A key factor in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s electoral success in January’s Iraqi provincial elections was the perception among a good number of Iraqis that he had made Iraq safer. The massive attacks last week shattered that perception. Among other things, Maliki is taking criticism for having prematurely removed many of the concrete blast walls that had been placed throughout Baghdad by U.S. forces to frustrate the movements of insurgents and sectarian militias.
David Ignatius asks “Who’s to blame for the carnage?”
In today’s Iraq, that’s open to sectarian conspiracy theories. Maliki’s Shiite-led government last weekend broadcast the alleged confession of a Sunni Baathist named Wisam Ali Khazim Ibrahim, who said the truck-bombing plot had been hatched in Syria and that he had paid security guards $10,000 to pass through checkpoints.
But forensic evidence points to a possible Iranian role, according to an Iraqi intelligence source who is close to Shahwani. He said that signatures of the C-4 explosive residues that have been found at the bomb sites are similar to those of Iranian-made explosives that have been captured in Kut, Nasiriyah, Basra and other Iraqi cities since 2006.
Earlier today, the Islamic State of Iraq, Al Qaeda’s Iraq franchise, claimed credit for last week’s attack. This doesn’t necessarily preclude an Iranian role, but basing blame for attacks upon the provenance of particular weapons and explosives has always seemed to me to be a tricky business, because of the simple fact that Iraq is a country awash in weapons and explosives. (According to the pro-gun lobby, this should make it one of the safest places in the world, but interestingly this is not the case.)
As security unravels in Iraq, U.S. forces there are mostly bystanders. Even in the areas where al-Qaeda operatives remain potent, such as Mosul, the Americans have little control. Sunni terrorists who are arrested are quickly released by the Iraqis in exchange for bribes of up to $100,000, according to an Iraqi source.
Should the Americans try to restore order? The top Iraqi intelligence source answered sadly that it was probably wiser to “stay out of it and be safe.” When pressed about what his country would look like in five years, absent American help, he answered bluntly: “Iraq will be a colony of Iran.”
I think that’s probably an overstatement — there’s a strong strain of anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq that, much like the strain of anti-Americanism, will probably prevent Iraq from becoming a vassal of either — but the inescapable (and entirely predictable) reality is that when you remove an Iraqi Sunni regime deeply opposed to Iran and replace it with an Iraqi Shia regime with longstanding ties to Iran, you’re going to end up with an Iraq in which Iran exercises significant influence.
Agreement on the new alliance seems to have been arrived at in Tehran, and it is basically a case of Shiite Islamists with long-standing Iranian sympathies like Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and Abd al-Karim al-Anizi reaching an understanding with other Shiite Islamists whose turn to Iran is of far more recent date (and probably is still disputed by many of their adherents in Iraq), as in the case of Muqtada al-Sadr. [...]
As for the reasons for the sudden haste in declaring the alliance -– with the apparent use of a deadline to put pressure on a Maliki -– we can only speculate. But at least two factors stand out. Firstly, in Tehran, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim’s health once more seems to be deteriorating, with reports that he has been transferred to a more intensive form of hospital care. Secondly, from Qum, there are rumours that Muqtada al-Sadr may be about to return to Iraq, possibly even with enhanced scholarly credentials. Both these factors might unleash destabilising forces within the Shiite community that Iran may wish to avoid… To Iran, then, it may have seemed prudent to try to put in place some kind of integrative mechanism that could guarantee Shiite sectarian unity in the 2010 parliamentary elections.
All of this cuts pretty seriously against the overly optimistic narrative of declining violence and increasing state consolidation under Maliki. What we need to watch out for though, are the inevitable attempts by conservatives to blame future destabilizing violence on “Obama’s withdrawal,” and suggestions that Iraq’s being far from perfect argues for American forces to stay and stay.