Iraq's 'Bloody Monday'

Growing extremism a consequence of drifting into Iran's orbit.

At least 80 people were killed and more than 350 injured when a coordinated series of bombs were set off across the length and breadth of Iraq on Monday. Believed to be the work of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQIR), the bombings have shaken the people's confidence in the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and called into question the competence of Iraq's security forces. The attacks also raise concerns about the US withdrawal deadline of January 1, 2012 being met, as insurgents rev up the frequency and severity of their strikes in advance of that date. As America makes plans to leave, Iraq drifts evermore into Iran's orbit and the Shia-dominated government does little to stem the attacks on Christian churches, while Sunni on Shia violence threatens to break out once again.

Occurring in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan, authorities count at least 31 attacks that targeted seventeen cities. A similar series of attacks occurred last year at this time and were traced to AQIR. The worst attacks took place in the city of Kut, where a bomb planted in a juice machine exploded in a crowded market, killing dozens. Then, the AQIR signature to the attack occurred when a car bomb detonated as a crowd gathered to assist the wounded and tend to the dead from the first attack. At least 60 Iraqi civilians lost their lives, with more than 80 wounded.

Iraq's security forces were also targeted on Monday

as a car bomb went off outside a police station near Karbala, killing eight, and a suicide attacker dressed as a policeman walked into a police station in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit and detonated his vest, killing three.

Even the Sunni Awakening Councils -- former insurgents who laid down their arms to fight AQIR in 2007 -- were not immune from the violence. Several gunmen dressed as policemen entered a mosque just south of Baghdad and called out seven members of the local council. They were summarily executed.

The attack on the Sunnis may be seen as an attempt to revive the sectarian violence that tore the country apart in 2006-07. The Sunnis are already suspicious of the Shia-dominated government, which snubs the religious minority in government contracts, recruitment for the army and police, and even in the treatment of Sunni holy sites. For their part, Sunni militants attack pilgrims who are coming and going from revered Shia mosques. The violence is constant and has called attention to the government's inability to secure the country from the attacks of extremists.

Christians in Iraq say that the government doesn't even attempt to protect them from radical Islamists -- both Sunni and Shia -- who have attacked several churches recently, killing worshipers and destroying centuries-old structures. A bomb blast outside of St. Ephraim Syrian Orthodox Church in Kirkuk caused severe damage, although no one was hurt. That was not the case on August 2, when a bomb detonated near Holy Family Syrian Catholic Church, injuring 15 people. On that same day, another bomb was defused before it could damage a Presbyterian church. At one time, Iraq had a large Christian minority representing several strains of Christendom, including Coptics, Russian and Greek Orthodox, as well as many protestant sects. But most have fled the country or live in fear from the increasing Islamization of the country that tolerates attacks on them, their clergy, and their churches.

The growing extremism is a consequence of Iraq's drift into the orbit of Iran. If any evidence is required regarding how close that relationship is getting, one need look no further than the shocking statement by Prime Minister Maliki last week taking the side of Syrian President Assad against the protesters seeking to bring him down. While every other Arab government in the region has condemned Assad's brutal crackdown, only Iran and Iraq have offered words of support. Maliki accused the protesters of trying to "sabotage" the state while hosting a Syrian government delegation. Maliki also welcomed Syria's foreign minister last month. A Shia ally of the prime minister was quoted in the New York Times saying that the goal of Israel and the Gulf States “is to use the sectarian differences between the Shiite ruling family in Syria and the Sunni majority” for their own purposes. He said that if the protesters win, al-Qaeda will rule in Syria -- a parroting of the official Syrian government line justifying the crackdown.

But Maliki owes everything to the Iranians and Syrians. They engineered his selection as prime minister following elections last year despite his secular rival, Ayad Allawi and his Iraqiya party, winning the election. “Maliki is very reliant on Iran for his power and Iran is backing Syria all the way. The Iranians and the Syrians were all critical to bringing him to power a year ago," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.

The real disease that afflicts the Iraqi government is indecision. With 40 ministers in the cabinet, a fractious parliament, and beset on all sides by extremists, the Maliki government gets very little done. For example, the speaker of the Iraq parliament -- a Sunni -- is not following the government line on the crackdown in Syria, issuing a statement saying, "For the sake of the Syrian people we demand the government, out of its responsibility to safeguard the lives of its people and their property, take the bold and courageous steps to stop the bleeding." Indeed, as Hiltermann points out, the Syrian crackdown is serving as a wedge issue, with Shias supporting Assad, and Sunnis sympathizing with the protestors. Maliki is caught in the middle, making feeble attempts at reform, but as the bombings today show, he has very little room to maneuver. People are angry and are laying the blame at his doorstep.

There is also the depressing reality that questions the loyalty of the Iraqi army to the state, and the machinations of the Interior Ministry that has always been a hot bed of Iranian influence in the government. A professor of political science at Baghdad University, Hamid Fhadil, points out that the security forces are often more loyal to al-Qaeda or the Shia militias. "It's hard to talk about the existence of an Iraqi Army and a Ministry of Interior without them being loyal to Iraq," he observed.

Monday's attacks highlight the dilemma for both the prime minister and the US government. President Obama wants out of Iraq. He has always wanted out of Iraq, only staying on when it became clear that a precipitous withdrawal would have meant that the nation would have almost certainly sunk into chaos, with Iran standing by vulture-like to move in and feast on the pieces. This would have exposed the president to critics who sensibly argued that telling the enemy when we're leaving would be tantamount to an open invitation to ratchet up the violence as the deadline approaches -- as they are doing.

But Obama is also sensitive to the strategic threat posed by even a weak Iraq joining the Iranian-Syrian-Turkish axis, so it is probable that if Maliki asks some troops to stay on, he will reluctantly agree to such a proposal.

Thus, the Maliki government is in the process of negotiating. And despite fierce resistance from the radical Shia faction headed up by the Iranian-backed cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who promises to hold mass demonstrations and attack American troops after the deadline, Maliki appears to be out of options. There has been tremendous progress in the last five years in training and equipping the army and police, but fighting an urban insurgency while seeking out and destroying al-Qaeda fighters demands more than the security forces appear able to accomplish at this point.

Other factions would also be unhappy if more than a token number of American troops would be allowed to stay. Such a decision would put a tremendous strain on Maliki's coalition of Iranian-backed Shia parties that want the Americans out. Radical cleric Sayyid Al-Sadr especially can cause the prime minster a lot of trouble. He only controls 40 seats in the 325-member parliament, but his following is much larger. And while poorly armed, his Mehdi Militia is composed of fanatics willing to die at his command. Al-Sadr is so unpredictable that he is just as likely to turn his fighters loose on the government as he is on the Americans.

The government is so fragile and riven with divisions that the negotiations will probably be excruciatingly slow, extending beyond January 1, 2012. This would hugely complicate matters for the American military, which needs advanced preparation in order to bring home the troops that will be leaving and make accommodations for any that will be staying. While it seems likely that the Obama administration will agree to a small number of trainers remaining in Iraq (away from population centers and maintaining a very low profile), issues such as the actual number of troops, what their role will be, and whether or not they will be immune from Iraqi justice, clouds the future of any talks.

"Bloody Monday" in Iraq will long be remembered by the families of the victims. But given all the complicating factors, it is a day that the Iraqi prime minister would almost certainly like to forget.