5 years ago
U.S. commanders say they are unsure about who is responsible for the persistent violence in Iraq, underscoring the challenge they face trying to keep a lid on it amid parliamentary elections this weekend.
While security has improved significantly across Iraq in recent years, in the weeks leading up to the March 7 vote, U.S. commanders have reported an increase in low-level violence: kidnappings, assassinations, and mortar attacks against Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of government power.
And since August, a series of large-scale bombings aimed at government buildings have ripped through Baghdad, killing several hundred people and shaking confidence in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security services, following the withdrawal of most U.S. combat forces from major Iraqi cities last summer.
Commanders worry the violence could spike further after the election if parties feel there was fraud or if negotiations to form a government after the vote break down.
U.S. and Iraqi successes cracking down on organized insurgent groups have caused the groups to splinter into an ill-defined web of smaller, often independent, groups with widely divergent motives, ranging from the ideological to the purely material, according to American military officials.
“There is definitely less clarity as to who the enemy is,” says a U.S. Special Forces officer in Baghdad. “The big-time players aren’t there anymore. The organized terrorists aren’t there anymore.”
Iraqi officials are blaming al Qaeda-linked terrorists and loyalists to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party for the attacks. Iraq officials said Tuesday the number of Iraqis killed in February was twice as high as in January and 40% higher than a year earlier.
But U.S. military officers, working in Baghdad and Anbar provinces, say the real picture is less clear, making effective countermeasures more difficult.
“Whether or not the violence is extremist, political or tribal is not clear at this point,” says U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, the deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Baghdad and Anbar. “We’re not being evasive; it’s just really hard to figure out.”
Of course the situation is hard to figure out. It’s no wonder that the U.S. Marines are now gone from the Anbar Province. The Status of Forces Agreement tied their hands to the point that they were required to give the Iraqis 72 hours notice prior to troop movements outside of their bases, and then only with Iraqi escort. According to one honest Iraqi Colonel, “They are now more passive than before,” he said of U.S. troops. “I also feel that the Americans soldiers are frustrated because they used to have many patrols, but now they cannot. Now, the American soldiers are in prison-like bases as if they are under house-arrest.”
When no patrols can be conducted and no force projected, the atmospherics of the population cannot be assessed. There is no way to perform counterinsurgency under these conditions, and the best hope is that a political solution can be worked out between sects and political parties. Based on what has been demonstrated to date, this may be a forlorn hope in the short term.