Iraq is, quite simply, on the receiving end of a major al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) offensive. AQI remains one of the most capable of the al Qaeda affiliates or regional franchises. As a percentage of the population, Iraq has lost more of its citizens to al Qaeda explosives in each of the past three months than the United States did on September 11, 2001, according to AFP statistics, which show there were more than 400 casualties in each month of April, May, and June. The AQI offensive targets both the Shiite populace in general and Sunni moderates in particular. One would think that the reaction of the United States, despite its desire to forget all things Iraq, would at least be one of deep sympathy.
Instead, the reaction of the U.S. political class has been to bemoan "sectarian violence" and to conflate the attacks with grievances by the Sunni minority against their Shiite-dominated government. Several commentators have taken the occasion to actually blame the al Qaeda violence on the policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, dissatisfaction with whom is reflected in large scale in long-term Sunni protests in Anbar and elsewhere. Such comparisons and diagnoses reflect a serious misunderstanding of the situation. The comparisons to the Iraqi civil war that peaked in 2006 and 2007 may seem appropriate if looking at the raw numbers. However, when one pushes another level down and realizes this is not two communities fighting each other (as did occur in the civil war) but instead a nihilist al Qaeda franchise attacking both the Shiite community randomly and the Sunni community strategically, the resemblance quickly fades. As for the attacks on Maliki, these echo those who blamed the United States's Middle East policies for the 9-11 attacks. Whatever the faults of Maliki's policies, Iraqis are not responding with sectarian violence nor plunging toward civil war. The Iraqi casualties are simply more victims of al Qaeda terrorism.
To be sure, however, AQI is successfully exploiting Iraq's weak security posture. Its success is rooted in four factors. First, upon the departure of the United States, large numbers of "security detainees"--suspected or confirmed terrorists against whom there was no legally sufficient case file -- were released into the Iraqi populace. Among them were large numbers of low and mid-level AQI leaders, who have since injected renewed energy into the organization. Further, the Iraqis continue to release likely terrorists in order to appease the Sunni community. Second, the Iraqi security forces simply do not have the precision intelligence capability necessary to root out the bomb-making networks that the U.S. military employed prior to its withdrawal. We should remember that in the early days of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the United States had no such capability either, and it is unreasonable to expect the Iraqis to develop their own without significant growing pains -- particularly given the relative youth of their security service institutions. Third, while it is hard to estimate the resources that are now flowing to AQI via their presence in Syria (the AQI "emir," Abu Baqr al Baghdadi, is widely reported to have relocated to Northern Syria, we can assume that they are significant. The chaos in Syria is spilling into Iraq through a more capable AQI, armed with superior weaponry, with better training, and with more money for recruiting and operations. Finally, a minority of Iraq's Sunni population is giving aid and succor to this nihilistic terrorist group, perhaps driven by dissatisfaction with the Baghdad government. That they would translate their political frustrations into attacks on innocent civilians is both regrettable and disturbing.
But save for this sanctuary, the violence is largely independent of the ongoing Iraqi Sunni protests, now in their seventh month. While the protests may have begun with legitimate grievances, the movements have now been largely hijacked by the Salafist and Baathist elements in Sunni society. These protests have two root causes. First, the Sunni population resents the blunt and indiscriminate anti-terrorism tactics that the Government of Iraq (GoI) uses in the absence of a precision capability. The use of these tactics is regrettable, but, short of alternatives, one must ask what the GoI could do otherwise. The Iraqi Government would love to have back the capabilities it enjoyed while the United States was embedded in its security agencies. With the United States gone, it is left using a less refined approach that strongly resembles the actions of the U.S. Army during the early years of the occupation. It will still be years before equipment, training, and experience will begin to provide the necessary tools for it to better overcome the deadly enemies that tear at the fabric of Iraq. In the meantime, the government's constituents are, reasonably, demanding that something be done, particularly given the high recent death rates from car bombings.
Another, more fundamental cause of the protests is a lack of acceptance by the Sunni population, and its leadership, of its minority status in the new Iraq. Part of this is demographic ignorance or deception. The spokesman for the ongoing Ramadi protests has asserted, in public debates, that Arab Sunnis constitute over 50 percent of the Iraqi population. In the absence of a recent census, estimates of the Arab Sunni population of Iraq range from 20 to 25 percent.
