A surge in violence in Baghdad has prompted fears that Iraq may be on the verge of a new spasm of sectarian violence. Many think the attacks are intended to sew doubts about the wisdom of the upcoming withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. By this logic, the bombings are intended to force the U.S. to stay on with the implication that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is weak and that he is merely an American puppet.
April was one of the bloodiest months in Iraq in years. According to one estimate, over 450 people were killed in political violence last month, up from 335 in March, 228 in February and 242 in January. In Baghdad alone, more than 200 people were killed, more than double the number of March, and four times the casualties of February. In one 24-hour period, 160 people were killed. Those attacks are especially worrying because they demonstrate a frightening vulnerability in the heart of the country.
Most of the attacks target Shiite civilians, the majority of the population in Iraq. This raises fears that a Sunni insurgency is launching a new campaign. Sunnis are angry that they no longer control the levers of power in Iraq as they did during the Saddam Hussein years. Their anger at being displaced has fueled numerous insurgencies since the fall of that odious regime. The readiness of many Shiites to take revenge for the injustices they suffered during that time has only increased Sunni resentments. As the wheel of retribution turns, the country totters on the brink of a descent in to sectarian violence.
The real target for the insurgents is the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities on June 30. They will turn over full responsibility for security in urban areas to Iraqi forces. That will symbolize for many the coming of age of the new government in Baghdad — as well as open the door to abuse of the Sunni minority.
U.S. officials say the violence has not derailed their plans to pull back the forces. They will not leave Iraq until 2011, but they will leave the cities and retreat to bases outside urban areas. Trainers and advisers will stay on in the cities, and combat troops may patrol urban areas from bases outside the city limits.
The Iraqi government has not asked them to stay on, however. Mr. al-Maliki knows that requesting an extension of the U.S. presence would be a dangerous sign of weakness and would undermine his credibility and legitimacy. The government has insisted that the withdrawal proceed as scheduled and has promised that no security vacuum will be created.
It is not clear how capable the Iraqi security forces really are. They have been slow to reach staffing levels, their training is uneven and their motivations opaque. On the other hand, there are several reasons to believe they may be able to manage the violence. The departure of the U.S. forces will deprive the insurgents of a ready target. Indeed, the purpose of the insurgency could be to forestall that event that has prompted the recent surge. Also, Baghdad has already been “cleansed.” Most neighborhoods are no longer mixed and that will eliminate many of the tensions that contributed to violence in the past.
Mr. al-Maliki understands that this is a critical moment for his government. The U.S. determination to stick to the withdrawal schedule means that the Baghdad government has to begin actually governing. They cannot count on the Americans to step in. There are already signs of this new attitude: After one series of attacks, the government named a special panel to investigate. And the police commissioners responsible for security at the area where the suicide bombings occurred were detained.
There is yet another response to the violence that the government has not yet tried: genuine reconciliation with all forces in Iraq. Shiites are a majority in Iraq, but they should recognize that the only successful government will be one that includes all the country’s citizens. The constitution recognizes this fact, but implementation of its provisions has been halting.
The “surge” of U.S. forces in 2007 was aimed at providing breathing space for reconciliation. The surge was effective in curbing violence, but Iraq’s politicians were slow to exploit that opportunity. Critical questions of how the country’s oil revenues will be divided or whether members of the former regime will be allowed back into the government remain unanswered.
The withdrawal of U.S. forces is a symbol of the return of sovereignty — as was the first election after Hussein was removed from power, the creation of the first government, and the start of the new constitution. The government in Baghdad will have to take responsibility for governing and take responsibility for the fate of all Iraq’s citizens. It is a daunting assignment.
While Mr. al-Maliki must step up, it does not mean that others can wash their hands. Iraq needs the world’s help more than ever. We should be ready to provide it as long as Iraqis do their part.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.