Second, one should not discount the violence between political factions that accounts for some of the attacks on government officials. Observers have noted that the nature of such operations — for instance, assassinations by means of firearms with silencers — points to a picture of meticulous planning and skill at odds with the simpler car bombs and suicide bombers of the Naqshibandia and AQI. It is hardly implausible that political factions have their own hitmen they can deploy against each other in times of political crisis.
Nevertheless, as Wing also told me, it is important not to exaggerate the extent of this phenomenon. Indeed, violence between political factions probably accounts for only a minor proportion of these attacks.
In fact, more overt examples of violence between political factions (e.g. rallying supporters to attack the offices of a rival party) are also fairly rare. The most recent notable case actually took place in the Kurdistan area in early December, between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party — part of the ruling coalition of the Kurdistan Regional Government — and the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union. The clashes arose after supporters of the latter attacked liquor stores, and other businesses owned by Assyrians and Yezidis in the town of Zakho.
Finally, it should be stressed that in general, the reduction of AQI’s influence since the advent of the Sons of Iraq movement has been exaggerated. Though the group’s power in central Iraq and Anbar is indeed at a shadow of its former self, AQI has always maintained a strong presence in Mosul. There it behaves like the Mafia, extorting money from businesses and other residents — this has been going on for years and gives AQI ample financial means to carry out attacks.
A case-in-point is the murder of the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul in January or February 2008, after churches in the city stopped paying jizya – a traditional extortionist poll-tax imposed on non-Muslims living under Islamic law — to AQI. It should be noted that this incident took place even as AQI was suffering major setbacks further south.
Violence has generally stabilized at levels that still make Iraq a very dangerous place, which in turn creates numerous problems – one such problem is deterred foreign investment, which impedes reconstruction efforts and the liberalization of the top-down bureaucracy.
The political impasse, heavy-handedness of the security forces, and AQI strength in Mosul mean that overall violence is unlikely to decrease substantially over the coming years, even as we can put aside media sensationalism that tends to look only at short-term trends with uninformed talk of a return to a full-blown sectarian civil war as we saw in 2006.