A recent spike in violence in Iraq is prompting senior defense officials to ask whether the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities over the past several months has provided an opening to extremist groups eager to spark sectarian attacks between Sunnis and Shiites.
The latest bombings have highlighted the still-fragile state of the Iraqi government and security forces as the war enters a new phase and U.S. influence in the country continues to wane. Some senior defense officials speculated that the recent increase was part of a last push by Sunni extremist groups, which appeared to be marshaling their resources in May to make their presence felt before the formal deadline for the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq’s cities.
“We knew that if al-Qaida in Iraq had only five bombs left, they were going to use them all as the last of our forces left the cities,” said a senior defense official who follows Iraq. “They wanted to create the narrative that they had driven us from Iraq. Next, they’ll want to build the narrative that the Iraqi security forces can’t protect the people.”
Iraqi civilian deaths, which had dropped in May to among the lowest levels of the war, almost doubled in June, to 447, according to a count by the Associated Press. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, played down the impact of the recent attacks. “I still believe that al-Qaida has been significantly degraded here in Iraq,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
Military officials said that in the coming weeks they will be watching closely to see whether al-Qaida in Iraq and other extremist groups can sustain the recent spate of suicide bombs, which would be a sign that networks of fighters have reinvigorated themselves, and whether the attacks provoke retaliatory violence.
Over the long term, the concern is whether the relative peace between Shiites, who represent the majority in Iraq, and Sunnis can be sustained without a large presence of U.S. troops in Baghdad.
“If Sunnis and Shiites continue to work through their differences politically, Iraq will survive. If not, there is no way it will hold together,” said retired Col. Pete Mansoor, who served as a senior aide to the top commander in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.
A small number of U.S. advisers and several companies of American combat troops will remain in Baghdad over the coming year. But it will be largely up to Iraqi army and police forces to calm sectarian tensions, which are almost certain to flare as the next national elections, scheduled for January, draw closer.
Senior U.S. officials said they will watch closely for any signs that civilian casualties and sectarian murders in Iraq are increasing in the coming months. So far, the recent bombings have not spurred a cycle of retribution, and even with the recent spike in killings, violence still remains at summer 2003 levels.
Another danger is that Iraqi army and police forces will revert to the overtly sectarian behavior of 2006 and 2007 without the stabilizing presence of U.S. forces operating alongside them. The conduct of Iraq’s senior political leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and its top generals will play the biggest role in determining whether the country’s security forces hold together or fracture on sectarian lines, military analysts said.
“In 1973 and 1974, there were a lot of good South Vietnamese battalion commanders, but that wasn’t enough to compensate for the lack of leadership at senior levels,” said Steven Metz, a counterinsurgency expert at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
A major test will be how al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders handle the armed groups known as the Awakening, or Sons of Iraq. These largely Sunni forces include many former insurgents who agreed to drop their resistance in exchange for positions paying about $300 a month.
Despite its promise to integrate 20 percent of the former Sunni fighters into the Iraqi army and police forces, al-Maliki’s government has found positions for only about 5 percent of the 91,000 Iraqis in the program, according to the upcoming quarterly report to Congress on Iraq.
U.S. officials remain optimistic that the Iraqi government will not alienate the former insurgents. “The prime minister and his advisers understand they can’t abandon these guys en masse,” said the senior defense official.
But if violence rises in Iraq, there is little political appetite in Washington or Baghdad for an increased U.S. role.
“Right now, you have a public that is starting to say the war is finished,” said Peter D. Feaver, who focused on Iraq as a special adviser to the Bush White House and is a professor at Duke University. “The problem is that we’re not done in Iraq. The president is the only one who can mobilize American public support for the war.”