But another, darker factor is deep Sunni sectarianism amongst some key leaders. Some more charitable Sunni speakers refer to the Shiites as Iran's pawns. But deeply offensive sectarian terms for the Shiites -- the regional equivalent of racial epithets -- are also being used at the protest sites. In some ways, the Sunni protests have less the character of the "Occupy" movement or even Arab Spring, and are being manipulated to have more the flavor of a supremacist movement. This combination of demographic error and racist-like sectarian bigotry is hijacking the common democratic expression of the average demonstrators and introducing a new dangerous and disturbing combination, as the reactionary former elite tries to regain the status it once held under Saddam's Baath Party. Indeed, the armed militia of the former Baathists, the Naqshabandi movement, or JRTN, is widely viewed to control several of the protest sites (including the Hawija camp where the abortive raid by security forces to arrest JRTN militants occurred. And beneath the manipulation of opportunistic leadership, the average Sunni citizens of Iraq who have largely coexisted peacefully with their Shiite countrymen, are caught in the middle.
Again, the tragedy in Syria acts as an accelerant of violence and chaos, as that conflict has now also taken on a significant sectarian character. The mixture of real grievances in Syria with Salafist ideology, AQI nihilism, and the surfacing of the basest sectarian hatreds creates a toxic mix, which is now infecting -- to an extent -- much of the region.
The actions of the Maliki government in trying to solve these two conflated issues have produced some well-intentioned moves and other miscalculations, none of which are as effective as could be hoped. Maliki has, in cooperation with the (Sunni) Arab Iraqiya party of Saleh Mutlaq, attempted to create a package of reforms addressing de-Baathification and pensions for some of Saddam Hussein's paramilitary units. Regrettably, the prospects for this compromise package are uncertain, as the more hardline Sunnis find that it does not go far enough, while the more extremist Shiite parties (which commentators often ignore when suggesting Maliki's removal) have no taste for reforming de-Baathification in any form, let alone pensioning what they view as Saddam's personal army, responsible for many regime abuses. The most disturbing sign for long-term peace in Iraq is the apparent electoral punishment (in the recent provincial elections) of both Mutlaq's Arab Iraqiya and Maliki's State of Law parties for attempting to reach a compromise.
In addition, it appears that the prime minister is beginning to shake up the security services. Whether this has the desired systemic effect in tightening security or simply rearranges the chairs has yet to be seen. More encouraging is the advocacy of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) Inspector General Akil al-Turehi that helped jail the British seller of infamous "explosive detection wands" on charges of fraud. It will be interesting to observe whether other MOI officials (Turehi was recently named the governor of Karbala) can continue to trace the people responsible for the fraud on the Iraqi side -- not to mention whether a real detection capability can be acquired. Other military capabilities -- including a wide array of sensors -- should arrive in the coming year, both through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system and direct procurement by the Iraqi government. These capabilities represent perhaps the best hope to blunt AQI successes.
In short, cooler heads appear to be prevailing. Iraq is nowhere near the brink of civil war -- primarily because the Sunni have so much to lose. Sunni elites distinctly recall finding this out the hard way in the civil war of 2006 to 2007. The lethal success of the AQI terror campaign admittedly hints at the reappearance of war, but again, on closer examination this violence is almost exclusively one-sided. The Shiite militias that fought (and won) the last civil war have not -- at least yet -- rearmed or remobilized.
Iraq continues to be a weak state and immature, transitional democracy and the effect of the AQI offensive on its nascent capabilities is not insignificant. Many things could still go wrong -- and some almost certainly will. But the smart bet continues to be on Iraq holding together -- both because it has the resources to avoid civil war, and because it has no desire to revisit the terror that would involve.
Douglas A. Ollivant, Ph.D., is the Senior Vice President and a Managing Partner of Mantid International, a strategic consulting firm with offices in Washington D.C., Beirut, and Baghdad. A former NSC Director for Iraq, he is also a Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.