The Iraq war is over for the US, and the country is a more stable place than at the height of its civil war. But the Sunni insurgency never really died, and Syria is adding some fuel.
I updated this post to correct an unintentional error. I originally wrote that Sunni jihadis are a "major" component of the rebellion in Syria, implying they are a majority. That is not the case.
After a series of attacks across Iraq yesterday left 115 people dead and scores more wounded, a simple reality must be acknowledged: Iraq's insurgency against the central government installed by a US-led coalition nine years ago never really ended. It has simply morphed into something smaller and more intermittent.
That's not to say Iraq is a living hell. It isn't, and has come a long way from the worst of its war between 2004 and 2008, which saw wholesale transfers of Iraq's Shiite and Sunni communities from previously mixed neighborhoods and towns into sectarian cantonments. Tens of thousands were murdered in their homes, on the road, and in their shops, with many of the victims tortured to death and many of the survivors permanently disfigured.
But the Iraq of 2012 is a country where a background level of violence has become a daily norm and appears to be ticking up again. That's been the trend for some time, but it could be set to gather more steam.
In neighboring Syria, which US officials blamed for the flow of Sunni jihadis into Iraq during the worst of the war, Sunni jihadis now make up an important component of the forces fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. That's an inspiration to their fellow travelers in Iraq, who are as eager for Mr. Assad's downfall as any hawk in Washington, though for rather different reasons. With recent rebel victories there, the most ideological among them feel the wind is at their backs.
The current leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, an Al Qaeda-style Sunni militant group, laid out the connection in his first-ever audio statement released Saturday.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – a nom de guerre if ever there was one – spoke for 30 minutes. He vowed that Sunni insurgents would retake the strongholds they lost inside Iraq in 2007 and 2008 (most in Anbar Province, which shares a long and poorly guarded desert border with Syria), urged stepped-up assassinations against Iraqi government officials and Shiites in general, and spoke at length about the jihad against Assad across the border.
"Our people there have fired the coup de gráce at the terror that grasped ... [Syria] for decades," he said. They have "taught the world lessons of courage and jihad and proved that injustice could only be removed by force" and warned Syrians "not to accept any rule or constitution but God's rule and Islamic law. Otherwise, you will lose your blessed revolution."
Iraq's Shiite government, meanwhile, has avoided harsh condemnation of Assad in Syria. Iraq's government is now closer to Iran, an Assad backer, than it is to the United States. And Iraq's interest in Syria is for stability, not a blossoming war on its borders that can easily spill over.
Iraq has refused to bar Iran from using its airspace to deliver supplies to Assad, despite US urging and claims that the flights contain weapons. Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, insisted that Iranian flights over Iraqi airspace contain only humanitarian aid, not weapons, though how he could know this is unclear.
Was Assad a supporter of Sunni jihadis inside Iraq during the height of the fighting? It was never proved, though it made a certain sense. Though Sunni Islamists detest Assad and the Alawite sect he belongs to, the US had been publicly menacing Syria at the start of the Iraq war. The longer and costlier the US occupation of Iraq was for the US, the better, from Assad's perspective. But the smuggling routes for weapons and money for Sunni jihadis across Syria and into Anbar Province (and sometimes into Saudi Arabia, which supports the uprising against Assad) are now likely flowing in the opposite direction.
That's bad news for Assad's government, but it could also end up proving bad news for Iraq – if Mr. Baghdadi's bluster is backed up by more attacks like Monday's. The US was kicked out of Iraq at the end of last year, so it won't be able to help if the current sporadic nature of the violence grows into a more serious military challenge. Baghdadi's predecessor was killed in a US-led raid in 2010, one of the last major US actions against a Sunni militant leader inside the country.
The targets of the latest rampage in Iraq were the familiar mélange: a strike on a coffee shop in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad; assassinations of police officers at homes; and coordinated attacks on military checkpoints and a military base that displayed planning, commitment, and ability from the attackers. One attack north of Baghdad involved the successful storming of a military base that left 15 Iraqi soldiers dead. The coordinated show of force took place in at least five Iraqi provinces, from Mosul in the north to Diwaniya south of the capital. Among the dead in Baghdad was an Iraqi general, whose convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device yesterday evening.
In March, 46 Iraqis were murdered in attacks claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq, the Sunni militant group that has positioned itself as the country's Al Qaeda affiliate. In June, the group took responsibility for the murder of over 70 Iraqis with a series of car bombings. While there has been no formal claim for carrying out this week's attacks, one seems very likely to be forthcoming.
The US government reported in June that Iraq had 3,063 deaths at the hands of terror-style attacks in 2011, the second highest global total, after Afghanistan. And that number appears likely to be higher for all of 2012. Becca Wasser, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington found a surge in deadly attacks in Iraq in the first quarter of this year. She writes that the country witnessed a 70 percent increase in bomb attacks between Dec. 19, 2011, and March 19, 2012, compared with the same period a year earlier, and argued that the numbers show Sunni militants are finding new ways to take the fight to the country's Shiite-dominated central government.
Much of the commentary on Iraq's rising violence and what to do about it has been firmly rooted to the same spot for years. Reconciliation, particularly between Sunnis and Shiites, is the prescription. Anthony Cordesman and Sam Khazai write in the first sentence of a long report on Iraq's Search for Stability earlier this month that "Iraq is in an ongoing struggle to establish a new national identity, and one that can bridge across the deep sectarian divisions between its Shiites and Sunnis and the ethnic divisions between its Arabs and its Kurds and other minorities."
No knock on the excellent report (which is more than 100 pages long), but dozens of reports stretching back almost a decade have started with more or less the same exact language. A quick search of my own stories from Baghdad from 2003 to 2008 turns up dozens of hits for articles with the words "Sunni," "Shiite," and "reconciliation" in them.
Here's a January 2004 piece about a reconciliation effort between Sunni and Shiite clerics "with the threat of sectarian strife hanging over Iraq's transition, punctuated by mosque takeovers in the southern city of Basra, an explosion at a small Sunni mosque in Baghdad, and the press rife with talk about rivalry across Iraq's great sectarian divide, the imams want to head off potential conflict." The meeting obviously failed in meeting its goal. One of the Sunni clerics who participated went on to become a major support of the Sunni side of the Iraqi civil war that erupted soon after, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Almost every effort at true reconciliation since then has failed. Iraq's war was a zero-sum game for its participants.
The Shiites, a majority who had long been under the heel of the Sunni-dominated Baath regime of Saddam Hussein, won. The Sunni community lost. Since, Mr. Maliki has shown little interest in making concessions to his ideological opponents and has unsurprisingly been most interested in locking in a long period of dominance for his own confessional community. He hasn't exactly been subtle about it.
The good news for Maliki is that he's unlikely to lose the battle with Sunni insurgents. They remain a minority in Iraq, and Maliki's forces are better armed and far more numerous. The goal for Iraq's jihadis has all along been to drive the country into a vicious sectarian civil war, which they hope will create enough chaos to topple the government. But they actually succeeded in getting their wish in 2006, when the destruction of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra unleashed the most vicious wave of sectarian massacres of the whole war. The result? Tens of thousands more dead, but ultimately Iraq's new Shiite government was more entrenched than ever.
The bad news for Iraq is something else again. It remains among the most violent countries on earth and while rich in oil, its economy remains moribund. International investors are not exactly rushing to place their bets on a country that is as corrupt as it is dangerous.