Baghdad bombings: A Sunni backlash?

At least 86 people were killed in the worst bombing since February 2008, presenting a serious challenge to the Shiite-led government.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
Smoke billows near the Iraqi Foreign Ministry (l.) after a massive bomb attack in Baghdad on Wednesday. A series of explosions struck Iraq's capital, targeting primarily government and commercial buildings.

Apparently coordinated truck bombs and mortars targeted installations of the Shiite-led government across Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least 86 people in the deadliest day for Iraq’s capital in 18 months.

Most of the damage was caused by two truck bombs that exploded just minutes apart outside the Finance Ministry and the Foreign Ministry. The bomb at the Foreign Ministry also blew out windows in Iraq’s parliament building and at the Rashid Hotel, where many senior Iraqi politicians live.

The Green Zone, home to the US and other embassies, took mortar fire at around the same time, as did a busy central Baghdad market and one of the city’s bridges across the Tigris river.

US forces withdrew from Iraq’s cities on June 30, and attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere have been on the rise since. Though that has probably made it easier for insurgents to carry out bombings, defense analysts as well as the Pentagon itself have pointed out that simmering sectarian tensions that fuel such attacks have not been addressed.

Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, a Baghdad security spokesman, blamed Al Qaeda for the attack in an interview with state-TV station al-Iraqiya, according to Reuters. He said two Al Qaeda members were caught before they could detonate a car bomb of their own. He was also unusually contrite for an Iraqi official. "This operation shows negligence, and is considered a security breach, for which Iraqi forces must take most of the blame," he said.

Country safer, but Sunni-Shiite tensions unresolved
Though the country is far safer than at the height of its sectarian civil war in 2006, they warn of the potential for another sectarian or ethnic implosion.

“The main challenges to Iraqi security are becoming Iraq's political divisions and ethnic and sectarian tensions,’’ wrote Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former US Defense Department official, earlier this month. “Iraq's Sunni Arabs increasingly distrust what they see as Maliki's effort to expand his power and political support at the expense of Sunnis, and what they see as a form of de-Baathifcation that sharply favors Shiites while continuing to limit or push out Sunnis from both the government and [military].”

And in a July report to Congress, "Measuring Stability in Iraq," the Pentagon warned of increasing disputes between the Shiite-led government and Sunni groups:

Sunni groups demand increased pensions, amnesty, and advisory positions within the [Iraqi security forces] for former Ba’athist military officers in return for a cease-fire, and the [government] demands a cease-fire and promises little to bring the Sunni groups into the political process.

Sons of Iraq, instrumental in curbing violence, now disgruntled
One example of that is the growing unhappiness of the so-called “Sons of Iraq (SOI),” Sunni Arab militias that were organized and used against the country’s Al Qaeda-inspired insurgents by American forces. When the US transferred responsibility of the SOI program to the Iraqi government – a phased transition that was completed May 30 – payments to SOI members were repeatedly delayed, causing many to become disgruntled. In its July report, the Pentagon said that the Iraqi government was not providing promised jobs to the group and that "the slow pace of integration has the potential to undermine Sunni confidence in the [Iraqi government]."

Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs were a privileged class under Saddam Hussein, and dominated the country’s bureaucracy, officer corps, and monolithic Baath party. Sunni Arabs afraid of a new Shiite hegemony have been the principal fuel for Iraq’s 6-year-old insurgency.

The US decision to reach out to nationalist Sunni insurgents and create the Sons of Iraq in 2006 was instrumental in curbing Iraq’s violence and sectarian warfare. About 100,000 were promised government jobs. But those jobs have been slow in coming, and Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has appeared reluctant to give a larger political or economic role to his old Sunni Arab enemies.

“I’m inclined to believe we’ve cut way back on their payments,’’ says Pat Lang, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Middle East desk. “The idea is to transfer all of this to the Iraqi government and of course they don’t like the Sons of Iraq very much.”

Are SOI less willing to providing intelligence on Al Qaeda types?
But he doubts that the recent surge in violence is being directly caused by the nationalist Sons of Iraq. Instead, he suspects they’re simply not providing as much intelligence as they once were.

The Maliki government is “squeezing their subsidies all the time and not delivering on the promises we made. So what’s happening is the Sunnis out there are turning a blind eye to the depredations of the remaining takfiri jihadis,’’ says Lang, referring to the Al Qaeda-type militants whom the SOI helped control. Eventually, Lang says, the Sunni nationalist groups probably will take up arms again unless Maliki and other Shiite leaders reach out to them.

“The problem is they’re the enemies of his blood – that’s how Maliki feels about it. I think the fear among many Shiites is real that if you give them [Sunnis] too much money and power they’ll try to get back on top.”

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