In light of a series of attacks in Iraq at the end of November and the start of this month, there have been numerous warnings of an upsurge in violence in the country. Numerous media outlets have tied the incidents to the withdrawal of U.S. troops, which is expected to be complete by Christmas time.
However, the problem with such analysis is that there is an excessive tendency in mainstream media to look at very short-term fluctuations when it comes to examining incidents of violence in Iraq. The number of attacks can vary somewhat on a weekly basis, but now that the American military presence is in the process of being rapidly drawn down, media are simply paying more attention to militant strikes.
The reality is that if one looks at monthly statistics compiled by the Iraq Body Count project and the Iraqi ministries of Interior, Health and Defense, the average number of monthly deaths decreased in November compared with the previous month. Iraq Body Count showed a 17 percent decrease in fatalities between October and November, while the ministries showed a 28 percent decline. Given that insurgent attacks have generally followed a seasonal pattern whereby they decrease in frequency in winter owing to less favorable weather conditions for operations, these figures are not surprising.
Nonetheless, it is still worthwhile to analyze what changes there might be, if any, in the number of militant attacks the coming year. The two most common lines of argument do not stand up to scrutiny.
First, many have expressed concern that the insurgents will be emboldened by the absence of American troops. However, this reasoning ignores the fact that U.S. forces were withdrawn from Iraqi cities in June 2009, and since then their role has been very limited as regards daily security. Indeed, the Americans have faced numerous restrictions on their freedom of movement, and have only been called in occasionally to assist in counter-terrorism operations. Besides that, they have been involved in training Iraqi security forces.
Over the coming years, the role of training is likely to be taken on by private contractors from the United States and elsewhere. Even so, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is already contemplating the eventual return of American troops in a training capacity. As he put it in a recent meeting with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden: "No doubt, the U.S. forces have a role in providing training of Iraqi forces."
Another widespread argument, associated with those who have opposed the U.S. presence in Iraq, is that insurgent attacks will decline, as militants no longer have an occupation force to fight. However, this view neglects the nature of the insurgency in Iraq today. The Sunni Arab community accepts that it lost the civil war with the Shiites for control over Baghdad in 2006-2007, and appreciates that it must adapt to the fact that Shiites are leading the political process. The remaining insurgents are either hard-line Islamists aiming to re-establish Iraq as the center of a dreamed-of caliphate (for instance the Islamic State of Iraq, the local branch of Al-Qaeda) or members of the Naqshibandia militant group linked to the banned Baath Party.
Hence, the grievances of these insurgents are primarily ideological. Accordingly, they will continue to fight the Iraqi government anyway, regardless of whether there is an American presence or not. In any case, the Naqshibandia is now calling on its members to attack Americans on Iraqi soil after the military withdrawal, evidently having in mind those affiliated with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Therefore, it seems fair to say that the terrorist threat to the country will probably remain unchanged. However, terrorism is not the sole factor to consider when assessing instability. Two recent problems that have come to light could well lead to new violence in Iraq.
The first of these is violence between political factions, even those of the same ethnic and religious group. This was evident in a recent clash that began in Zakho in Dohuk province in Iraqi Kurdistan, between the Islamist Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). Clerics affiliated with the KIU condemned as un-Islamic businesses such as liquor stores – owned by Assyrians and Yezidis – which induced their followers to vandalize and burn alcohol stores, hotels and massage parlors. In response, the KDP, which is part of the ruling coalition of the autonomous government, urged its supporters to rally in protest, culminating in significant damages to KIU offices in many towns. The tensions persist.
On a wider scale, it has been suggested that many individual assassination incidents are the result of violence between political factions in government, rather than the work of insurgents. Owing to absence of the rule of law in Iraq, the explanation is conceivable.
The second potential problem lies in disputes over territorial boundaries. A Kurdish news outlet recently reported on a bill proposed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani – and apparently supported by many Kurdish and Shiite politicians – that seeks to redraw the boundaries of provinces in disputed Arab-Kurdish areas, seeking to reverse the changes implemented by Saddam Hussein as part of the late leader's "Arabization" program. If this bill passes, it could generate protests and counter-protests that might lead to violent clashes between different ethno-religious factions.
The main issues affecting Iraq's stability after the American withdrawal will be challenges for Iraqis to confront and resolve. They are independent of the American troop presence, whose game-changing impact in the country has often been exaggerated.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an intern at the Middle East Forum.