A coordinated wave of bomb attacks has rocked the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. At least 69 people have been killed and more than 185 injured in a series of 14 explosions, consisting of four car-bombs and 10 improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This is the worst violence to besiege Iraq in months, and it puts an exclamation point on the daunting reality that America may have prematurely left a nation whose government remains ruptured by sectarian divisions. Divisions that may ultimately undermine the enormous sacrifices made by American troops, and plunge the country into sectarian turmoil.
Although it was not immediately clear who was behind the attacks, analysts speculate that the level of coordination reflects a capability only available to al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is primarily a Sunni-dominated organization. Furthermore, the bombings were aimed at “soft targets,” another al-Qaeda trademark. “They targeted children’s schools, day workers and the anti-corruption agency,” said security spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta. “The children were scared and crying,” said Raghad Khalid, a kindergarten teacher at a school in Karrada. “Some parts of the car bomb are inside our building.” The car bomb was actually an ambulance driven by a suicide bomber, who killed 18 people when he detonated the vehicle.
Most of the districts targeted were Shi’ite neighborhoods, and the attacks were apparently timed to coincide with the morning’s rush hour. They may also be the first reprisals directed at Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose move to sideline two Sunni rivals has caused turmoil within the fragile coalition that forms the current government. Earlier this week, Maliki demanded the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, claiming he organized assassinations and bombings. Hashemi denies the accusations, and has taken refuge in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he is being given protection by the regional government. The Kurds, who represent Iraq’s third major political faction, are unlikely to hand him over to Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad.
Adding to the tension is another demand by Maliki, who asked parliament to fire his Sunni deputy, Saleh al-Mutlaq, for comparing Maliki to Saddam Hussein. On Wednesday al-Mutlaq was granted leave until the Iraqi House of Representatives can make a decision regarding his fate. Yet al-Mutlaq was not alone in making such a comparison. Sunni tribesman Ali Hatem Suleiman, the leader of powerful Dulaimi tribe, also told the BBC Maliki was becoming like Hussein. “Maliki will drive Iraq towards separation and will create a new dictatorship and take on Saddam’s mantle,” he contended. “Unfortunately this was all agreed upon by America–to hand over Iraq to a new dictator, and so Iraq will implode again.”
Suleiman joins a growing list of disaffected Sunnis, all convinced Iraq is disintegrating into sectarian factions. This disaffection is highlighted by a government boycott precipitated by the al-Iraqiyya group, the largest Sunni bloc in parliament. They are protesting the warrant for Hashemi’s arrest, and accuse Maliki of trying to monopolize power. Al-Iraqiyya’s disaffection may be critical. They are led by secular Shi’ite Muslim Ayad Allawi, who had convinced many of the same Sunni tribes responsible for driving the bloody insurgency from 2004-2007 that he would help them reclaim some of the power they’ve lost in a post-Saddam Iraq. Yet those hopes have now been dashed. “That’s all finished,” said an unnamed senior diplomat in Baghdad. “The office they created for Allawi [a strategic policy ministry] isn’t even functioning anymore. No one turns up for work.”
Adding to the current tension is the fact that most of Iraq’s Shia population will more than likely believe the bombings were the work of Sunnis in retaliation for their disaffection, according to the BBC’s Jim Muir. He believes Sunni leadership was waiting for a singularly tense moment to unleash this latest wave of violence. Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, former national security adviser and ally of Prime Minister Maliki, attempted to dismiss that notion. “Al-Qaeda try to make use of any political difference and any political dispute,” he contended. “I don’t think this is sectarian motivated. I honestly believe that Iraq has been moving from sectarian to more issue-based politics.”
Such a dismissal would seem to be naive. The last two major attacks in Iraq were October 27th, when twin bombings killed 38 and wounded 78 in a Shia area of Baghdad, and December 5th, when 30 people were killed in attacks targeting Shia pilgrims in central Iraq. Complicating speculation is the reality that Iraq has also been grappling with a resilient, lower-level insurgency of Sunni Islamists tied to al-Qaeda and Shi’ite militias, which U.S. officials say are backed by Iran. These groups stage daily attacks in Iraq.
Parliament has agreed to an emergency meeting today, normally a Muslim day of rest. It remains to be seen whether this fragile coalition of Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, beset by constant political infighting, can restore confidence.
All of this is occurring only days after the last American troops left Iraq, almost nine years after removing Saddam Hussein. Many Iraqis feared the withdrawal would lead to exactly the kind of violence that took place yesterday. Tribal leader Suleiman illuminated the frustration with an Obama administration willing to withdraw from Iraq before the nation was stabilized. “What did [Americans] all die for if they leave the country like this?” he asked. “There were 1,860 American soldiers killed in Anbar. None of their projects or payoffs were successful.”
He went further. “Iraq is finished also,” he claimed. “The [American] withdrawal represents the end of Iraq. There is no democracy here, there is chaos. Parties rule by sect. Corruption is rampant and so is sectarianism. But more dangerous than anything else is that Maliki is trying to establish a new autocracy.”
The Obama administration’s response? As ever, Vice President Joe Biden represents the perfect point man for an administration attempting to gloss over the base political calculations of a president determined to re-romance the left’s anti-war constituency in time for the 2012 election. “We’re not claiming victory,” Biden said during an interview on NBC’s Today Show December 1st. “What we’re claiming here is we’ve done our job the administration said it would do. To end a war we did not start, to end it in a responsible way…and to leave in place the prospect of a trained military, a trained security force under democratic institutions where the disparate parties for the first time are actually working together.”
Two weeks later, the president himself reiterated the triumph of wishful thinking over daunting reality. “Of course, Iraq is not a perfect place,” he said. “But we are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home.”
No victory, no final battle, only a march home. Even as Iraq remains in a state that could lead directly to civil war. The sacrifices made by thousands of American troops? Secondary to the 2012 election. The ultimate fallback position should everything turn to chaos? No doubt the same excuse we hear regarding the economy: it’s all George Bush’s fault.
That’s what “leading from behind” is all about.
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