Coming on the very day that U.S. and Iraqi officials were detailing withdrawal plans for American troops, Sunday's suicide-bomb attack on a police academy in east Baghdad underscores the challenges being faced. In a country of high unemployment, the promise of a $500 monthly salary is a powerful magnet, and news that the Iraqi government is hiring 50,000 more police officers had drawn a long line of applicants. But a suicide bomber drove his motorcycle into the group and detonated his explosives vest, killing some 30 people and injuring twice that many.
It was unclear who was behind the blast, but it surely was the work of people interested in derailing progress. There's no question that a majority of citizens do not want a replay of anything resembling the Shia-Sunni bloodletting that spattered the country in 2006 and 2007. But can relative peace be maintained while U.S. troops pull out of Iraq over the next 19 months, as President Obama has outlined? And what happens after the Americans are gone?
Maj. Gen. David Perkins, the Coalition spokesman in Iraq, says the military will be able to execute the withdrawal plan. The key, he says, is making sure Iraq's security forces are competent enough to take over from the Americans. Obama's deadline leaves ample time to train, mentor and teach the Iraqis, Perkins explains. An important yardstick is the degree to which Iraqis are fighting each other, "and ethno-sectarian attacks have almost fallen off the map," he asserts.
Violence is now down 90 percent compared with the height of the surge a year ago. Attacks have fallen from 190 to 10 or fewer each day. And the U.S. has been gradually drawing down personnel. Forces already have been reduced by one fifth to approximately 140,000. Another two brigades, about 12,000 people, will be gone by the end of September, leaving 14 brigades in the country. Combat troops are to be withdrawn from urban bases by the end of June and from the entire country by August 2010, except for 35,000 to 50,000 who will stay longer, ostensibly as trainers. An agreement with Iraq requires that all troops be out of the country by the end of 2011.
Sunday's motorcycle bombing pointed to Al Qaeda. U.S. and Iraqi forces have largely defeated the terrorist group throughout the country, but cells stubbornly hang on in the northern city of Mosul, and to some extent, Kirkuk, where Arabs and Kurds continue to vie for control and influence. Al Qaeda is funded mostly by outside sources, typically donations from regional countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria. Coalition forces have seriously damaged Qaeda financial networks and reduced the flow of foreign jihadists into Iraq.
Given the successful interdiction operations, the motorcyclist could have been a local in the employ of Al Qaeda in Iraq. The incident was one of a handful of recent attacks that targeted civilians and police or police-recruiting efforts. Thirteen people were killed last week when a bomb exploded at a market in Hilla, about 60 miles from Baghdad, and in December, 16 died in a bombing near the same police academy targeted Sunday. The academy is located in an east Baghdad district that also is home to police and Army headquarters as well as the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police.
The attacks against police may constitute good news as well as bad. The bombings reflect a campaign to cripple so-called nation-building efforts and suggest that the perpetrators recognize that the country's security forces are improving—and are critical to that national redevelopment. Perkins says the expanding capacities of the half-million-strong police force, along with such events as last January's successful provincial election, have caused Al Qaeda in Iraq to "go after signs of progress. "You get an insight into the things that bother them—people moving forward with their daily lives or Iraqis taking charge of their own security," he says.
If the bombing was the work of Al Qaeda, it would be just one part of the network's destabilizing efforts. Holed up in Mosul and also operating in Kirkuk, the group tries to appeal to Arabs by demonizing Kurds, who lay claim to Kirkuk as part of the Kurdistan region and are an influential block in Mosul, which many of them also regard as Kurdish. Last fall, assaults of Christians in Mosul were blamed on Kurds by some Iraqis thought to be Qaeda operatives—and the actual attackers.
Such issues are part of the U.S. military's calculations as it decides whom to withdraw, when and where from. Perkins says American commanders carrying out President Obama's directives will consider "what are the critical periods and how to sequence personnel and equipment out of here." Commanders are in no hurry to leave Diyala governorate (where Kurds claim some more disputed territory and which has long been a hot spot) and Nineveh governorate or the city of Mosul, where the Americans actually had been beefing up resources.
Kurds and Arabs have been arguing over boundaries and oil exploration and development, as well as revenue sharing, which are among "the challenges that could cause a spiral in violence," Perkins concedes. In the meantime, Ali al-Dabbagh, Iraq government spokesman, says the attacks won't undermine the security gains already made. The government is "studying the situation to see if we have any infiltration in the Iraq Security Forces and we are going to fill all the gaps that we have," he says. It is a fair question given the suicide bomber's ability to get so close to the nerve center of the nation's security.