lawmakers threaten to suspend all aid to Iraq if Iranian planes continue to fly over its territory.

The problem is that “Iraq doesn’t actually control its own airspace,” says Bensahel of CNAS. “Well, technically they do, but they don’t have the Air Force capability to enforce it. There are real limits to what they can do and the extent to which the US can help without a presence there.”

Iraqi officials “certainly have an awareness of how much the Iranian overflights annoy the Americans,” says AEI’s Rubin. At the same time, “they are also annoyed because they have intercepted some [Iranian] flights and don’t get credit for it.” 

Iraqi officials are also concerned that opposition forces in Syria could turn out to be Al Qaeda sympathizers – or contain elements of the terrorist group.

“If the most radical elements of the Syrian opposition win and Iraq goes to hell,” Rubin adds, “I’d expect the Iraqis are going to blame the Americans for what the Iraqis consider to be a naive position on Syria.”

Still, US officials say they believe that Iraqi officials could push more to stop suspect Iranian overflights – and to do it more often. 

Yet the biggest overall worry about Iraq, especially among conservatives who saw the US troop withdrawal there as "premature," was that the country would implode. “Those fears haven’t been realized,” says Rubin.

The ongoing US military relationship with the Iraqis through high-level training and military sales programs, though small, is a helpful link between the two countries, he adds. “It’s an excuse to have a long-term relationship with the Iraqis.” 

In terms of sales, for example, “Even if they never fly an F-16,” he says, “we’ll have people going over from the Pentagon meeting with Iraqi officials every month or two for the next decade to come.”

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