Bombs in Iraq Don't Augur for Civil War

Early this morning, two truck bombs in northern Iraq leveled a small village and killed at least 48 people. It hardly came as a surprise: Friday saw the death of 44 people in a massive explosion inside a local mosque. In recent weeks, there were simultaneous attacks during Friday worship at mosques and Sunday worship at churches. Even Anbar province, quieted in 2008, has seen several small bombings this summer. The attacks, U.S. and Iraqi officials agree, are aimed at rattling the postsurge security here and to reignite the sectarian strife that raged a few years ago. They look like the kind of attacks that could spark a cycle of reprisals leading to civil war.

They're not. Iraq today is a different place than it was when ethnic conflict threatened to engulf the country in 2006. For a combination of not-at-all obvious reasons, the powder here is wetter than it once was. It's true that Iraq is still unstable and violent. (In fact, even as the overall number of attacks remains relatively low, bombings have continued even throughout the last year of relative calm.) Most of the bombings, which are carried out by Islamist Sunni insurgents, target Shiite Muslims, just as they did in 2006. But they haven't elicited an escalating cycle of reprisals.

For one thing, it's harder for Sunnis and Shiites to get to each other now. Most Baghdad neighborhoods were forcibly or self-segregated in round after round of violence and displacement. Barriers close off districts to strangers, and drivers simply can't go more than half a mile in the capital without coming to an Iraqi Army or police checkpoint. Many of the turf battles, in which blocks and homes were captured, have been settled.

For another, while Baghdad was the crucible for past violence, the recent unrest has been worst in the northern region of Nineveh, where the high-casualty bombings occurred Friday and today. Shiites are a minority in Nineveh without the power of large militias behind them, and, at any rate, attacks there do not shake the country as they would in the heart of the capital. The bombs here have also been smaller; instead of suicide attacks, they're more often small grenades or devices left in parked cars.

What's more, the agents of Shiite retaliation last time were loose bands of militias behind the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Today, they are scattered; several of them have cut peace deals with the government. Sadr himself has been living in Iran (he claims to be studying Islam) and has visited Turkey and Damascus, where regional leaders are trying to coax him into a political, rather than an armed, role.

Perhaps most importantly is how the central government has handled the violence. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is intent on maintaining at least the veneer of order in before January's election. His popularity is largely founded on the steep drop in violence. For that reason, news coverage of the bombings on the government channel was brief Monday. To play up how secure Iraq has become, just a couple hours after today's attacks, the Shiite prime minister spoke at a conference in the once-dangerous Sunni district of Adhamiya—SOMETHING he could not have risked in 2006. He warned that violence will get worse before next year's vote as people try to discredit the government. It was a face-saving and probably true observation. He also wants to win over some Sunni voters, which requires keeping Shiite militias subdued. To help him keep a lid on his co-religionists, Maliki has more than 600,000 troops at his disposal now, more than twice as many as in early 2006. They have been accused of singling out Sunnis for arrest, a semiofficial way of striking back.

American officials warn that they cannot reduce the bloodshed much lower than it is now and talk about keeping the violence at "tolerable" levels. That means preventing it from sapping confidence in the government, spoiling the political process, or pitting the security forces against each other. All of which are still possible. Tellingly, however, their greatest worry isn't about Sunni-Shiite fighting; it's about the potential for warfare between Kurdish forces and Baghdad-run military units.

By this evening, the Sunni speaker of Parliament was calling on the government to stem what he called a deteriorating security situation. But the streets in the capital were full of the usual bustle. Tolerance in Iraq is always precarious, but for now, it is holding.