Over 4,000 Iraqis have died from Islamic terrorist violence so far this year. Most of the attacks are against Shia civilians. This is part of a plan implemented by Iraqi Sunni Arabs after Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003. The Saddam supporters saw the American invasion as a campaign against the Sunni Arab minority, who refused to acknowledge defeat and used terror tactics to trigger a civil war that would, as their fantasy went, enable them to regain power. There was never any secret about this. The story of Saddam's "Plan B" made a brief appearance in the mass media right after Saddam fell. But that was the last you heard of it. Saddam’s followers believed the civil war would force other Sunni states to intervene, eject the foreign troops, and restore the Sunni minority to power. Many Iraqi Sunni Arabs still believe this after a decade of violence against fellow Iraqis who are not Sunni (except for the Kurds, who are Sunni but want nothing to do with the Iraqi Sunni Arabs and have successfully kept the terrorists out of Kurdish controlled northern Iraq).
Some of the Sunni Arab terrorist groups have turned their terrorism into a money making operation by offering businesses immunity from terror attack if they pay the terrorists some cash on a regular basis. Non-Sunnis have to pay more than Sunni businesses and all this extortion income helps keep the terrorist groups going. This shows another nasty side effect of Saddam's overthrow, the emergence of more major criminal gangs. Some of these existed even in Saddam's police state. Once Saddam was overthrown, these gangs largely sided with the Sunni terrorists trying to put Saddam (or some other Sunni dictator) back in charge. The more purely criminal branches of terrorist groups tend to survive, which is how the surviving mafia organizations can trace their lineage back to 19th century freedom fighters. But in the last two decades, the mafia and IRA have been reduced to much smaller, and less effective, organizations.
For the last few years the Iraqis have been using a police approach to terrorism that has worked numerous times in the past few decades. India crushed powerful Sikh separatists in the late 80s and early 90s by concentrating on what were basically police methods of developing informers and double agents and going after the key people and the criminal fund raising activities. At the same time, Egypt was crushing Islamic radicals using similar techniques. Throughout the 1990s, Algeria fought a vicious Islamic terrorist group, finally reducing their numbers from over 10,000 to less than 500. Same thing with Israel's victory over Palestinian terrorists who were successful, for a few years after 2000, with suicide bomber attacks inside Israel. The U.S. adopted a lot of the Israeli techniques for intelligence collection and agent development.
While the U.S. was still in Iraq (up to 2011) American and Iraqi counter-terrorism efforts managed to tear up the Islamic terrorist groups. Many Sunni Arab terrorists accepted (with some trepidation) various amnesty deals. Al Qaeda, which is still largely a foreign outfit, was crippled with the killing or capture of most of their senior leaders. Being foreigners, and favoring attacks on civilians, made al Qaeda the most hated group in the country. There were plenty of tips from concerned citizens because of that. Iraqi members of al Qaeda often switched to criminal gangs, relegating Islamic terrorism to the "what I do in my spare time" category. While the U.S. contributed lots of essential (UAVs, intelligence collection and analysis) support for the counter-terror battle, the Iraqis did most of the work on the ground. The Iraqi cops took advantage of the fact that most Iraqis want peace. Three decades of Saddam's misrule, and nine years of post-Saddam terror, have created a widespread desire for less unrest. While there are far fewer terror attacks (less than ten percent of those five years ago), they persist, and police believe there are enough diehard Islamic radicals and violent criminals to keep the bombs exploding for another five years or more.
But after the Americans left, the Iraqi police lost the services of the American intelligence and special operations troops. The Americans were much better at collecting, analyzing, and acting on information. The American special operations troops inspired their Iraqi counterparts to high levels of performance. But the Americans also kept the corruption in the police in check. U.S. intelligence also monitored the Iraqi police, and it was difficult for Iraqi cops to be dirty without that traitorous activity being made public by the Americans, or acted on by Iraqi officials after pressure from American diplomats. With the Americans gone, the police corruption quickly escalated to the point where the terrorists could get any information or assistance they wanted if they were willing to pay enough bribes or intimidate the right cops (kidnapping family members often worked). The subsequent rise in terrorist violence has created growing public anger and politicians are now considering what was previously unthinkable: actually doing something about the police corruption. They may have to, because the Americans have been lukewarm to the idea of sending back some of their intelligence and special operations troops.
For the last two years al Qaeda has called for, largely without much success, for its members to employ a new approach to terrorism. The new al Qaeda leader, former Osama Bin Laden chief deputy Ayman Muhammad Rabaie al Zawahiri, recently repeated this call for al Qaeda members to refrain from attacking Moslems, or non-Moslems, who might be considered (especially by international media) innocents. Zawahiri also urged Islamic radicals to put more effort into political, rather than terrorist, activities. The Iraqi Sunni Arab terrorists, including the local al Qaeda franchise, have never shown any enthusiasm for this new strategy.
