A Violent New Year in Iraq

In the wake of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, new data shows that internal violence is on the rise. Maliki's power grabs haven't helped.

There has been a rapid and widespread deterioration of security in Iraq since the mid-December end of the U.S. military mission there. Yet a detailed analysis of the upsurge in violence reveals that withdrawal of U.S. troops was a less significant driver of violence than the U.S. policy of providing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki with a blank check in his campaign to consolidate power.

Tracking Iraq’s Regression

Perceptions of security in Iraq are often based on the number of mass-casualty attacks—such as car bombs and suicide-vest attacks in crowded places—undertaken in high-visibility locations like Baghdad or the number of deaths reported by the Iraqi government. According to Washington Institute for Near East Policy metrics sourced from the Iraqi security forces, Iraq witnessed thirty-six confirmed attempted mass-casualty attacks in January 2012, a significant increase on the average of twenty-three attacks a month in the quarter ending December 2011. Officially reported deaths are also increasing, with 340 civilian deaths reported in January 2012 compared to 155 in December 2011.

Yet a closer look at violence in Iraq’s provinces produces an even dimmer view of what has occurred since mid-December 2011. Mass-casualty attacks tell only part of the story of violence in Iraq, and mortality statistics overlook the targeted nature of violence in today’s Iraq, where a high proportion of victims are local progovernment community leaders. For every one person of this kind who is killed, an exponential number of others are intimidated into passive support for insurgent groups.

Analysis of general incident levels across the country is a better means of tracking these trends, but it is precisely this kind of data that the U.S. government no longer receives due to its military disengagement in Iraq. In effect, the U.S. government is slowly going blind in Iraq due to the military drawdown and the U.S. embassy’s inability to get out and about. According to Washington Institute for Near East Policy metrics derived from ongoing security-liaison relationships in Iraq, there were 561 reported attacks in January 2012, an increase from the 494 in December 2011 and well above the 302 incidents in November.

A year-on-year comparison is particularly instructive. In the year since the new Maliki government was formed in late 2010, the number of reported incidents has increased, largely as a result of the spike in violence since mid-December. Indeed, a year-on-year comparison shows that reported violence was a third lower in January 2011 (376 attacks in the Washington Institute’s datasets) than it is now. This figure is highly significant: reported violence is rising despite the removal of all U.S. military targets from Iraq’s roads in the last quarter of 2011 and despite a steep decline in the standard of incident reporting as Iraqi forces took over. Accounting for these factors, it is not a stretch to say that the incidence of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence has doubled since November 2011.

Provincial Security Metrics

In Iraqi security, the devil is always in the details. To understand the nature of violence and the drivers that are sustaining it, one must look at the provincial or even district level. Violence is rising sharply in three key areas:

Mosul: Due to its high concentration of former regime military officers and its proximity to the Syrian border, Mosul has always been a key hub of the Sunni insurgency. In November 2011, the province was quiet, with twenty-one security incidents. By January 2012, that monthly total had jumped fivefold to 105 attacks.

Sectarian melting pots: There are numerous Shia-Sunni melting pots in Baghdad and the provinces immediately surrounding the capital. Violence is gradually rising in all these areas, either in the form of anti-Shiite mass-casualty attacks or, far more frequently, Sunni insurgent slayings of Awakening and Sons of Iraq leaders.

Ethnic fault lines: Violence is sparking all along the so-called “trigger line” that separates federally administered Iraq from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In addition to sharp security deterioration in predictable powder kegs such as Kirkuk, many smaller areas along the disputed line have begun to witness violence after sustained periods of quiet since 2009.

It is clear that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is now experiencing something of a renaissance in the country. The movement is smaller but smarter. It has learned the lessons of its near defeat in 2007 and is now integrated to a far greater extent with Sunni nationalist insurgent groups. AQI has exploited the Iraqi government’s decision to end support for the Sons of Iraq police paramilitaries by launching a stick-and-carrot campaign that combines regular assassinations with periodic amnesties for Awakening members who agree to provide active or passive support to the terrorist movement. Following U.S. military withdrawal, al-Qaeda—not the Iraqi government—has been the fastest to grasp the concept of a population-centric military campaign. Indeed, AQI’s vision of the Iraqi government as an Iranian-backed Shiite dictatorship is squarely in line with the feelings of the Sunni Arabs following the mid-December crackdown by the Maliki government on Sunni leaders and provinces.

U.S. Policy and Destabilization

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