63 killed in Baghdad as political crisis worsens
Terrorists launched a series of attacks in Baghdad today, killing at least 63 people and wounding scores more. The attacks were coordinated across the Iraqi capital. The suicide attack was likely carried out by al Qaeda in Iraq or Ansar al Islam (Ansar al Sunnah), as both groups use this tactic. From The New York Times:
A wave of coordinated explosions ripped across Baghdad early on Thursday, killing at least 63 people, wounding more than 180 and jolting a country already unsettled by a deepening political crisis and the absence of American troops.
Using car bombs and improvised explosives, insurgents attacked markets, grocery stores, schools and government buildings in a dozen neighborhoods in the central and eastern parts of the capital.
The attacks were the most significant violence in Iraq since the last American troops pulled out of the country earlier this week. So far, the withdrawal and the bitter fighting between Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, and his political foes in Parliament have not been accompanied by a rise in violence. But Thursday's attacks raised the specter that the crisis inside the government could spill into the streets.
The attacks came a day after Mr. Maliki threatened to abandon an American-backed power-sharing government created a year ago. The prime minister's words at a televised news conference on Wednesday threw a fragile democracy into further turmoil after the departure of American troops, potentially tarnishing what has been cast as a major foreign policy achievement for President Obama.
See the Institute for the Study of War's analysis on the impact of the US withdrawal on the political situation in Iraq. I concur with Ramzy Mardani that "the U.S. military's presence still served a peacekeeping and pacifying role in Iraq," and their "premature removal" has removed a crucial buffer from Iraq's fractious political process. More from the ISW report:
In northern Iraq, U.S. troops had deterred potential physical confrontation between Arab and Kurdish forces over disputed territories. However, the U.S. presence had more importantly provided a psychological effect that helped stabilize and bound Iraqi political discourse within expected behavior. Their premature removal from the political space has altered the manner in which Iraq's actors interact with and behave towards one another. Hence, the withdrawal and subsequent turmoil could have profound consequences for Iraq.
The worst-case scenario would be a true civil war in Iraq, in which established military, police, and government institutions fracture along political/sectarian lines and battle each other (I'm of the opinion that Iraq was in the midst of a violent insurgency from 2004-2008, not a civil war). This is by no means guaranteed; Iraq's political actors still have time to step back from the brink and repair the rift.
In the short term, the current political crisis in Iraq only gives more space to Sunni terror groups such as al Qaeda, Ansar al Islam, and the Iranian-backed Shia terror groups such as the Asaib al Haq, Hezbollah Brigades, and Muqtada al Sadr's Promised Day Brigade. Iran also benefits, as the political crisis allows it to wield more influence with the Shia political parties and terror groups.
If Maliki continues his crackdown on Sunni politicians, the Sunni leaders who have backed the government, including the Awakening movements in Anbar, Salahadin, Ninewa, and Diyala, will be hard-pressed to keep their forces from rejoining the insurgency. Without a doubt, al Qaeda in Iraq and Ansar al Islam are using the current crisis to hone their message that Maliki is an Iranian agent and to portray themselves as the true defenders of the Sunnis.