This public al Qaeda change of direction is not surprising. Five years ago in Iraq there was a deadly (shots were fired) debate between Iraqi Islamic terror groups over attacking Moslem civilians. Critics of the attacks pointed out that killing all these Moslems (eventually over 100,000 would be killed by terrorists in Iraq) was killing al Qaeda popularity throughout the Moslem world. That was nothing new either. Mainstream Moslem clerics and religious scholars condemned the September 11, 2001 attacks, but al Qaeda noted that this sort of violence was popular with a lot of Moslems. That changed as Islamic terrorists killed more Moslems. Even in Saudi Arabia, the "home" of al Qaeda, public opinion turned against al Qaeda when, in reaction to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, al Qaeda began making attacks inside Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to overthrow the monarchy, so more damage could be done to America and the West.
While many branches of al Qaeda have heeded this new advice, but the Sunni terrorists of Iraq have not. There women and children are the favorite targets because the pictures of these victims is the most likely to trigger the civil war that never seems to get started, at least not yet. There have been more attacks on Sunni Arab civilians this year, but still nothing to compare to the anti-Shia carnage.
Desperate for a solution to the continuing suicide car bombings, police have put more restrictions on the use of private vehicles in cities, especially the three most frequently hit ones (Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk). There are more check points, more times when vehicles are simply not allowed into some areas, and more diligent examination of car bombs after they went off to help discover who is building the car bombs. The popular anger against the current government for its inability to halt this violence (as the Americans did in 2007) is growing, and the current elected officials see themselves facing big problems in the next elections if something is not done about the violence.
While Iraq still officially backs a political settlement in the Syrian civil war, and does what it can to help neighboring Iran support the Syrian government, there was horror among most Iraqis at the Syrian use of nerve gas on August 21st. Saddam had used nerve gas against Iraqis (especially Kurds) and against Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. The new Iraqi government prosecuted and executed some of the Saddam-era officials responsible for the use of nerve gas against Iraqis. Thus, the Iraqi government openly broke with its mentor Iran and condemned Syria for the use of nerve gas. The Iraqi government waited until the 26th before going public with its criticism, to ensure that the nerve gas attack was real. There was never a lot of enthusiasm in Iraq for the pro-Iran Syrian government. The Iranians have apparently been threatening Iraqi leaders to toe the pro-Syria/pro-Iran line, even though most Iraqis are increasingly hostile to Iran. This anger extends to the old pro-Iran Iraqi militias. These used to be a major threat but were defeated by Iraqi security forces in 2008, and officially went into semi-retirement as part of the deal that got most Sunnis to stop supporting the Sunni terrorists. But in the last few years thousands of these Shia gunmen have come out of retirement. First they were used to add additional security to Shia neighborhoods that were being hit by Sunni terrorists. This would usually work because the Sunni terrorists scouted potential targets and if the security was too tight and incorruptible, they would go elsewhere. In addition, Iran has been offering good pay to go off and support the Assad government in Syria and several thousand Iraqi Shia have gone in the last year. This has slowed the revival of the old (2005-8) Shia death squads. Sunni terrorists are also heading for Syria to join the rebels, but there are four times as many Shia than Sunni Arabs in Iraq. What many nations in the region fear is that the Sunni/Shia violence in Syria and Iraq will merge and trigger a larger Sunni/Shia war involving Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This is a worst case that gets less implausible with each passing month.
September 18, 2013: In another demonstration of their capabilities in Baghdad, Islamic terrorists set off eleven car bombs and used one suicide bomber on foot, all within a few hours. This killed twenty-seven and wounded at least one-hundred and fourty. One car bomb was discovered and dismantled before it could be remotely detonated. This massive effort did demonstrate that many of the attacks were not particularly lethal because the police are getting better at keeping the bombers out of high density locations. That is helped by there being fewer people on the streets because of the increased terrorist violence in the last few months.
September 17, 2013: In northern Baghdad police defeated an Islamic terrorist attack on their police station. The attackers took some casualties before retreating, while no police were injured. The growing terrorist violence this year has prompted police to pay more attention to the security in their own facilities. As a result, terrorists have not attacked the police occupied buildings as much as they used to.
September 9, 2013: The army was put on high alert to deal with any anti-American violence if there is an American air attack on Syria. That attack did not come.
September 6, 2013: The U.S. revealed that it had intercepted messages from Iran to pro-Iran militias in Iraq that urged these groups to prepare to attack Kuwait and Americans in Iraq if the U.S. does attack Syria. The Iraqi government was reluctant to believe this at first but was eventually convinced.