Today's death toll in Iraq, by the grim standards of the country's almost nine-year-old war is sadly nothing special. The current count, according to the BBC, is 68 dead in at least 16 bomb blasts across the Iraqi capital today. With the toll almost certain to rise – dozens of seriously injured are in city hospitals – Dec. 22 may well end up one of the worst days of 2011 in Iraq.
But at the height of Iraq's civil war and insurgency, hundreds were killed in single days. While the US troop surge of 2007 helped tamp down Iraq's violence – and, the US hoped, created "space" for sectarian reconciliation – in the years since, Iraqi politics have remained largely driven by sect and ethnicity, their politicians pursuing a zero-sum game for absolute power.
Unsurprisingly, rates of political violence have been on the rise this year. More than 30 attacks across Iraq on Aug. 15 killed more than 70 people – so while today was horrific, it was far from a isolated instance. In July, then US Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction wrote that "Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work. It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago." He asserted that assassination of judges and security agents remained commonplace and the "situation continues to deteriorate."
There have been no signs of improvement since, and the fears that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies would continue to seek to consolidate security and political power in their own hands have quickly borne out, just days after the last US combat troops departed the country.
Mr. Maliki has had an arrest warrant issued for Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who has fled to autonomous Kurdistan. Mr. Hashemi has been charged with running a death squad. Whatever the merits of the charges against him -- few Iraqi politicians are more than one or two degrees separated from the sectarian violence at the height of Iraq's civil war – the timing of the charges sent a strong message that political consolidation, not reconciliation, is the order of the day.
Since then, the largely Sunni Iraqiya bloc has withdrawn its legislators, Maliki has begun parliamentary proceedings to remove the Sunni Saleh al-Mutlaq from his post as deputy prime minister (a position granted last year in recognition of the strong showing of Iraqiyya at the polls), and the prime minister has threatened to dismiss all of his political rivals from the cabinet and pack the government with Shiite loyalists.
As this paper wrote a few days ago, all of this strongly increases the odds that Iraq could plunge back into a sectarian civil war.
This is not, however, inevitable. The massive scale of Iraq's violence and the cleansing of whole neighborhoods of Christians, Shiites, and Sunnis will reverberate and create challenges for years. At minimum, 100,000 have died from violence in the war. Adjusted for population, that's the equivalent of one million Americans killed, or more than 300 9-11s, since 2003.
While the scars run deep, they're also a powerful disincentive against a descent into full-blown war again. Many Iraqis who were adolescents in 2003 are now adults with children of their own, and are terrified at the thought that the next generation will grow up as they did. But fear can also lead to trouble. A major cross-sectarian effort to avoid the last paroxysm of violence failed in 2006.
There were claims that in the predominantly Sunni Arab Baghdad district of Ahdamiya, an insurgent stronghold during the height of the civil war, neighborhood groups were barricading their streets again and calling for reinforcements from the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab Anbar governorate. In Diyala, just north of Baghdad, a family of five was murdered in their home.
Barham Saleh, the prime minister of autonomous Kurdistan, which is now in in the uneasy position of referee, took to Twitter to express his alarm. "Explosions rip though Baghdad. This is more than just tragedy. Onus on leadership to unite country against terror, not divide!" That's right: A Kurd who lobbied internationally for at minimum autonomy from Kurdistan during Saddam Hussein's regime, is now calling for national unity in the face of a ballooning crisis.
Who carried out most of today's attacks? It seems likely, given target selection, that they were Sunnis. The bombs and people who placed them were clearly not assembled in just the last few days, and it seems likely that the Al Qaeda-inspired jihaddis who tried to capitalize on the last bout of violence were involved.
But distrust and fear within both the Shiite and Sunni communities creates space to operate for the most bloodthirsty in society. A resident is less likely to inform on suspicious activity in the house or garage next door, say, when he views the security forces and the government as his enemy.
Where is the US in this? On the sidelines, by design. The 2008 Status of Forces Agreement signed by President George W. Bush set a sunset date for the US military presence of Dec. 31 2011 and President Barack Obama has honored it, having failed to convince Maliki to sign a new deal. The White House is clearly alarmed at developments – a statement said that Vice President Joe Biden called Maliki yesterday and "stressed the urgent need for the prime minister and the leaders of the other major blocs to meet and work through their differences together."
But so far, Maliki has been less inclined to listen to the US now than he was when the US presence in his country was far greater.