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Iraq Bombings: Manipulating the Political Scene

Author: Rachel Schneller, International Affairs Fellow
December 12, 2009
Islam Online


On December 8, five separate bombings across Baghdad killed close to 150 people and wounded hundreds more, warning the world that all is still not well six years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, despite the drafting of a new Iraqi Constitution and multiple rounds of provincial and national elections that have theoretically set Iraq on the path toward becoming a stable democracy. 

The most recent bombings, following similar bombings in October and August that also targeted Iraqi government buildings with equally tragic results, coincided with the news that the Iraqi government had finally set the date for national elections for March 8, 2010, linking the two events in the minds of many. 

As the Iraqi political process revs up, terrorist acts occur that appear aimed at steering the political process in one way or another.  Finger-pointing has ensued despite the lack of a transparent police investigation linking the attacks to any one particular group. 

On a personal level, my heart goes out to the people of Iraq who wake up every day wondering if they or their family will be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the next bomb goes off. 

During the year I lived in Basra, from 2005 to 2006, working for the US State Department, I was in awe of the faith and courage of the Iraqis I met. I heard stories of people who had lived through the Iran-Iraq war, the first Gulf War, and the second Iraq war, who were so accustomed to the sound of bombs in the street they no longer blinked when the ground shook because of the most recent explosion. 

I admired and respected the courage it took Iraqis to get up in the morning and go to work and the market, simple actions of daily life that I took for granted, but that for Iraqis were dangerous, risky, and required a strong faith in a higher power.

It is unknown who the perpetrators of the recent Baghdad attacks were, so Iraqis are understandably becoming more suspicious and distrustful of their neighbors, both inside and outside Iraq.  

Amplifying Sectarian Tension

Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki attributes the bombings to former Ba'athists and Al Qaeda operatives, operating with outside support. The attacks certainly bear some of the hallmarks of Al Qaeda- multiple synchronized attacks, suicide bombers, and high-profile targets- but to date there has been no firm evidence presented to the public so it is impossible to be completely certain as to the identities of the attackers and their motivations. 

Blaming these groups runs the risk of further hardening public attitudes against the Sunni minority in Iraq and amplifying sectarian tension in the country in the pre-election period. And if Sunnis stand to gain nothing from the political process, they have little to lose from bombing the very structures of political power in the Iraqi capital, and the accusations could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is important to keep in mind that these attacks differ from Al Qaeda's signature style in several significant ways. In Iraq, the main targets of Al Qaeda to date have been the United States and other Coalition countries. It is no secret that Coalition forces in Iraq are considered unholy marauders in Muslim countries by Al Qaeda.

So it is unusual that Al Qaeda would be behind attacks whose victims are all Muslims. If true, this is a worrisome development that could threaten Muslim populations in other countries were Al Qaeda exists. The proliferation of numerous, decentralized groups with access to weapons will make it much more difficult to address security concerns.

It is also difficult to see how Al Qaeda operatives or Ba'athists are able to drive such large quantities of explosive materials through Baghdad without being stopped.  Strangers and foreigners stand out in Iraq, and those behind the Baghdad bombings appear to be as well acquainted with the city's layout as any taxi driver, as well as an apparent free license to drive anywhere with large amounts of explosives in their back seats. 

An "Inside Job"?

Some of my Iraqi friends believe the bombings must be an "inside job" perpetrated by rival political parties. Conspiracy theories flourish, further feeding Iraqi fears that they are being specifically targeted by individuals because of their religion of ethnic identity.

Criticisms of Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki's inability to secure Baghdad in the pre-election period prompted him to replace his Baghdad Security Commander General Aboud Qanbar with the Deputy Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Defense Ahmed Hashim Ouda, but it does not seem likely that shuffling cabinet positions will significantly improve the Baghdad security climate. If Maliki's party loses the national elections scheduled for March 8, 2010, it will surely be in part because of the recent attacks and Maliki's ineffectual response.

However, no other political party, Shia or otherwise, has come forward with a better security platform or a more cohesive plan for the prevention of future terrorist attacks.  

It is not clear that there is a better option for Iraqi voters than their current political leaders. Security concerns are likely to increase in the pre-election period, and there is also the possibility that violence could increase following elections as the new government forms. Whichever new government is put in place next year, it will likely face the same security concerns that Prime Minister Al Maliki is facing right now.

No matter who is bombing Baghdad, the overarching concerns are the continued lack of security in Iraqi and doubt whether the perpetrators of crimes will be brought to justice in a court of law. Identifying and prosecuting those responsible for the bombings would help stop attacks and deter other would-be bombers. 

Lack of Rule of Law

But even if Iraqi leaders could identify the perpetrators with certainty now, there is little likelihood the criminals would be brought to justice under rule of law. If identified, the bombers would most likely be targeted for assassination by rival factions also in the possession of bombs and weapons rather than be brought to trial.

The disarray of the Iraqi judicial system has meant that thousands of Iraqis have been murdered by other Iraqis over the past six years with impunity. There is nothing currently being done to effectively deter those seeking to conduct crime, violence, and terrorism in Iraq.   

This is an alarming state of affairs as rule of law is vital for any modern state to function. Iraq has become a country where nearly anyone, regardless of religion or political party, is able to procure the materials for large-scale attacks and get away with using them.

The lack of an independent judiciary and capable investigative police corps in Iraq is a problem for the country's security and economic development, but Iraq should take heart that it is not alone. Many other countries in the world also struggle with the problem of how to investigate crimes and render justice through their nation's institutions. Most of them do not have Iraq's levels of violence, but the end goal is the same: to prevent citizens from exacting revenge individually, perpetuating the cycle of violence. 

Many developing countries must develop a cadre of competent judges and lawyers, but Iraq already has many well-educated legal professionals and a history of a competent judiciary. Iraq has an advantage in that it does not need to develop an entire legal system from scratch and can draw upon many resources as it strives to address the problems in its judicial system.

Iraqi voters have the right to hold their leaders accountable for the state of Iraq's justice system. In Iraq, as in the Balkans, crimes need to be decoupled from the religion or ethnicity of the criminal and persecuted according to the law. This is important so that criminals are defined by their actions, not their religion or ethnicity, to prevent revenge against an entire group of people simply because of their religious or ethnic affiliation.

Iraqi politicians would do well to refrain from describing terrorists by their religion or political party to calm the sectarian tensions that already threaten the country's cohesiveness. Individuals who are brought before the court in Iraq should have confidence that they will be judged by their actions, not their identity.

The larger problem of the judicial vacuum in Iraq, which feeds the security crisis by enabling terrorists to bomb the same institutions in Baghdad month after month without penalty, cannot be solved by U.S. military or Iraqi Security Forces alone. It may be tempting to hope that well-trained troops could put an end to further attacks and pin hopes on a continued US. military presence or more training for ISF as a solution to Iraq's problems. 

Iraqis certainly deserve to be able to walk down the street to work or to market without praying for their lives. In the short-term, military forces may be able to deter some attacks. 

But Iraqis also deserve to walk down the street without seeing armed soldiers at every corner, and this will only happen when there is a system that holds terrorists and criminals accountable for their actions. After three wars in three decades, Iraqis have become accustomed to explosions and fear as a part of their daily lives, a tragedy for such a rich and sophisticated culture. They deserve better, and from my own experience working with the courageous people of Iraq, I know they have the capacity to ensure peace and stability in their country.




This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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