Why bombings and jailbreaks won't tip Iraq back into civil war

The highest monthly death toll since 2008 is not a good sign for Iraq, but fears of another sectarian war miss the reality that Iraqis have a lot to lose in a repeat.

Hadi Mizban/AP/File
In this July 29, 2013 file photo, people clean up after a car bomb attack hits a Shiite mosque in the neighborhood of Bayaa in Baghdad, Iraq. The United Nations mission in Iraq says more than 1,000 people have been killed in violence across the country in July, the highest monthly death toll in years.

At checkpoints across Baghdad, plainclothes intelligence officers watch for suspicious cars while police scan vehicles with metal wands in a largely futile attempt to detect bombs.

Despite the Iraqi government’s attempt to combat a record wave of bombings, the attacks across central and southern Iraq are paralyzing the country, leaving many Iraqis to suffer through a long hot summer with neither public services nor security.

But seven years after an Al Qaeda bombing of a Shiite shrine touched off a civil war, attacks aimed at reigniting a sectarian battle have failed to provoke wider conflict. Although the country continues to reel from the explosions, enough has changed since 2006 that even continued attacks are unlikely to bring Iraq back to the brink of war, officials and many analysts say.

“There are car bombs but there are restraints also. We’ve been there and we don’t want to go there again,” says Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, whose own ministry was hit by a truck bomb four years ago.

"Before people said ‘No, we will not be involved in the political process. We’ve been robbed, we’ve been cheated, and that’s why we’re going to fight',” says  Mr. Zebari, referring to widespread Sunni boycotts of Iraq’s first elections. “Now the situation is completely different because all the communities are engaged in parliament, in government, in running their provinces, in administration as a whole.”

Invested in stability 

While little of it trickles down, Iraq’s oil revenue has helped make participating in government an appealing option for both Sunni and Shiite factions willing to lay down arms and enter the political process. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr has gone from commanding a militia that played a main role in Iraq’s sectarian violence to a mainstream political figure who has so far kept his movement’s armed wing in check.

National elections, which in 2010 resulted in a fragile coalition government cobbled together by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, are only a year away.

“Believe me, everyone is preparing for next year – that’s why no one has an interest in blowing up a sectarian war,” Zebari says.

The Iraqi government, under heavy criticism for security breaches that allowed the bombings to happen and a historic prison break last week, has fired or arrested security officials and reinforced checkpoints in and around Baghdad with intelligence officers. However, the interior ministry says that until it has a replacement, it will continue to use explosive detection devices purchased from a British businessman that have been found to be useless. The businessmen has been jailed for fraud in Britain. 


More than 4,000 civilians have been killed this year – a fraction of the casualties during the height of Iraq’s sectarian war in 2006 and 2007, but a warning sign regardless. In July alone, at least 1,057 Iraqis were killed in attacks, according to United Nations figures – the highest monthly toll in five years.

While the bombings have not brought the country to a standstill, they are making it difficult to move forward.

“The current level of violence is paralyzing society, it is paralyzing economic activity,” says Gyorgy Busztin, acting head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. Busztin says Iraq’s deep political divisions – particularly with the Sunni community – are affecting security while lack of opportunities for young men make them easy targets for recruitment to Al Qaeda.

"Regrettably politicians have failed to come together to address the most burning problems of society,” says Busztin. “A significant proportion of Iraqis feel they do not have a say in their future – they are outside the realm of the political process and they are grossly under-represented in the administration and the security apparatus."

Hamstrung from the top

While Shiite communities remain the main targets, attacks have also hit Sunni mosques and neighborhoods, including dozens of leaders of the Sahwa – unofficial security forces made up largely of Sunni tribes which fought against al-Qaeda with US and Iraqi forces. 

While the Sahwa still serve a key role in protecting many Sunni cities they have been largely abandoned by a wary Shiite-led government.

Interior ministry officials say security forces are now in "open war" with Al Qaeda, but many officials and analysts believe political disarray and competing and often-leaderless intelligence and security services have limited their ability to fight.

“The capabilities have really not been good,” says Zebari, who believes pro-Saddam loyalists with more extensive networks than Al Qaeda are partly behind the attacks. “It’s not the issue of numbers. Iraq has nearly a million men under arms. It is the leadership, it is the management, it is the logistical backup and it is intelligence – this is an intelligence war with terrorist networks to break them, to penetrate them, to pre-empt them.”

The withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, while welcomed by almost all Iraqis, left glaring deficiencies in the country’s intelligence capabilities, according to analysts familiar with Iraqi intelligence operations.

“The attempt to develop analytical organizations is not going well,” says one analyst who asked to remain anonymous. “They’re still stuck in doing things the old way with the old people.”

US offers of assistance with intelligence gathering and analysis, including electronic intercepts, have encountered resistance from some Iraqi politicians as well as US lawmakers wary of sharing secrets with an unpredictable ally. All of those factors have limited the capability of Iraq’s counterterrorism forces.

“Once in a while they get lucky but none of the things needed are happening to allow them to penetrate the already de-centralized al-Qaeda cells,” says the analyst.

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