TSG IntelBrief: Iraq: Fragile Stability Breaking Down
August 6, 2012

As of early August 2012, the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating as insurgent violence that had remained relatively contained following the December 2011 U.S. pullout from Iraq is escalating sharply. On July 23rd, Sunni Muslim insurgents conducted their most ambitious operations in many years, attacking 40 different locations throughout Iraq during the day, and killing well over 100 persons. The attacks included assaults on military and police installations, as well as on the more typical targets such as Shiite Muslim pilgrims and Shiite gathering places. The wave of attacks came two days after the leader of the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, warned of a new offensive called “Breaking Down Walls.” 

The success of the attacks by al Qaeda in Iraq (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq) demonstrates the intelligence and organizational failures of the 700,000 member Iraq Security Forces (ISF). The ISF did not intercept or prevent any of the 40 different attacks, despite the forewarning it had from al Baghdadi’s earlier statement. In subsequent days, al Qaeda in Iraq — which is composed mostly of Iraqi Sunni Muslims and is not an amalgam of foreign fighters typical of the al Qaeda organization based in Pakistan — attacked additional locations and downed an ISF helicopter. The offensive caused 15 neighborhood representatives in Diyala Province, where several of the July 23rd attacks occurred, to resign their posts based on assertions that the Iraqi government was incapable of protecting them from al Qaeda operatives in the province.

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Political Backdrop to the High Profile Attacks

The upsurge in al Qaeda attacks in the summer of 2012 is not occurring in a vacuum. First and foremost, there is no longer a U.S. troop presence in Iraq. As a result, the ISF is suffering from a substantial reduction in intelligence coordination with the United States and from the loss of the stiffening effect U.S. troops had on their Iraqi counterparts. Further, there had been strong indications that al Qaeda in Iraq enjoyed steadily increasing freedom of movement inside Iraq, and the late July violence was a manifestation of that trend.

The violence also comes amid major tensions within the governing institutions. Sunni and Kurd opponents of Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accuse him of attempting to monopolize power and they have sought to orchestrate a no-confidence motion against him. That motion has thus far failed to muster clear majority support, but the political crisis has consumed the political system, leaving little room for governance or developing initiatives designed to improve the lives of Iraqis.

The political crisis reflects how deeply alienated Iraq’s Sunnis still feel, and the effort they’ve led to remove Maliki are a result of his earlier efforts to marginalize key Sunni leaders. As the U.S. withdrawal was nearing completion, Maliki ordered the arrest of first Vice President Tariq Al Hashimi, a senior Sunni figure, on the accusation that he was backing anti-Shiite death squads. Hashimi fled first to Kurd-controlled territory in northern Iraq, and ultimately to Turkey, where he remains while his trial — in absentia — has been under way in Baghdad since early July. For Iraqi Sunnis, the Hashimi trial is emblematic of what they say are Maliki’s attempts to oust the Sunnis from the political process entirely.

At the same time, the Kurds have moved ever further away from Maliki and participation in the central government in Baghdad. Iraqi Kurdish region president Masoud Barzani has threatened that the Kurdish region might seek to separate from Iraq entirely if Maliki attempts to further concentrate power. And, in recent months, the Kurds — despite bitter opposition from the central government — have signed separate energy development deals with Exxon Mobil and Total of France, and have also begun supplying oil directly to Turkey.

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Influence of the Syrian Crisis

Some experts believe the upsurge of al Qaeda-led violence in Iraq represents a spillover from the ongoing unrest in Syria. There, Sunni civilians and army defectors are attempting to overthrow the pro-Iranian, Alawite (Shiite offshoot)-led government of President Bashar Al Assad. The apparent success of the Sunni opposition in Syria may have emboldened the Iraqi Sunni factions to become more active against Maliki, a Shiite who, like Assad, is seen as an ally of Iran.          
 
Still, the influence of the Syrian crisis on violence in Iraq might be a speculative proposition. Some non-Iraqi al Qaeda fighters purportedly have transited Iraq en route to Syria to assist the Syria uprising. However, there have been few confirmed reports of fighters in Syria moving back into Iraq, casting some doubt that there is a significant material connection between the fighting in Syria and the al Qaeda offensives in Iraq.

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U.S. Reaction and Options

For the U.S., the intensified violence in Iraq carries significant implications, primarily in potentially tarnishing the perception of success of the U.S. mission in Iraq. U.S. policymakers fear that further success by Sunni insurgents could cause the ISF to falter or even provoke a return to the Sunni–Shiite conflict that prevailed during 2005-2008 period. That conflict was suppressed by the U.S. “troop surge” and a shift by Sunnis to a more cooperative stance with the dominant Shiites.

For the Obama Administration, a major upsurge in violence in Iraq is likely to renew assertions from critics that the White House should have pressed harder for the Iraqis to allow a residual U.S. troop presence beyond 2011. However, as an indication that Washington lacks many viable options to deal with the new violence in Iraq, the U.S. issued a statement after the July 23rd attacks that the ISF “is fully capable of dealing with the unrest on its own.”  

This statement of confidence in the ISF reflects the realization that the United States lacks significant tools in Iraq to help the Iraqis overcome their difficulties. In late July, the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR) reported that a State Department-run training program for the Iraqi police (Police Development Program, PDP) has been scaled down to 10% of its originally planned size. The Iraqis have increasingly sought to emerge from the shadow of U.S. tutelage and have not expressed support for that program; this downsizing is thus consistent with current realities.

Further, the U.S. had expected to continue to train and mentor the Iraqi armed forces after 2011 through the Office of Security Cooperation–Iraq (OSC-I). Yet, because of Iraq’s desire to manage its own affairs, agreement has yet to be reached on a Status of Forces Agreement that would enable OSC-I trainers to work closely with the Iraqis against such key targets as al Qaeda in Iraq. The work of OSC-I personnel therefore remains mostly confined to processing the extensive pipeline of U.S. military sales, including a planned sale of 36 F-16 fighter jets. The aircraft seem to be a priority for the Iraqi military — which was the fourth largest in the world prior to the first Gulf war — even though such advanced weapon systems would be of little real tactical value in combating the renewed threat from al Qaeda in Iraq.

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