What Happened to Iraq?

Terrorists that the U.S. subdued, but never defeated, have reemerged and now threaten to restart Iraq's sectarian civil war.
Civilians gather at the site of a car bomb exploded in a street lined with shops in the Iraqi city of Samarra, 62 miles north of Baghdad. (Bakr al-Azzawi/Reuters)

As the bombings increase and show no sign of letting up, and as many wonder if Iraq is about to descend again into the horrors of sectarian war; it's worth taking a good look at Iraq today and asking what is going on with America's greatest nation-building attempt since the Marshall Plan.

Any examination of the last 10 years in Iraq demonstrates that the main problem facing the country since 2003 has been the rise of armed groups outside the control of the central government, beginning with the anti-U.S. insurgency, which contained a terrorist component that still operates today with virtual impunity, and followed by the rise of the Shia militias, who were defeated on the battlefield between 2008 and 2011 but still possess their weapons. All the other indicators in Iraq are actually very good, especially for a post-conflict environment, but the spiraling violence now is especially distressing after the steady reduction in violence between 2007 and 2012.

The societal divisions that existed in Iraq in 2003 still exist today. There are the Sunni tribes of western Iraq; there are Sunni Islamists; there are Sufi groups; there are radical jihadists; there are Shia Islamists connected with Iran; there are Shia Islamists who follow the infamous Moqtada al Sadr, and there are Shia Islamists who follow the example of this father but not him personally. And then, of course, there are the majority of Iraqis, who are remarkably moderate, non-sectarian and secular in outlook. After the 2003 invasion, various elements of the Sunni community formed the backbone of the anti-coalition insurgency, and later Shia militias supported by Iran opened another front against coalition forces. In 2007, the Sunni insurgency began to reduce in force, and after 2008 the Shia militias were also pacified, eventually stopping their military activities by 2011. Today, although the same societal divisions exist, it is only the most radical Sunni jihadists who are fighting.

So, considering the current rise in violence, it might seem counterintuitive that there was a dramatic reduction between 2007 and 2012.

Reconciliation efforts and political outreach were important, but they were part of the puzzle, not the panacea. The increase in U.S. troops on the ground gave confidence to those who wanted to stand up to the militias, and the U.S. troop surge supported the efforts of Iraqi security forces to solidify law and order.

But there was more to it than that. In March 2006, Iraq’s Sunni community began to go through an existential crisis. In response to the murder spree launched by Shia death squads in the wake of the destruction of Sammara's Golden mosque that February, it began to see the U.S. as the lesser of two enemies. Mosques in Sunni areas of western Baghdad announced that it was permissible to fire on Iraqi security forces that entered neighborhoods unaccompanied by coalition troops. At that time the Iraqi defense ministry also warned on national TV that civilians should not open their doors or respond to Iraqi security forces unless they were accompanied by coalition forces. It was at this stage that the tribal anti-Al Qaeda militia force know as the Sahwa began to tip the scales against Al Qaeda's jihadists—and found a ready ally in U.S. forces. This was the beginning of the end of the Sunni insurgency against the U.S. But ultimately, the Sunni terrorists were not defeated by either the Sunni tribal Sahwa or the U.S. forces, just reduced in strength, and since 2009 they have gradually and carefully regained ground.

Since 2008, the government of Iraq and U.S. forces have followed a policy of carrot and stick with the extremist Shia militias; military action and political deals went hand in hand. Extensively defeated on the battlefield in 2008 since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, the Iranian-backed Shia militias have so far mostly refrained from violence. They have been accepted into the political system, forging alliances with major parties. Hence, a mix of suppression and concessions by the U.S. forces and the Iraqi government, pursued over several years, was the formula to bring the Shia militias off the streets.

In contrast, despite extensive military operations coupled with far-reaching reconciliation efforts by the coalition and the Iraqi authorities since 2006, terrorism from ex-Baathist and Al Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups continue. The terrorist element of the original anti-coalition insurgency, which killed so many U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, has remained. It reduced with the rise of the Sunni tribal militias and the U.S. troop surge, but began to increase again in August 2009, with spectacular bombings against Iraqi government buildings that physically demolished several ministries. This was before political events that are often described as causing the upsurge in terrorism: Before the 2010 elections and government formation, before the departure of U.S. troops, before the exile of Vice President Hashemi on terrorism charges in December 2011, and certainly before the arrest of Finance Minister Issawi's bodyguards in December 2012. Since 2009, these groups have been carefully consolidating their power through violence and intimidation, killing hundreds of civilians each month, assassinating government officials and community and political leaders. These terrorist groups are now forcing the specter of sectarianism back into the Iraqi political narrative.

Presented by

Norman Ricklefs worked with the U.S. government in Iraq between 2005 and 2010. During that time he served as the advisor to the secretary general of the Ministry of Defense and as the senior advisor to the Iraqi Minister of Interior. He is the president of the Dubai-based Iraq Advisory Group, which advises and supports foreign companies operating in Iraq.

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