Violence ahead of key summit indicates slow spiral back into the abyss of sectarian violence.
A series of coordinated bomb attacks that hit more than a dozen Iraqi cities left more than 50 dead and 200 injured on Tuesday. The nature of the attacks pointed to al-Qaeda (AQ) as the perpetrator of the deadly bombings, but no one as yet has claimed responsibility.
The bombings occurred on the ninth anniversary of the American invasion -- an anniversary also marked by the Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers as more than a million of them poured into the streets of Basra in a massive show of force.
The attacks also appeared to be linked to preparations for an Arab League summit to be held in Baghdad on March 29 and it is thought by some experts that al-Qaeda was trying to embarrass the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in advance of the meeting. Maliki's government has invested a nearly $500 million in security and hospitality arrangements and sees the summit as crucial to the future of Iraq.
The chaos sown by the attacks appeared to be designed to further inflame sectarian tensions and hasten the fracture of the Iraqi government. That process seemed to be well underway as the leader of the Kurdish bloc, Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani, accused Baghdad of "ideological terrorism" and stopped just short of declaring independence for the three northern provinces where Kurds have set up an autonomous, self-governing enclave.
The bombings targeted cities and provinces across the length and breadth of Iraq. Many of the bombings bore the unmistakable earmarks of al-Qaeda. In Karbala, where loss of life was the greatest, a car bomb exploded at a checkpoint for Shiite pilgrims entering the holy city. When police and emergency services showed up to treat the injured from the first blast, another car bomb exploded that caused even more casualties. All told, authorities say that 13 people were killed and another 48 were wounded.
There was also a twin bomb attack in the northern city of Kirkuk near police headquarters that killed 9 and injured more than 40. Another single car bomb targeted the provincial government building killing 4 more.
The roll call of cities and provinces that suffered the attacks would be familiar to many Americans who remember the sectarian strife during the civil war. In Fallujah, a pregnant woman was killed and her 6-year-old child wounded by bombs terrorists planted around a house belonging to a police officer. In Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, a car bombing outside of a school wounded 4 teachers. In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded in front of the Foreign Ministry building, and in the Monsour district, three policemen were killed by gunmen as they stood guard outside of a Christian church. The governor of Anbar province narrowly escaped when a car bomb went off as his motorcade passed. A bodyguard was killed.
The Telegraph reports that diplomats have noticed a pattern of serious attacks every 5 or 6 weeks, indicating that AQ does not have sufficient manpower or resources to sustain daily attacks.
"We strongly condemn the attacks on innocent civilians in Iraq," said White House spokesman Jay Carney, adding that violence in the country was at historic lows and that the Iraqis were up to maintaining security.
That may be so. But the timing of the attacks have not been lost on the Iraqi government, nor the international community. Prime Minister Maliki is determined that the Arab League summit will go off as planned and without incident. To that end, Iraq will deploy a medium-sized army of police, army, and special forces in Bagdhad for the summit. More than 26,000 security personnel will man barricades and checkpoints, and patrol the streets. The airport will be closed beginning March 26 and remain shuttered until after the summit is over. A curfew is likely to be announced for the duration of the meeting.
Maliki is staking a lot on this summit. It is viewed by the Iraqi government as something of a coming out party, proof that Iraq has emerged from a decade of war, occupation, and chaos. Once a leader in the Arab community, since the fall of Saddam the Sunni leaders of all other Arab nations have looked with suspicion on the Shiite-led Iraqi government. Maliki feels it important to repair relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, as well as the other Sunni-led nations both because he needs the capital that other nations can invest in Iraq, as well as wanting to improve Iraq's own security. While relations with Iran have improved (and Iranian infiltration in the Iraqi government is a big problem), Maliki does not want to isolate Iraq by fully embracing Iran. Iraq is one of only three Arab countries that has not condemned President Assad of Syria for his crackdown, although they bowed to pressure from other Arab states and did not invite Syria to the conclave. Maliki wishes to use the improvement of relations with other Arab states as a security blanket in order to fend off Iran.
Syria is expected to be topic number one at the conference, and it is believed that Prime Minister Maliki will soft pedal his support for Assad in favor of Arab unity. Also, he has reached out to Kuwait to try to mend relations, still strained after the 1991 Iraqi invasion. Last month, Maliki visited Kuwait and agreed to settle a long standing dispute over some aircraft stolen by Saddam. It was a small but significant step and Kuwait is reciprocating by attending the conference. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain will not be attending, citing security concerns.
Prime Minister Maliki also sees domestic political benefits flowing from the summit. He has invited representatives of all political blocs to attend the opening session, a point of great prestige for members of his wobbly coalition. But Maliki has yet to strike a power sharing deal with the second largest grouping in parliament, the Sunni-led Iraqiya bloc, despite negotiating for more than a year. And the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has built an independent power base of the poor and downtrodden that threatens Maliki's claim to speak for the Shiites.
Police in Basra estimate that between 700,000 and a million Sadrites flooded the streets, protesting against the policies of the government that have failed to improve the lives of the millions of desperately poor Iraqis. One protestor from Sadr City echoed the sentiments of most of the crowd, saying, "Lawmakers are looking out for themselves while the state ignores the poor. We want the attention of officials who are busy with their own affairs in their comfortable chairs and armored vehicles."
While al-Sadr might be considered a political nuisance (his party only has 32 members of parliament out of 275), a real threat to the Iraqi state is brewing to the north. The Kurds are tired of Baghdad interfering in their efforts to secure help in exploiting its oil resources and the situation is coming to a head. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, in what was billed as a major speech, all but threatened to declare independence from Baghdad if Maliki's government kept dragging its heels on oil rights and other issues. "It is time to say that enough is enough, because Iraq is headed toward an abyss, and a small group of people are about to pull Iraq into a dictatorship," Barzani said. He also stated that Iraq was facing "a serious crisis and this situation absolutely is not acceptable to us."
Maliki already has a Kurdish headache along the Turkish border where Kurdish terrorists strike inside Turkey and then scurry back to Iraq. Turkey has taken matters into its own hands several times, violating Iraqi sovereignty by launching counter terror strikes across the border into Iraqi territory. And now Barzani is threatening to realize the long-standing dream of the Kurdish people and declare independence. Given all that he has on his plate, Maliki can ill afford to risk a permanent fracture.
But the sectarian strife that the bombings were designed to foment may do the job for him. Iraq doesn't have a government as much as it has a disunified, quarreling, unhappy mob of politicians out to line their own pockets and devil take the rest. Nothing gets done. Nothing is ever decided. The Sunnis walk out of the government at seemingly the drop of a hat. Even within the Shiite coalition there are strains as witnessed by the Sadrites and the radical cleric's street thugs.
The Iraqi people are a long way from being able to live securely, without threat of terrorists blowing them up. This despite President Obama's assurance to the American people that Iraq was ready to stand up while we stood down. The slow spiral back into the abyss of sectarian violence may yet prove to be Iraq's undoing.
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