On Oct. 5, a suicide bombing just outside a graveyard in Baghdad killed 51 people, many of them Shi’ite pilgrims on their way to a shrine. The attack, commonplace in today’s Iraq, is symptomatic of a nation once again on the brink of civil war. The media largely ignore these ongoing horrors, and for very obvious reasons: it is becoming more evident by the day that the disintegration of Iraq may have been preventable were it not for President Obama’s politically-motivated premature withdrawal of American troops in December 2011, against the advice of military advisors. Now, al-Qaeda in Iraq is surging and slaughtering civilians dozens at a time, while the enormous sacrifices of thousands of American soldiers have been made into a mockery.
In July, more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed by bombs and gunfire, marking the deadliest month since violence between Sunni and Shi’ite sects reached its apex between 2006 and 2008. Kenneth Katzman, an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs for the Congressional Research Service, illuminated the fundamental problem. “The growing Sunni rebellion in Iraq has fueled the resurgence [of al-Qaeda in Iraq], as has the fact that the U.S. isn’t there providing intelligence, backstopping the Iraqi security forces or continuing to train and keep up their skill levels,” he explained.
The U.S. isn’t there because Obama failed to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq’s nascent government. Obama claimed Iraqi intransigence was to blame for the failure, because they wouldn’t grant U.S. troops legal immunity if they were breaking Iraqi law. Yet as Max Boot explained in a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other government officials had expressed the same reservation in 2008, when there were far more American troops in the country. Nevertheless, President Bush was able to secure an agreement.
Boot explains the contrast. “Quite simply it was a matter of will: President Bush really wanted to get a deal done, whereas Mr. Obama did not,” he wrote. “Mr. Bush spoke weekly with Mr. Maliki by video teleconference. Mr. Obama had not spoken with Mr. Maliki for months before calling him in late October to announce the end of negotiations. Mr. Obama and his senior aides did not even bother to meet with Iraqi officials at the United Nations General Assembly in September.”
Boot further notes that Obama’s constant bragging about ending the war, which culminated in his decision to keep only 5000 troops in Iraq (as opposed to the 20,000 initially requested by military commanders or even the 10,000 that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Adm. Mike Mullen judged to be the absolute minimum to maintain security) convinced Iraqis they would be left to fend for themselves.
Once our troops withdrew, Maliki moved to consolidate power. Crackdowns were undertaken again Sunni and Kurdish leaders, and other opposition forces. Those crackdowns reached a critical point on April 23, when government forces killed dozens of Sunni protesters in the city of al-Hawijah. The protesters were demonstrating against government policies, including Maliki’s increasing alignment with Iran. A week later, former Iraqi Ambassador Ryan Crocker characterized the crackdown as a turning point, noting that Sunni and Shi’ite leaders who had previously opted to solve their differences without violence were no longer inclined to do so. “Now Sunni Arab sheikhs who had been urging restraint are calling for war,” he wrote. “Some reports say that the tribes are gathering former insurgents and preparing to fight.” In April, 712 Iraqis were killed, a figure that represented the highest number of monthly casualties since 2008.
It hasn’t been that low ever since.
On July 21, a major prison break in Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, freed as many as 800 terrorists, including senior members of al-Qaeda. Suicide bombers drove explosives-laden vehicles to the gates of the prison and blasted their way into the compound. “The prison break was a major blow, suggesting not only that [al-Qaeda in Iraq] has enough manpower, but it also has the ability to train, plan, move around undetected and use weaponry,” Katzman explained. “It is a very serious example of how it now has much more freedom of action than they did when the U.S. was militarily present in Iraq.”
Iraqis have paid a terrible price for that freedom. In July, 1,057 Iraqis were killed and 2,326 were wounded by acts of terror and other violence. August saw 804 Iraqis killed and another 2,030 wounded, followed by 979 Iraqis killed, and 2,133 wounded in September violence.
Thus, al-Qaeda is taking full advantage of the security void left by America’s withdrawal. Moreover, that resurgence is abetted by the war in Syria, where the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is conducting operations against Bashar Assad, according to the Associated Press. “Given the security vacuum, it makes sense for him to do that,” said Paul Floyd, a military analyst at global intelligence company Stratfor. Floyd, who served several tours in Iraq, believes the Syrian unrest could facilitate al-Qaeda’s efforts to procure explosives for use in Iraq. “We know Syrian military stocks have fallen into the hands of rebels. There’s nothing to preclude some of that stuff flowing across the border,” he added.
Such a revelation compounds the folly of an Obama administration who, in conjunction with clueless Republicans like Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), advocated for intervention on the side of the “good guys” against the Syrian president, despite the reality that at least half the rebel forces are hardline Islamists or jihadists aligned with al-Qaeda. Intervention was reduced to a “surgical strike” that comically evolved into a demand for the relinquishment of Assad’s chemical weapons cache.
Whether or not Assad completely complies with such demands, the end result in Syria increasingly looks like a lose-lose for the United States. If rebel troops succeed in overturning the Assad regime, it is most likely that Syria will become another Islamist nation dominated by al-Qaeda and those sympathetic to their cause. One such group, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), now controls the northern part of Syria, and threatens to move into Turkey. If Assad prevails, there is a chance al-Qaeda could intensify their effort back in Iraq–using weapons supplied to them by the Obama administration.
According to Iraqi government officials, such intensification is already occurring. Al-Qaeda is reportedly engaged in active recruitment of young Iraqis, and their success so far is daunting. Officials speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity, due to the intelligence issues involved, estimated that the terror organization has as many as 3000 trained fighters based in Iraq, and that at least 100 of them are willing to carry out suicide bombings as soon as they are ordered to do so. They further reveal that terror mastermind al-Baghdadi has issued orders for at least 50 attacks to be conducted in Iraq on a weekly basis.
Ali Nasser, a Shiite government employee from Baghdad, emphasized the grim reality he and his countrymen currently face. “Al-Qaida can blow up whatever number of car bombs they want whenever they choose,” he said. “It seems like al-Qaeda is running the country, not the government in Baghdad.” The government’s impotency is exacerbated by the growing distrust among Sunnis. Since the Maliki administration has squandered their good will, they are no longer willing to give the government intelligence regarding terrorists within their midst.
Thus, as a study released by this Washington-based Institute for the Study of War reveals, al-Qaeda in Iraq has become “an extremely vigorous, resilient, and capable organization that can operate from Basra to coastal Syria,” one that has “reconstituted as a professional military force capable of planning, training, resourcing and executing synchronized and complex attacks in Iraq.”
Emma Sky, a policy adviser for U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno when he was the top American military commander in Iraq, explains it didn’t have to be this way. “During the surge, we helped build up the immune system of Iraq to deter these attacks,” she said. “Now that immune system has been taken away.”
“Over the next two months our troops in Iraq, tens of thousands of them, will pack up their gear and board convoys for the journey home,” said President Obama on October 21, 2011. “The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops.”
Less than two years later, the “outstanding success” earned by those troops, including the more than 4,400 Americans who paid the ultimate price to achieve it, is being undone.
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