Will U.S. Forces in Iraq Pull Out as Civil Conflict Heats Up?

The current wave of insurgent attacks across Iraq is motivated by two immediate goals: take credit for the withdrawal of U.S. forces as a defeat for America and intimidate the Iraqi government from extending the withdrawal deadline beyond the end of the year.

And the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is also a time when insurgents often prefer to strike hard to link their struggle to Islam. But the key question now is whether the Iraqi insurgency has returned to the higher level of conflict seen before the U.S. military surge. Unfortunately, some trends appear to point toward the answer being “yes.” The Iraqi security forces’ poor training, morale, and performance remain endemic problems. Recall, for example, that when the Sunni insurgent group “Islamic State of Iraq” launched a major assault in March on the government compound of Salah al-Din’s provincial administration in Tikrit, it took a joint U.S.-Iraqi team to reclaim the provincial government building. Even so, the attack left over 60 dead and more than 100 injured.

Despite the decline of violence since the virtual civil war in 2006, the Iraqi army and police are still not fully capable of taking on counterinsurgency operations by themselves. This issue -- rather than concern over potential foreign threats -- is behind the desire by some Iraqi politicians, like Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to extend the withdrawal deadline.

A related concern is the way in which al-Maliki -- justifiably dubbed “Mesopotamia’s Machiavelli” owing to his autocratic tendencies -- has diverted the Iraqi security forces from cracking down on insurgent groups and toward being a tool in his personal feuds with political rivals, even within the ruling coalition. Last month, U.S. officers and officials were puzzled as to why an offensive by Iraqi security forces in Maysan province -- on the border with Iran and a route for arms smuggling to the Iranian-backed Shia militants -- failed to produce worthwhile results.

The explanation for this apparent failure, as Joel Wing of Musings on Iraq points out, is that the operations were merely a “false offensive” to serve as a warning to the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Although al-Sadr and his faction are an important part of al-Maliki’s ruling coalition, they are also a thorn in the prime minister’s side because of their demagogic anti-Americanism. For example, they call for Americans to be barred from entering the parliament and pressure provincial councils to stop U.S. troops from operating in their area.