A general atmosphere of panic spread over Baghdad after a daring attack by a group of members of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on a prison in the Iraqi capital, the same day that a series of bomb attacks struck terror in the population. Iraqi security forces doubled the number of deployed units in Baghdad and rapidly erected additional check points. Furthermore, access to certain parts of Baghdad was prohibited for those who did not carry proof of residency in those areas.
As the pace of attacks in Baghdad increased, intelligence reports have appeared claiming that ISIL has succeeded in infiltrating Al Dourah in the south of Baghdad and the Al Amariyah, Al Ghazaliyah, Al Adel and Al Jamme’a quarters in the west of the capital. Baghdadis expect a general attack by ISIL forces on their city in the near future, especially after the January 18th attacks where seven separate strikes, including six car bombs occurred all in one day.
ISIL’s attack on the juvenile prison in Al Tobjy (Taubchi) where many local emirs of ISIL are kept in custody, and before that, ISIL’s aborted attack on the Al Jauharah commercial mall, were taken as rehearsals for the general and bloody strikes against multiple targets in Baghdad by a wave of suicide terrorists.
Since the first of January, 2014, a total of more than 700 Iraqis have been killed due to the continuing fight between security forces and ISIL. Iraqi security authorities believe that ISIL is trying to reduce the pressure on its forces in Fallujah by shifting the confrontation to Baghdad.
Sceptics in the Iraqi capital believe it may be too late to reach a political deal capable of limiting ISIL control over vast areas of Al Anbar. Indeed, it seems it may get worse before it gets better. Iraqi security forces have a monumental task, and they do not inspire optimism with their performance. Resorting to counter violence against the ISIL fighters is also gaining momentum, as no political solution appears on the scene. In January alone, security forces executed 37 Iraqis, whereas a total of 151 prisoners were executed by Iraqi authorities in 2013. But even the 2013 number of executions was a significant increase over 2012, when fewer than 130 prisoners were reported executed.
With national elections approaching in April 2014, Iraq is facing an existential threat, but the atmosphere in the political theatre appears to be oblivious to this danger. Differences between political parties are getting louder and more extreme, but political forces do not reflect an appreciation of the magnitude of the threat Iraq now faces.
There is no question that Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki bears a major responsibility for the general crisis unfolding in Iraq. The problem is that Al Maliki still believes that his policies of exclusion will win the day as long as he can convince Washington to support him in his fight against terrorism, and as long as he receives the continuous support from Tehran. All those who really know Iraq understand that Al Maliki is wrong, and that the situation requires indeed a new policy and perhaps new political figures able to inspire credibility among the Sunnis.
Meanwhile, ISIL is continuing its targeting of leaders of the tribal Sahwas (armed groups of tribal Sunnis fighting ISIL), further tipping the balance toward the extremists. In Anbar, no one dares to talk about Al Sahwa, and leaders of the tribal groups have been killed by ISIL as far away as Kirkuk.
Last week in Washington, President Obama joined a meeting between the Speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives Usama Al Nujaifi and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House, where al-Nujaifi, a Sunni asked for US help in defeating the insurgency. It is obvious that the situation, as is usually the case in the Middle East, does not render easy solutions.
Washington should not provide any substantial assistance to Al Maliki before the Prime Minister commits—in language as clearly phrased as possible—to an inclusive formula to run the government. Without such a commitment, which must be coupled with detailed practical mechanisms to be implemented after the April elections, Iraq will continue its descent into the abyss.