Analysis: U.S. troops must watch and wait as Iraqi violence spikes
December 17, 2009
BAGHDAD — Continued bombings in central Baghdad this week, following massive blasts last week, appeared to lend troubling credence to U.S. warnings of increased violence during the run-up to March 7 national elections.
But with the U.S. beginning to reduce troop levels ahead of a much larger drawdown next year, the attacks also underscored how much the U.S. role has changed from past years and the likelihood that even if violence increases significantly, there’s relatively little American ground troops can do about it.
The U.S. military’s confirmation that it warned Iraqi officials ahead of last week’s attacks demonstrated that while the Americans retain significant intelligence-gathering capabilities, the responsibility for acting on that intelligence has passed overwhelmingly to the Iraqis.
That’s largely by design. American military officials are fond of saying that even an imperfect Iraqi solution is better than the best American one. And at the insistence of the Iraqi government, the security agreement that went into effect last summer largely restricted Americans to their bases.
During a visit to Tikrit on Wednesday, Iraq’s defense minister, Abd al-Qadir al-Mufriji, said there are no plans to change the U.S. role.
“We’re not going to ask the coalition forces for more help, but we’re always working closely with them on intelligence,” he said.
Also Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a press conference that continued violence would not effect the U.S. withdrawal.
A trio of car bombings near the Foreign and Immigration ministries in central Baghdad killed several people on Tuesday, a week after a series of bombs left at least 127 dead in the capital, the third massive attack against government offices since summer.
The attacks, coming in a heavily-fortified part of Baghdad, raised serious questions about the abilities of Iraq’s security forces ahead of elections that present what is perhaps the most critical test yet for Iraq’s army and police.
“There is no doubt that the upcoming political transition will be both the most important and the most fragile to date in the post-Saddam era,” said Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “For the first time, Iraqis will in name and fact be responsible for seeing this transition through.”
Analysts and U.S. military officials say it’s far too soon to panic. The Iraqi army and police have improved significantly in the last several years, they said, and violence remains at dramatically lower levels than in the past.
But political violence is never just a numbers game. Even if they’re sporadic, deadly attacks in the capital could badly damage al-Maliki, who has staked his reputation on improved security. It’s not clear how well Iraq’s nascent political system could weather a change in leadership if al-Maliki were to suffer an electoral setback.
As demonstrated by the political maelstrom that has engulfed the capital since the Dec. 8 attacks, increased violence could also put more pressure on the tenuous sectarian detente that has helped push militants to the sidelines.
“The real question is how the Iraqi government handles it,” Freier said. “If they handle it poorly, if they automatically turn a routine level of violence into a bigger thing than it has to be by indiscriminately targeting elements of the population not complicit in attacks... then it becomes a much bigger problem.”
The danger, Freier said, was that moves to marginalize Iraq’s Sunnis — the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella Sunni insurgent group that includes al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for some of the bombings — would likely push more Sunnis into the insurgent camp. That, in turn, could lead to a resurgence of Shiite militias or push Iraq’s already Shiite-dominated security services into a more purely sectarian role, restarting the cycle that plunged Iraq into virtual civil war by 2006.
So far, at least, analysts and military officials said there was little indication of that happening.
“The political class has tended to avoid any involvement in or encouragement of reprisals,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution. “These bombings are tragic, but they show more about al-Qaida’s residual presence than about political fragility.”
Warnings of increased violence ahead of provincial elections last January largely failed to materialize and similar warnings now about the March elections may in part represent an effort by the U.S. military to manage expectations. But the series of bombings since August show that insurgents have shifted tactics and are intent on disrupting the vote, officials say.
“This is a country that has experienced violence, and there are those who think that’s what you have to resort to, to get your point across,” Maj. Gen. John Johnson, a deputy commander of U.S. ground forces, said late last week. “So we anticipate there are those who might try to use violence during the elections, and not just the attacks we’ve seen but perhaps others.”
U.S. troops helped Iraqis gather forensic evidence after last week’s bombs and after a smaller attack Monday. Johnson said officers were working with Iraqi officials to identify vulnerabilities in the capital and formulate a security plan for the elections.
Amid persistent concerns that the bombers had inside help, O’Hanlon said the U.S. could aid the Iraqis in vetting security personnel and doing biometric scanning of people coming and going in critical areas.
But any dramatic increase in the U.S. role during what could be a turbulent election season runs the risk of undermining the Iraqi government. Given the security agreement and the unpopularity of the American presence among Iraqis, such a reversal seems unlikely.
Military officials continue to believe it also would be unnecessary. Three days after last week’s massive bombings, Johnson saw little reason to revise the military’s new formulation of what it calls its partnership with the Iraqi military.
“We’re moving in the direction of the kind of relationships I’ve enjoyed being stationed in Korea and Germany and places like that,” he said.