The Terrorist Attacks in Baghdad: A New Chapter in Iraq’s Instability?

The Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the twin terrorist attacks in Baghdad on January 21st in which 32 persons were killed and some 110 others were injured. These suicide bombings ended a lengthy pause on such assaults in Baghdad after former Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over IS on December 9, 2017. Iraqi President Barham Salih condemned the January attacks, saying in a tweet, “The two terrorist explosions targeting innocent people in Baghdad and at this specific time confirm the attempt by the groups of darkness to delay our national electionsand our people’s aspirations for a safe future.”

The Islamic State, a known terrorist organization, at one point controlled more than one third of Iraq’s territory. It had arrived in the vicinity of Baghdad in the summer of 2014 when the government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a strong pro-Iran Shia politician in Iraq, failed to defend the northern city of Mosul against the group. He was accused of precipitously ordering a total pullout of the armed forces from the Sunni city, paving the way for IS to gain full control of it and transform it into its Iraqi capital. The military retreat also resulted in the loss of much weaponry as well as cash funds deposited in the central bank’s branch to the terrorist organization.

After the shock of Mosul, there was no board of inquiry to investigate the disastrous pullout and where responsibility lay; if there were in fact such an entity, it never saw the light of day. Indeed, the person responsible was Maliki himself as he was also the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces.

Within two weeks in 2014, IS stormed the entire western third of Iraq. It approached Baghdad and was only miles away from Baghdad International Airport, which placed the capital under constant threat. Soon it was clear that Baghdad was without direct and robust support from American troops. Neither the defeated Iraqi armed forces nor the newly established Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), consisting of volunteers from Shia tribes, were able to stop IS’s advance.

Stopping IS fell to the US troops in the country. They called on other international coalition forces to provide the Iraqi army with desperately needed training, logistics, intelligence, and air support, without which they would not be able to prevail over IS. The PMF only started to fight IS with important air support of coalition forces led by the United States. Under the command of the late General Qassim Soleimani, leader of Iran’s Quds Force, the PMF led an organized plan to demolish and destroy many of the Sunni cities where IS was fortified. A number of massacres were reported by western journalists, but American forces apparently did nothing to curb those atrocities. Much of the population fled their homes during the battles even though many joined the fight against IS. To be sure, the violence made these cities uninhabitable and created a serious humanitarian crisis among millions of Sunnis.

Thus, the latest attack in Baghdad poses the very serious question of whether the terrorist organization has indeed resurfaced. If it did, Iraq may be in for a very precarious and dangerous period as its economy is suffering from the devastating impact of depressed growth and the coronavirus pandemic. Iraq is also in the grip of elite disputes about political power as Iran continues to increase its influence in the country.

One important consideration in Iraq today is the generally weakened position of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. He appears to lack support among the Shia political parties that control the political process and are backed by strong militias. While he rushed to remove security officials after the terrorist attacks, Kadhimi must have a wider program of reforms in the security sector, the army, and the bureaucracy. How he deals with the crisis will influence how the country can deal with the economy. In addition, his policies will also have impact on parliamentary elections in the fall––after being moved back from this June––and the period of government formation that follows.

Another consideration involves what the United States is prepared to do in Iraq and whether Washington is interested in maintaining a strong foothold in the country. It is doubtful that such decisions could be separated from the American stance regarding Iran and the latter’s nuclear program and regional role. It now appears that Iran is only interested in returning to the status quo ante that prevailed during the Obama Administration. To be sure, the United States is called upon to revisit its previous policies toward Iraq during that administration, when Joe Biden served as vice president; US actions at that time only helped Tehran increase its influence in Baghdad. What is sure to safeguard American interests in Iraq is a new approach that supports reform in Iraq, equality of rights, anti-sectarian politics, and an emphasis on reviving the national identity of Iraqis.

Finally, Iraq should reevaluate where it fits in the Arab political order after it has been ostracized by the Arab world since the invasion of 2003 and the ascendance of Shia forces to power. What was evident in the youth demonstrations of October-November 2019 was an inclination to distance Iraq from Iran and reopen it to Arab countries. This would serve not only to rehabilitate Iraqi Arab nationalism but also to help the Iraqi economy, which has suffered greatly from being cut off from the Arab world. Such rehabilitation and reemphasis on economic relations are the best guarantee for Iraq to reclaim its stability, security, and independence.