It’s up to Iraq’s government to prevent a civil war
July 24th, 2012
11:37 AM ET

It’s up to Iraq’s government to prevent a civil war

By Brian Katulis, Special to CNN

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East and South Asia. The views expressed are his own.

Fast-moving events in the Middle East – including Syria’s descent into a bloody civil war, the continued talk of conflict with Iran, and Egypt’s ongoing transition – have pushed Iraq to the sidelines of U.S. attention over the past year. But yesterday, Iraq reemerged as a series of attacks across the county made yesterday the deadliest day in Iraq in 2012.  The key thing to watch in the coming weeks is how the Iraqi government responds, because its reaction will be the most important factor to shape the trajectory of what happens next.

The attacks raised further questions about the Iraqi government’s ability to keep its people safe in the face of ongoing threats from terrorist groups, most prominently, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  The day before these attacks, AQI leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi gave advance warning that a new offensive would begin soon in a 33-minute video posted on the web.  And the terrorists hit a wide range of targets spread across the country – police stations, military bases, and civilian targets.

AQI and other terrorist groups have remained active in the years since U.S. troops stopped actively patrolling urban areas and then completely withdrew at the end of last year. But yesterday’s attacks were different in their wide reach and level of coordination – they were clearly designed to provoke overreactions of the sort that Iraq saw at the height of its civil war when the U.S. troop presence was at its greatest number last decade – the sectarian cleansing of neighborhoods in Baghdad by militias and the battles in other parts of the country that resulted in millions of Iraqis becoming either displaced inside of Iraq or refugees in neighboring countries like Jordan and Syria. During most days of the most violent period of Iraq’s civil war from 2005-2007 it was the reaction to terrorist attacks and not the initial attacks themselves that spiraled the country into civil war.

In the immediate aftermath of these attacks, some overwrought, simplified analyses suggested that bigger factors were at play here, with some even suggesting that Syria’s civil war was spreading eastward. Yet like the dominos theory of the Cold War that saw communism as a wave spreading geographically, we should remain skeptical of these ideas and stay focused on the key factor – whether Iraq’s government and the country’s security forces can regain control without exhibiting the sort of excesses that was witnessed in reaction to similar terrorist attacks in 2005-2007. That’s the crucial point.  Because the AQI movement – like the broader global Al Qaeda movement – sees their greatest impact when they provoke responses that go far beyond what is necessary to keep citizens safe.

Some might use these latest attacks to argue that U.S. troops should never have left Iraq – but this ignores the fact that the vast majority of Iraqis are glad the U.S. troops are no longer there and that U.S. national security is stronger and more balanced globally as a result of the strategic redeployment of troops from Iraq.

The Iraqi government will need to face these continued threats from terrorist groups – and how it reacts in the next few weeks will determine whether or not Iraq slips into another civil war.

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Topics: Iraq • Middle East • Terrorism • United States

soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. Quigley

    The best way and probably the only one is to divide Iraq into three different states by first giving the north to the Kurds, the south to the Shiites and the west to the Sunnis. Unifying Iraq has never been and never be an Iraqi idea but that of both the British and the French who created that country back in 1919 out of the Ottoman Empire. Now the West wants to keep Iraq united largely because of it's oil and that's just plain wrong!

    July 24, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Thank you, Quigley. You said it all. I can't for the life of me see why people are too stupid to see your point here. Can't people think anymore, or what?

      July 24, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
    • K Viswanathan

      & who gets the oil ?

      July 24, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Reply
      • TJBPHOENIX

        The U.S. and Great Britain of course, K Viswanathan.

        July 25, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • dbp49

      Makes good sense to me...great comment.

      August 3, 2012 at 3:44 am | Reply
  2. Quigley

    Quite true, saeed. Thank you.

    July 24, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  3. saeedTheTowelHead

    Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah, Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaddy?

    July 24, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Iraq was without a government for 249 days before Al Maliki formed a cabinet. A power sharing arrangement between the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish blocs has failed. There are the increasingly autonomous Kurds in the North, the decidedly super-empowered Shia majority in the South, and the now-dethroned-but-still-defiant Sunni in the Middle. The Kurds are trapped between the Shia/Sunni sectarian conflict. As they are mainly Sunni Muslims, they side with the Sunni bloc. Al Maliki hasn't been able to provide for law and order as well as jobs and access to basic public services. His dysfunctional administration of justice and the wide spread corruption continue to affect large numbers of the Iraqi population.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
    • TJBPHOENIX

      And makes you think that any of this will improve while Iraq remains forcefully united, j.von hettlingen? Like Quigley said, these people need to go their separate ways just like the Czechs and Yugoslavs did some 20 years ago.

      July 24, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
      • Patrick

        Okay, I bite, who is forcebly keeping Iraq united?

        July 25, 2012 at 8:09 am |
      • TJBPHOENIX

        The U.S. government for one thing along with it's rubber-stamp allies, Patrick! They find that united Iraq is far easier to control than a divided one.

        July 25, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
      • Nina

        TJBPHOENIX – Okay, so how is Iraq being forcibly united by USA and Great Britain?

        July 25, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
      • The Devil's Duo

        TJBPHOENIX/Marine5484/whatever you call yourself today, you made a statement and when I tried to debate your statement you are suddenly quiet. Why?

        July 31, 2012 at 9:46 am |
      • dbp49

        Whoever said multiculturalism was the only option. I agree, TJBPHOENIX, that maybe it just isn't right for the people in question. It would certainly be worth finding out, especially if it might bring relative peacefulness with it.

        August 3, 2012 at 3:48 am |
  5. Patrick

    TJBPHOENIX – any proof, anything at all?

    July 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
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    July 27, 2012 at 2:13 am | Reply
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    July 29, 2012 at 3:59 am | Reply
  8. dbp49

    Much as I hate to use Iraq to defend any of my arguments, I can't help but see the very lesson here that Bashar al Assad should both see, and positively respond to. Both Iraq and Syria were faced with a particular amount of provocation in their respective countries, and each responded in their own way. In Iraq, the response was moderated, and whether it continues to last or not, the situation has remained relatively stable. In Syria, Assad came down on the people with what was clearly excessive violence. So Mr. Assad, how's that working out for you?

    August 3, 2012 at 3:42 am | Reply

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