Baghdad on the Brink

January 15, 2014 Topic: Security Region: Iraq

Baghdad on the Brink

2014 is a crucial year as Iraq's citizens lose faith in their government's ability to protect them.

In a sign that Iraq’s security continues to deteriorate in the midst of an assault by al Qaeda forces in parts of the country, the Obama administration recently decided to quietly send the Iraqi security forces an order of seventy-five Hellfire missiles, ten small reconnaissance drones, and a fleet of another forty-eight drones by the end of 2014. The arms sale, news of which was published by The New York Times late last month, came a few days after the spokeswoman from U.S. State Department acknowledged in a statement that the al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq was attempting to regain some of the territory that it lost to U.S. and Iraqi forces several years earlier.

While the arms deal announcement will no doubt improve the Iraqi government’s intelligence and reconnaissance capability in its fight with the terrorist network, Baghdad remains understaffed and under-equipped, particularly its air force—a tool that Iraqi government officials view as crucial in preventing al Qaeda from making further inroads in Anbar, Diyala and Saladin provinces. The military assistance could not have come at a better time, as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) reassert partial control over the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

Despite repeated claims from some in the White House that its Iraq policy has helped produce a largely stable and democratic country, the past year has demonstrated that ISIS remains determined to continue its track record as one of the most capable jihadist affiliates in the region. While exact statistics on ISIS’ attacks and recruitment are difficult to acquire, it is becoming increasingly obvious that ISIS is quickly regaining its membership strength and executing attacks at a rate that Iraq has not seen since 2008. The Long War Journal has counted thirty-eight suicide attacks conducted by ISIS militants in the month of October alone—a number that underscores just how successful the group is in retaining people who are ready to sacrifice themselves to the cause. Through its actions in response to the attacks, the Shia-dominated government recognizes that terrorism remains a major blemish on its record, undermining its competency in the realm of public safety.

Perhaps more disturbing than the specific numbers (7,818 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2013, a count not seen since the height of the violence in 2008) is the relative ease with which ISIS executes these attacks. No Iraqi is off-limits to the bloodshed: playgrounds, restaurants, cafes, schools, Iraqi security checkpoints, mosques, and churches have all been targeted over the past year, resulting in thousands of deaths and thousands more injuries. Holidays are not off-limits either; on Christmas Day, a car bomb was set off near a church, killing at least twenty-four congregants who streamed out after mass.

The mass casualty attacks and its recent foray into two of Anbar’s most important cities all lead to one conclusion: ISIS is no longer a group that can be contained on the fringes of Iraq’s periphery. Rather, the organization is executing attacks at its highest rate since the civil war erupted in Iraq in 2006, thanks to a combination of factors. When taking into account the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011, an Iraqi security force that has reverted back to simply killing insurgents wherever they pop up (akin to the ‘whack a-mole’ approach that the US used prior to 2006), and a raging sectarian civil war next door in Syria, ISIS is successfully exploiting the fast-moving environment for its own purposes.

Although the United States does not have the same commitment to Iraq’s security that it had during its nearly nine-year presence in that country, the Obama administration seems to grasp the fact that the escalating violence in Baghdad, Mosul, Fallujah, Samara and Tikrit is both turning the Iraqi people away from their government, and ruining the White House’s message of responsibly ending a war that most Americans grew tired off. The missile transfer to the Iraqi security forces, and the administration’s intention to speed up future deliveries of military equipment, is yet another indicator that the White House is worried about the direction in which Iraq is heading—and that its status as a sovereign government capable of protecting its people is deteriorating with every mass-casualty attack.

What should we expect in Iraq in 2014? Unfortunately, the trends point to a continuation of the status quo, with terrorist bombings continuing to target Iraqi army and police installations, checkpoints, and patrols. Iraqi civilians, still trying to recover from their first sectarian civil war, will wonder whether a second one is in the offing. The administration of Prime Minister Maliki, seeking a third term in office, could very well use an election victory in 2014 as a vindication of his one-dimensional counterterrorism policy—one that relies on arresting people in a wide area (more often than not Sunnis) and sorting out the innocent later. And while the upcoming April 2014 parliamentary elections will no doubt be seen as yet another exercise in democracy, the voting will be a huge test for the Iraqi security forces as they try, without assistance from tens of thousands of American troops, to protect voters casting their ballots .

All of these predictions are grim and perhaps overly pessimistic, and for the Iraqis’ sake, we all must hope that all of them fail to materialize. But looking at Iraq’s security situation today and the resiliency of ISIS, being grim about the future is more realistic than being hopeful.

If 2014 turns out to be as bloody a year for Iraq as 2013 was, Washington may find it necessary to commit even more military and intelligence resources to the theater. Such a response would be a relatively low-cost way to signal to Iraqis that they have a committed counterterrorism partner, without once again deploying U.S. conventional or special operations personnel on Iraqi soil.

Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East researcher for Wikistrat, Inc.