Professor: Iraq Attacks Show Sunni Militants' Resolve

The deadly bombings Thursday in Iraq raises questions about the strength of the Iraqi forces. Juan Cole, professor of Modern Middle East History at the University of Michigan and author of Engaging the Muslim World, says the bombings show Sunni Arab guerilla movement is still active and determined.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Back in July, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was at the White House speaking through an interpreter and brimming with confidence in the Iraqi security forces.

Mr. NOURI AL MALIKI (Prime Minister, Iraq): (Through Interpreter) Those who thought that the Iraqi forces, if the American forces can leave, will be incapable of imposing peace and security - these people proved to be wrong.

SIEGEL: So today's bombing raise the question: Are Iraqi forces in fact up to the job of protecting their own people? Joining us is Juan Cole, who's professor of Modern Middle East History at the University of Michigan and also author of "Engaging the Muslim World." Professor Cole, what do today's bombings and the choice of targets say to you?

Professor JUAN COLE (Modern Middle East History, University of Michigan): Well, they say that the Sunni-Arab guerrilla movement, which will not accept the dominance of Iraq by Shiites and Kurds, is still active. It's still well-supplied with high explosives. It's still able to coordinate and it still very, very determined.

SIEGEL: Prime Minister al-Maliki said this today, he said the criminal acts that took place require us to reevaluate our plans and security mechanisms in order to confront the terrorist challenges and to increase cooperation between security forces and the Iraqi people. What do you hear in that? What do you think he has in mind?

Prof. COLE: Well, al-Maliki has been a little cocky. He has all along been convinced that the new Iraqi army can now stand on its own, that the ministry of interior special police can operate in such a way as to do better really than the Americans had done in supplying security, or than the British down south in Basra. And he has had some success. I mean, security does seem to be better in the Shiite south, where he has more legitimacy. But in mixed areas, in Diyala province, in Nineveh province in the north, in Baghdad province itself where there are Shiites and Sunnis or Arabs and Kurds, his military has not been able to really tamp down on violence sufficiently. And so this ongoing campaign seems likely to continue and, you know, removing the check points and so forth was just being cocky on his part.

SIEGEL: Yes. We heard, in Deborah Amos's report, people seemed to resent the fact that all of that security had been reduced, at least around the foreign ministry. Would it shake confidence in the government for them to put the barriers and the checkpoints back?

Prof. COLE: Well, I think they have to do it. But it should be also mentioned that those blast walls were kind of an artificial measure. I mean, you can't wall-up neighborhoods permanently. And it's very bad for commerce and some of those walled neighborhoods where the violence declined substantially, you know, were suffering from 80 percent unemployment. So al-Maliki wasn't just removing them to show off. He was meeting demands by people that their lives be returned to normal.

SIEGEL: Are you impressed at all with the candor of Iraqi security officials today, as Deborah reported, saying they were at fault. Something must be done.

Prof. COLE: Sure. And it shows a certain amount of maturity on their part. I mean, one thing I'd like to underline is that these kinds of things happened all the time the U.S. military was in control of Iraq. And indeed last month in July, the first month that the U.S. had stopped patrolling the major cities, both deaths and attacks declined by about a third. So, they seem to be up again this month, but it's not the case that the U.S. military necessarily was able to completely stop these things itself.

SIEGEL: Yes, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked about this today and he put today's bombings in the context of weak - what he called Iraq being either at or near an all-time low in attacks - that is, this year, attacks are far less common than in the past. Is that accurate that whatever happened today, the trend line for violence is down?

Prof. COLE: Oh yes. As I said, attacks were down by a third in July when the U.S. wasn't patrolling at all. They have been going down for some time. And it appears to be that, you know, the U.S. patrols were themselves generating attacks, because the guerillas were trying to hit the convoys and then they would hit Iraqis at the same time. But I think one of things that's going on here is that there are Sunni-Arab cells that are not reconciled to the new government. And the new government is not reconciled to them.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Prof. COLE: They have been hitting the Kurds up north. Actually, the ministry of foreign affairs is Kurdish-dominated so in a way, you know, they were continuing that campaign that we've seen for the past week.

SIEGEL: Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, thank you very much.

Prof. COLE: Thank you.

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