Surging Iraq violence: Have we seen this story before?

Violence across Iraq yesterday was horrific, and likely carried out by Sunni Arab militants. It all feels so 2004.

Ali Abu Shish/Reuters
Policemen and residents gather at the site of a bomb attack in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, on Aug. 15.

The death toll in Iraq yesterday, with at least 70 murdered in attacks across the country, was bad enough. But the scope of the killing carries worrying echoes of the way sectarian warfare ramped up across Iraq starting in late 2003, leading to the country's civil war.

There seems little doubt that most of the attacks were carried out by Sunni Arab militants opposed to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Islamist, given the nature of the attacks and the types of targets: Security officials supporting his writ, civilians in largely Shiite towns in the south, and Sunni Arabs who had joined hands with the government.

The sheer scale of the activity yesterday makes it hard to dismiss events as the work of a handful of terrorists. Car bombs at a market in the southern city of Kut killed about 40. A suicide attack killed three policemen at the government counterterrorism center in Tikrit, the hometown of executed former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Four Iraqi soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in the Sunni town of Baquba, north of Baghdad. Separate car bombs in Baquba and nearby Khan Bani Saad killed eight.

In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, a suicide car bomb attacked the police headquarters, seeking to open the way for other militants. Seven people were murdered in that attack. There were multiple attacks in the ethnically and religiously mixed city of Kirkuk, with extensive damage done to a Syriac Orthodox Christian church there.

The Minister of Higher Education's convoy was attacked in Baghdad's wealthy diplomatic neighborhood of Mansour. Capping the day's violence off was an attack in Youssifiyah. The Associated Press reports that a group of men in military uniforms entered a mosque there during evening prayers yesterday, dragged out seven men and then murdered them. According to the report, the victims were all members of a militia that had fought with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, but who had switched sides during the US troop surge into the country. The AP writes that witnesses heard the murderers declaring themselves members of the Islamic State of Iraq, hard-line Islamists who espouse similar goals to Al Qaeda.

Those killings were reminiscent of hundreds of murders in the area between 2004-07, when Youssifiyah – a town 12 miles south of Baghdad – lay squarely within a mixed Sunni-Shiite area that foreigners and locals referred to as the the triangle of death. Murders by men in uniform were common, whether insurgents dressed as security officials or actual police and soldiers moonlighting as death squads.

Though Mr. Maliki's government has said it will consider extending the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) for the US that expires on Dec. 31, US troops remain on track to draw down almost completely in the new year. While that has led to some ask whether the US presence should be extended, it's worth remembering that far more horrific violence took place when more than 100,000 US troops patrolled the streets of the country. And as a practical matter, Iraqi politics would appear to stand in the way of a meaningful further US military presence.

Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric whose militias fought a series of battles with US forces up til 2008, issued a statement a little over a week ago on the issue of US troops remaining saying "whoever stays in Iraq will be treated as an unjust invader" and "a government which agrees for them to stay, even for training, is a weak government."

Sadr controls a key bloc in parliament that delivered the premiership to Maliki, and has given every sign that he could withdraw support from Maliki if the prime minister bows to US pressure to allow a continuing presence. Earlier this month, his parliamentarians walked out en masse during a discussion on giving Maliki the power to negotiate a new SOFA.

The good news is there have been no signs – as of yet – of reprisal killings against Iraq's Sunni community in turn. Tit-for-tat assassinations and terror attacks were what tipped Iraq's simmering violence into a raging boil during the early years of the war, and the Iraqi public by and large is desperate to avoid a repeat. But as I wrote yesterday, better trained soldiers or intelligence officers alone are not the answer to Iraq's still dangerous conditions, which a US government report in July found have deteriorated badly in the past year.

What's needed is for Maliki and his allies to find a political answer to the still significant numbers of Iraqis who feel the country's current order is hostile to them. That's an answer that Iraq – and the US, with spending of nearly $800 billion the conflict so far and the loss of more than 4,000 soldiers' lives – has been groping toward for almost a decade now.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

(This story was edited after posting to correct the cost of the Iraq war).

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