Iraq Bombings Threaten to Renew Chaos

An Iraqi talk show anchor planned to spend his hour today talking about the recent robbery and shooting spree against jewelry store owners. But after the third bombing with massive casualties in two days, he changed the subject. Here's a sample of the comments from callers.

Now, talk shows in Baghdad tend to attract the same kind of opinionated callers as shows in the United States, and this one was on Baghdadiya TV, one of the stations more critical of the government (and home of shoe-throwing reporter Muntather al-Zeidi). Still, these were the sounds of confidence draining from the security bubble of the last several months.

More than 150 Iraqis have died and at least as many have been injured in two separate bombings Thursday and this afternoon. The targets have been Shiite Muslims, including pilgrims coming from Iran yesterday and worshipers on their way to a Shiite shrine in Baghdad today. It's the kind of violence that struck over and over from mid-2003 until Shiites started fighting back in horrific street attacks and kidnappings in 2006.

U.S. officials stress that the overall numbers of attacks are still down from 2003 levels. So far 14 U.S. soldiers have died this month, up from 9 in March and lower than the 17 in February, according to the Website The site reports that civilian deaths are running about the usual rate of between 200 to 300. (An Associated Press story yesterday reported a new Iraqi tally showing nearly 90,000 killed since the start of 2005)

But U.S. commanders have expressed frustration at not being able to stop the "spectacular" attacks we've been seeing lately. The attacks–two coordinated in a usually secured location today, six in one morning on April 6–also show a degree of organization that belies claims that Al insurgents are desperate or on the run. In fact, they appear to be able to strike some of the city's most patrolled areas.

The bombs have shaken the city and threaten the tortuously slow political reconciliation that most Iraqis and Americans agree is needed to bring real stability and to keep the country from splintering into chaos again. People are calling for action and resorting to old, usually ethnic, animosities. Some of what could happen next if things turn for the worse:

  • The bombings could scuttle plans for a conference in the coming weeks that would include Sunni Baathists interested in recognizing the Shiite-led government. Shortly after the bombing today, influential Shiite cleric Sadr al-Din al-Qubanchi blamed Baathists for the attacks and warned politicians that, "winning over 1,000 Baathists will lose you 100,000 of the people's votes."
  • Iraqis who fled the violence for other countries, including badly needed doctors, engineers and civil servants, will be less likely to return.
  • The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, which won recent local elections and touts security gains, could lose the people's trust and even face parliamentary attempts to unseat it–which would likely lead to months of leaderless stagnation. Maliki quickly called for an investigation into security breaches at the bombings Friday.
  • Iraqis could lose confidence in the fledgling security forces or the Americans training them, which would reduce their desire to risk providing all-important intelligence on threats.
  • Worst of all, and so far not occurring, government forces or rogue Shiite militias could try to exact the kind of street vengeance that made 2006-7 so horrendous and required the American troop surge just to get things to where they are now. But now, the U.S. is trying to withdraw troops. That kind of violence could even cause the splintering or collapse of some of the new security forces.

On the other hand, this could end up being a test the new Iraqi security forces are up to handling. Today's bombing was in the Kazimiya district of Baghdad. I was there a couple times last week and was struck by two things. First, it's one of the cleanest, most pleasant areas of the city. Large homes line the banks of the Tigris River and the sumptuous gold dome of the shrine floats above the busy shops and mosques like a crown.

Second, the security at the checkpoints controlling all the entrances was lax. Iraqi troops waved an electronic wand by passing cars but let them go one after another with little more than that by way of inspection. After the bombing, NEWSWEEK talked to an employee at the shrine who said today's attack was near the site of a smaller bombing last week and insisted the police are not doing their jobs. Despite the fact that attacks are still frequent, there's a complacency that may be creating an opening for insurgents. Friday, Abdel Mehdi al-Karbalai, a prominent Karbala cleric, warned that the government has to end its infighting and keep the security forces on the alert. Local media reported that Maliki suspended top security officials in Kazimiya.

People in predominantly Shiite Kazimiya are conservative merchants, not looking for a fight and craving stability. I remember being there after a large bombing scarred a holy day in March, 2004. Residents gathered in an impromptu meeting and some called for indiscriminant blood against Sunnis until one man calmed them with reminders that they must follow their clerics, mainly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and he was urging patience. Most of Baghdad doesn't have the cool tempers they do in Kazimiya, where people have so much to lose if things turn to mayhem. The city's patience is being put to the test.