NPR logo Ethnic, Sectarian Discord Threaten Iraq Security Gains


Ethnic, Sectarian Discord Threaten Iraq Security Gains

An Iraqi man mourns at the site of a car bombing a day earlier outside al-Shurufi mosque in Baghdad. The bombing on Aug. 1 killed 23 people and wounded 107 others. After relative quiet in July, a wave of bombings has targeted mostly Shiites in Iraq. Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images

An Iraqi man mourns at the site of a car bombing a day earlier outside al-Shurufi mosque in Baghdad. The bombing on Aug. 1 killed 23 people and wounded 107 others. After relative quiet in July, a wave of bombings has targeted mostly Shiites in Iraq.

Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images

Recent high-profile attacks in Baghdad and Mosul — and the political debate that has followed — suggest that al-Qaida in Iraq has dented Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's popularity in the run-up to the January election.

In recent weeks, the death toll from political violence has been rising — a reversal of July trends — undermining public confidence in security after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraqi cities at the end of June.

"The attacks have al-Qaida in Iraq fingerprints," said Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry.

The bombings follow a pledge by Maliki to remove Baghdad's concrete blast walls that separate warring neighborhoods and protect government buildings.

Over the past year, Maliki has taken credit for security improvements, working to centralize his power and insuring that senior military officers are Maliki loyalists.

Can Iraqi Troops Provide Security?

His recent promise to bring the blast walls down in 40 days would have coincided with the celebrations at the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But his gift appears more reckless than savvy now as bombs kill construction workers and Shiite worshippers in Baghdad, as well as flattening a village outside of the northern city of Mosul.

"We need a realistic assessment of our ability to deal with these savage people," said Saad Eskander, director of the national library and archives in Baghdad. "I think that Prime Minister Maliki knew the attacks will increase after the U.S. withdrawal from the cities. He is not naive; he was trying to raise the morale of the Iraqi security forces. He needs to do that."

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But Eskander, mindful that the national election campaign is already under way, was critical of Maliki's most recent performance. "It's not good to exaggerate. He did exaggerate about our ability to contain the threat of terrorists."

Maliki came to power in 2006 with the support of religious parties from his Shiite sect.

The recent attacks have targeted mostly Shiites, but the complaints against Maliki's handling of security have crossed the sectarian divide, which is an important change in Iraq's political culture. While there is intense anger in the Shiite community, religious leaders have counseled restraint. The blame for security failures is directed at the government, not at the Sunni community. In Parliament, Sunni lawmakers have clearly condemned the killings and called for an investigation into ministries that handle security, another challenge to Maliki's leadership.

Iraq's vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni Arab, released a statement following the third day of bombing, declaring that "citizens have the right to ask questions and criticize."

Resolving Unresolved Conflicts

While this latest spate of bombings has been fodder for Iraqi political wrangling ahead of the January elections, it is also a testament to the underlying conflicts in the country that remain unresolved.

The Sunni-Shiite divide plays out in a political context in government circles, but on the neighborhood level, the wounds of the sectarian civil war are still deep and open.

Big bombings grab international headlines, but there are the smaller daily events that are just as deadly as the dramatic attacks. Thursday's update from the Ministry of Interior includes four houses destroyed in Mosul by explosions, two men and children wounded in Mahmudiyah when a bomb went off in the market, and three civilians wounded when a roadside bomb blew up as their car passed it.

These incidents reflect another kind of political violence, which can include personal vendettas, a displaced family reclaiming a home, or competition between political parties that are organized exclusively along sectarian lines, with security personnel who are former militia members.

The most perilous unresolved conflict is between Iraq's Arabs and ethnic Kurds.

The bombing earlier this week of a village in the Kurdish-controlled areas near the northern city of Mosul appears designed to strain an already tenuous peace between Kurds and Iraqi Arabs. The dispute is over territorial boundaries and oil rights.

'The Most Dangerous' Tension

In a teleconference after the bombing, Army Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, commander of the multinational force in Mosul, told Pentagon reporters: "I personally think that the Kurd-Arab issues and the tension that exists is probably one of the most dangerous." Caslen continued that this could involve "ethnic lethal-force engagement between Kurds and Arabs."

The twin truck bombs that flattened the village of Khaznah have pushed the city of Mosul closer to the edge.

Sunni Arab politicians and Kurdish officials traded charges of negligence for failing to protect villagers from bombs set off while they slept.

When Caslen was asked if he was confident the Iraqi security forces were able to handle the violence in Mosul, especially if it continued at the level of Monday's attack, he acknowledged it was a fair question. U.S. forces withdrew from Iraqi cities and towns on June 30.

Caslen replied: "It may be too early after June 30 to make an assessment or to make a call at this particular point."