Iraq Is Poorly Defended but Far From Civil War

Wednesday's massive truck bombings showed not only the sievelike state of the Iraqi defenses but, just as important, how quickly the government could lose the public's trust. In the past, leaders have been killed, military bases attacked, and even the Parliament bombed from inside (though not for a while). But these stood out as the most brazen blows to government installations. One bomb trashed the 10-story foreign ministry, just outside the Green Zone and on a road where Iraqi forces are permanently stationed—albeit arbitrary in their vigilance. Another truck did similar damage to the crucial finance ministry, which all other ministries rely on to pay employees or pave roads; it even brought down part of a highway overpass nearby.

The targets in today's multiple bombings of Baghdad were not Shiite worshipers or laborers or some other minority enclave soft for attack. Those are the usual targets—intended to drive sect against sect, as American officials have said for months. These struck at two major offices of the Iraqi government. The message seemed to be that now, with U.S. forces drawing down, Iraq's government cannot defend itself, let alone control the capital. The bombers scored the point and succeeded in rattling the public's confidence, which had been rising for months of relative safety. (Not only did Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announce that they were calling for special consultations with security officials, but even an anchor on state-run television slammed Iraqi troops for goofing off and talking on cell phones while manning checkpoints.) But they did not manage to reignite sectarian strife Americans fear might follow their drawdown.

The bombings—which, along with other smaller attacks, killed around 100 Iraqis—have made Iraq's fledging forces look complacent and ineffective. Despite hundreds of checkpoints around town, where soldiers scan cars with handheld antennae devices, two truck bombs were able to pull to the perimeter walls of the compounds. True, they did not breach actual defenses, but in the case of the foreign ministry, they were taking advantage of increasingly lax procedures by Iraqi troops stationed along the approach. Both blasts, within minutes of each other, reverberated around the city, knocking out windows in the Green Zone, shaking the ground for miles unlike anything heard here in years.

American officials still hadn't come out with their assessment of what had taken place by late Wednesday. Instead, they issued the usual statements condemning the mayhem and praising the steadfastness of the Iraqi people. They highlighted the "outraged" Iraqi leadership as a sign of hope—some faint silver lining indeed.

In fact, figures released by the military show that overall attacks in Iraq—against Americans, Iraqi security, or civilians—are still way down from the highs of 2007. Deaths today total roughly 200 per week instead of 1,600 plus in some weeks just more than two years ago. Baghdad is still violent, but much less so. Most of the devastating recent attacks were in the north, usually in small towns with little protection. That all still suggests things could hold together.

But Iraqis on the street reacted with wild, angry, and understandable speculation. They blamed Saudi jihadis, playing off reports of continued Saudi support for Sunni militants. They pointed the finger at the Americans, alleging that somehow this fits a U.S. interest to come back into Iraqi population centers they left June 30. (That's the kind of rhetoric that had been common before the troop surge in 2007 helped secure the country.) They blamed the Iraqi government for its laxity. And they blamed political parties seeking to embarrass the government in the run-up to elections in January.

They did not, however, tend to cast blame on sectarian lines. A NEWSWEEK reporter on the scene listened for, did not hear, Shiites vowing revenge against Sunnis. Clearly, the targeted buildings included victims from both sects as well as ethnic Kurds, who have a major presence in the foreign ministry. So the civil-war type of mayhem that existed in 2006 is not emerging again. But the magnitude of these blasts called into question the proficiency of the Iraqi forces and their people's faith in them—and that could be just as ominous.