What the attacks in Iraq tell us [VIDEO]

Iraq's sectarian divisions are deep, militants both Sunni and Shiite still roam the landscape, and the US is no longer in a position to do much about it.

Ako Rasheed/Reuters
Iraqi policemen inspect the site of a bomb attack in central Kirkuk, 155 miles north of Baghdad, Aug. 15. At least one person was killed and 14 wounded in a bomb attack in Kirkuk, police sources said on Monday.

The cost of more than 30 attacks across Iraq today is still being tallied. At least 70 people were killed by suicide bombers, car bombs, and militants wielding Ak-47s in one of the deadliest single days in the country this year.

The worst attack was on a civilian market in the southern and largely Shiite city of Kut, with about 40 people killed by two car bombs. Major attacks were also carried out on security forces in the the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, in the mostly Sunni city of Baquba in central Iraq, and in the ethnically and religiously divided oil town of Kirkuk to the north.

Iraqi officials say the attacks were probably carried out by Al Qaeda in Iraq. While that's unproven, the methods and choice of targets do strongly indicate that the violence was carried out by members of Iraq's Sunni Arab community, from which Al Qaeda draws its support. The US has alleged Iranian-backed Shiite militias have been involved in rocket attacks on US forces in the recent past. But today's violence seems firmly targeted at domestic issues, not the question of driving out the US.

What can be determined from the latest atrocity visited on mostly Iraqi civilians, in a war that the Iraq Body Count website estimates has claimed more than 100,000 civilian lives?

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All that can be conclusively said is that Iraq remains a very violent place. Militant groups remain potent and have enough support and discipline to conduct attacks in almost every corner of the country. And they're very hard to stop.

This isn't surprising. In his July report on the state of Iraq, Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, had this to say: "Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work. It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago." Bowen writes that Iraq is still struggling to protect judges and officials from assassination and that the security "situation continues to deteriorate."

News coverage has included the by now obligatory-hand wringing over whether Iraqi security forces are up to the job. The New York Times says that "the violence raised significant questions about the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces." The Washington Post writes "they also raise questions about the Iraqi government’s ability to maintain security as American troops prepare to leave the country by December."

This is journalese. "Questions" aren't really being raised. It's evident that the ability of Iraq's security forces to end militant violence by force alone is nonexistent. The reason why is that the number of people willing to engage in attacks isn't small enough yet, that a substantial portion of the population looks at the Shiite-dominated government with sufficient suspicion to provide passive support to the fighting (by, say, deciding not to inform security forces of a neighbor who appears to be building a bomb in his garage), and that fighters – whether Sunni insurgents or Shiite militants that the US alleges are receiving support from Iran – still believe there's power and influence to be won at the end of a gun.

It's not just the Iraqis. Those factors were one of the reason that the civil war raged in Iraq in the middle of the last decade, despite the massive US troop presence carrying out dozens of offensive operations a day. While violence eventually died down, thanks to a massive transfer of Shiites and Sunnis into more religiously homogenous communities and a new US willingness to pay Sunni insurgents to switch sides, there was never a sufficient level of troops to stop the terror-style attacks that have been endemic in Iraq. That was true during the US troop surge (when no one questioned the resources or abilities of American forces) and it's true today, when the 45,000-odd American troops are largely involved with training and logistics, with the vast majority of security duties carried out by the less-effective Iraqis.

While it's looking increasingly likely that some kind of extended US training and equipping mission will extend beyond the end of this year, when US forces' current agreement with Iraq expires, that won't and can't address the root causes of ongoing violence: Iraqi politics.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been a boldly sectarian figure. The Sunni "awakening" that switched sides from the insurgency during the US troop surge didn't really receive the government jobs and political influence its members were promised in exchange for crossing the fence, leaving their ranks in disarray and leading to some backsliding. It's worth remembering that the March 2010 parliamentary election, in which the list of the former Baathist Iyad Allawi won the most votes, led to more than nine months of stalemate, with Mr. Maliki eventually cobbling together a coalition to retain power.

That left Mr. Allawi and Maliki on barely speaking terms, and a large segment of the Iraqi Sunni Arab public – a privileged class under Saddam Hussein – feeling the popular will had been thwarted. And even after the government was formed, stalemate has persisted. Filling the posts of Defense Minister and Interior Minister was left to a later time. Eight months later, the posts have still not been filled, with Maliki nominally in charge of both – leading to allegations he's amassing too much power of his own.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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