The Nation: With U.S. Attention On Afghanistan Iraq Explodes

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destroyed cars i i

hide captionIraqis walk past destroyed cars after Wednesday's massive bomb attack in front of the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009. A series of deadly explosions targeting government and commercial buildings struck Baghdad Wednesday, killing scores and wounding more than 300, Iraqi police and medical officials said.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
destroyed cars

Iraqis walk past destroyed cars after Wednesday's massive bomb attack in front of the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009. A series of deadly explosions targeting government and commercial buildings struck Baghdad Wednesday, killing scores and wounding more than 300, Iraqi police and medical officials said.

Khalid Mohammed/AP

The news from the war capitals isn't good. In Kabul, the Taliban is carrying out attacks at the very center of Afghanistan's capital, rocketing the grounds of the presidential palace, launching suicide bombs at Kabul convoys, and last week setting off huge bombs on the heavily guarded road between the US embassy and the presidential palace.

But today I'm focusing on Iraq, where today bombers set off near-simultaneous truck bombs that devasated the Iraqi foreign ministry and finance ministry, killing 100 people and injuring at least 600, on opposite sides of the Tigris River. The entire heart of the Iraqi capital is in shock. At the foreign ministry, an official told the New York Times, "The whole ministry is destroyed."

It's probably the most significant bombings in Baghdad since the attacks on the Jordanian embassy and the United Nations offices in 2003.

Adds the Washington Post:

Separately, at least six mortars rained down on two heavily transited locations in central Baghdad, Iraqi officials said. Three mortars targeted the Green Zone, the fortified enclave in Baghdad that contains the U.S. Embassy and many Iraqi government offices.

It's impossible to overstate the significance of these attacks. While President Obama and the Pentagon are focused on Afghanistan, the war in Iraq is showing signs of heading south, and fast. It's not unexpected. Iraq's Arabs and Kurds are nearly at war along the long front that separates the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq, especially in and around Nineveh province, whose capital is Mosul, and over Tamim province, whose capital, Kirkuk, is coveted by the expansionist Kurds. Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab minority is increasingly alienated from the regime of Prime Minister Maliki, who's staunchly refused to compromise with the demands of the opposition to his increasingly authoritarian rule. For more than a year, I've been warning (along with others) that the Iraqi resistance movement, from its nationalist core to its more perverse, pro-Al Qaeda elements, might explode again. Maybe it's started already. In any case, the Sons of Iraq, or the Awakening movement, are getting the shaft from Maliki, and they are restless.

There's another factor, too: Iran. In the aftermath of the June 12 election, the US and Iran are perched dangerously close to confrontation again, and it's not impossible that the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime in Tehran might be thinking of ratcheting up violence inside Iraq as part of its resistance to American threats of more sanctions and other pressure. This week, a rocket launcher and with dozen high-powered rockets was captured by Iraqi forces outside Basra, in southern Iraq. (Recently, several US soldiers were killed in a rocket attack on a military base in that area.)

Despite Maliki's bravado, it's unlikely that either Iraq's armed forces or its intelligence service, along with the secret Iraqi anti-terrorist unit that reports to Maliki, can handle the sort of violence that is likely to engulf Iraq as the US leaves. (That's not a suggestion that the US remain in place, of course, quite the opposite, but a simple statement of fact.) In fact, in Iraq, everything is up for grabs. It's possible that the Iraqi elections, scheduled for January, won't even take place if violence intensifies. Maliki has suggested a plan to hold a referendum in January on the US-Iraq security accord, putting the agreement up to a vote of Iraq's population; were they to reject the accord, it would force the United States to pull out all of its troops in 2010, not 2011, as planned.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that US and Syrian authorities have reached an agreement to restrict the activities of Iraqi resistance fighters and Baathists in Syria:

The Obama administration and Damascus tentatively agreed to establish a tripartite committee, with Baghdad, to better monitor the Syrian-Iraqi border as the Pentagon draws down American troops from Iraq in coming months, said senior U.S. officials.

The proposed three-way border-control assessments could boost Iraqi security and patch one of the region's most volatile fault lines. The initiative was made by a team of U.S. Central Command officers and their Syrian counterparts last week in Damascus. ...

Syria says it has detained more than 1,700 militants, blocked potential combatants from passing through the country en route to Iraq and imposed stricter border policing. Syria also appears to have cracked down on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime who fled to Damascus after the Iraqi invasion.

"The Baathists have been coming under a lot of pressure in the last few months," said one senior Western diplomat. "Some have been kicked out, some have been told to shut up."

But BBC reports that the spate of violence in Iraq in the past month or so raises serious questions about Iraq's stability, and it wonders whether the attackers are merely terrorists or political players trying to send a message to Maliki:

Increased violence could in theory make it difficult for parties in the current governing coalition to claim that they have made Iraq safe again.

This has led some analysts to conclude that those behind the recent attacks are not only the usual suspects - al-Qaeda or former Baathists - but also political players who want scupper Prime Minister Nuri Maliki's hopes for another electoral victory.

For too long, Obama has pretended that Iraq doesn't exist. As I've repeatedly stated, during the campaign Obama promised to enlist the United Nations and other world powers in a major international effort to reorganize Iraq's political equation. So far, he hasn't done a thing, and he's allowed Iraq to fester under US occupation and American political tutelage, with little or no involvement by the rest of the world, including Europe, Russia, and Iraq's neighbors. Inside the White House and the State Department, it's hard to identify anyone with the Iraq portfolio, which has fallen between the cracks. It's no longer an option for the United States to slow or reverse its withdrawal, but UN and international involvement in Iraq's political reconstruction is urgently needed.

Last Friday, in the Post, Al Kamen commented wryly on the the virtual absence of any top official doing Iraq:

Also on the foreign policy front, deputy national security adviser Douglas E. Lute moved off the Iraq portfolio recently to focus exclusively on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dennis Ross, who'd been handling Iraq at the State Department, moved over to the White House. But Ross is senior director for the Central Region. This has apparently caused some confusion about precisely who's the point person for Iraq. Ross? Foreign policy advisor Denis McDonough? National Security Council chief of staff Mark Lippert? Biden also has taken on a leading role in Iraq matters.

Well, any of them will probably do.

Today's explosions, however, underline the point: It's not funny.

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