What are we to make of the increase in violent deaths in Iraq during June and July? Is it a sign of a long-term upsurge in violence since the US troop withdrawal? Who are the culprits? These are all pertinent questions.
To begin with, it should be noted that violence in Iraq often follows cyclical patterns. That is, insurgent groups normally step up their operations as summer begins, and around the times of religious festivals, when pilgrims (frequently travelling on foot) are exposed, we can expect upsurges in violence.
Thus, in June, there were waves of bomb attacks targeting Shi'a pilgrims who were commemorating the death of Moussa al-Kadhim, who was the greatgrandson of Muhammad.
Therefore, one should be careful in extrapolating from short-term trends to warn of growing sectarian tensions and a return to civil war in the near future.
Today, the insurgent groups responsible for attacks on civilians and a large number of attacks on government officials are entirely Sunni, since the Shi'a militant groups like the Kataib Hezbollah have disbanded following the pullout of US forces.
The two main organizations are al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), which is now virtually an entirely native force, and the Ba'athist Naqshibandia led by Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, who is still at large and most recently appeared in a video in April to denounce the Assad regime and complain of an Iranian- American-Israeli conspiracy taking over Iraq.
At present, there is no real evidence to suggest either group is gaining new recruits from Sunni Arabs on the basis of frustration with problems in the political process. If such an assertion were true, insurgents carrying out the attacks would surely make their specific grievances clear (e.g. perhaps demanding from Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad an amnesty for Vice President Tariq al- Hashemi).
However, there are two ways in which one can link the current state of Iraqi politics with violence.
First, as analyst Joel Wing of Musings on Iraq suggested to me in a discussion on this topic, the political impasse can induce frustration in local Sunni Arab populations such that the insurgents have an easier environment in which to conduct operations.
Hence, said locals might refuse to disclose the whereabouts of insurgents to the security forces, probably having an attitude along the lines of "serves them right" against the government and security forces. In turn, one can add that the tendency toward heavy-handedness on the part of the Iraqi army and police, which still suffer from major deficiencies in intelligence gathering on militant activities, only exacerbates this problem.
Second, one should not discount violence between political factions that accounts for some of the attacks on government officials. Observers have noted that the nature of such operations – for instance, assassinations by means of firearms with silencers – points to a picture of meticulous planning and skill at odds with the more simple car bombs and suicide bombers of the Naqshibandia and AQI. It is hardly implausible that political factions have their own hitmen they can deploy against each other in times of political crisis.
Nevertheless, as Wing also told me, it is important not to exaggerate the extent of this phenomenon.
Indeed, violence between political factions probably accounts for only a minor proportion of these attacks.
IN FACT, more overt examples of violence between political factions (e.g. rallying supporters to attack the offices of a rival party) are also fairly rare, with the most recent notable case actually taking place in the Kurdistan area in early December between Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party that is part of the ruling coalition of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union. The clashes arose after supporters of the latter attacked liquor stores, among other businesses owned by Assyrians and Yezidis in the town of Zakho.
Finally, it should be stressed that in general, the reduction of AQI's influence since the advent of the Sons of Iraq movement has been exaggerated.
Though the group's power in central Iraq and Anbar is indeed a shadow of its former self, AQI has always maintained a strong presence in Mosul, where it behaves like a mafia in extorting money from businesses and other residents, something that has been going on for years and gives AQI ample financial means to carry out attacks.
A case-in-point is the murder of the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul in January or February 2008, after churches in the city stopped paying jizya – a traditional, extortionist poll-tax imposed on non-Muslims living under Islamic law – to AQI. It should be noted that this incident took place even as AQI was suffering major setbacks further south.
Violence has generally stabilized at levels that still make Iraq a very dangerous place, which in turn creates numerous problems such as deterring foreign investment, thereby impeding reconstruction efforts and liberalization of the top-down bureaucracy.
In short, the political impasse, heavy-handedness of the security forces, and AQI strength in Mosul mean that overall violence is unlikely to decrease substantially over the coming years, even as we can put aside media sensationalism that tends to look only at short-term trends with uninformed talk of a return to a full-blown sectarian civil war as we saw in 2006.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.