What are we to make of the increase in violent deaths in Iraq during June and July? Is it a sign of a long-term upsurge in violence since the U.S. troop withdrawal? Who are the culprits? These are all pertinent questions to ask.
It should be noted that violence in Iraq often follows cyclical patterns. Insurgent groups normally step up their operations as summer begins, and also around the times of religious festivals, when pilgrims — frequently traveling on foot — are exposed to attacks. In June, there were waves of bomb attacks targeting Shi’a pilgrims who were commemorating the death of Moussa al-Kadhim, who was the great-grandson of Muhammad. One should be careful in extrapolating from short-term trends to warn of growing sectarian tensions and a return to civil war in the near future.
Today, the insurgent groups responsible for attacks on civilians and a large number of attacks on government officials are entirely Sunni, since the Shi’a militant groups like the Kataib Hizbullah have disbanded following the pullout of U.S. forces.
The two main organizations are al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which is now virtually an entirely native force, and the Ba’athist Naqshibandia. The latter is led by Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, who is still at large and most recently appeared in April in a video denouncing the Assad regime and complaining of an Iranian-American-Israeli conspiracy taking over Iraq.
At present, there is no real evidence to suggest that either group is gaining new recruits from Sunni Arabs on the basis of frustration with problems in the political process. If such an assertion were true, insurgents carrying out the attacks would surely make their specific grievances clear (e.g., perhaps demanding from Nouri al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad an amnesty for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi).
However, there are two ways in which one can link the current state of Iraqi politics with violence. First, as analyst Joel Wing of Musings on Iraq suggested to me in a discussion on this topic, the political impasse can induce frustration in local Sunni Arab populations such that the insurgents have an easier environment in which to conduct operations.
Hence, said locals might refuse to disclose the whereabouts of insurgents to the security forces, presumably due to a “serves them right” attitude regarding the government and security forces. In turn, the tendency towards heavy-handedness on the part of the Iraqi army and police — which still suffer from major deficiencies in intelligence gathering on militant activities — could only exacerbate such a problem.