Iraq Bombings unlikely to Change Minds on US Troop Withdrawal

Iraqi checkpoint blast near police station in Najaf.

If 47,000 US troops in country cannot prevent such coordinated bombings, then how could a much smaller contingent do so?


President Obama speaks to U.S. troops at Camp Victory in Baghdad on April 7 Jim Young / Reuters

by Juan Cole


And as Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi has pointed out on several occasions recently, the very presence of US troops would provoke terrorist attacks and be destabilizing.

Some 80 people were killed and over two hundred wounded on Monday in a clearly coordinated set of bombings and attacks in 17 Iraqi cities. The prime suspect is radicalized Sunni Arabs who are typically called “al-Qaeda” in Iraq even though they likely have little connection to the original. The biggest toll came from two bombings in the southern Shiite city of Kut, though there were also attacks in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. In the Sunni center, west and north, the attacks focused on police and military officers loyal to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. An attack in largely Sunni Mansour district of west Baghdad targeted the convoy of the minister of higher education. In Tikrit and Ramadi, security officials were the focus. Thus, the targets were ordinary Shiites in the south, but security or other government personnel in the Sunni areas to their north and northwest.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki denounced the attacks as the work of “criminals” and pledged to bring them to justice.

Despite the lost and blighted lives victimized by these bombings and attacks, the terrorism cannot transcend mere terror and is unable to bring about significant political change. You can’t overthrow the governm

Iraqi checkpoint blast near police station in Najaf.

ent of an oil state with a few scattered bombings and low level assassinations. So what does an operation like Monday’s accomplish for the radicals? It might delay Western investment in the Iraqi oil sector and so ensure that the government is denied substantial new resources (though likely it will be 2017 before much new pumping capacity is achieved in any case). It cannot actually terrorize Shiites into ceasing to be politically active, nor can it stop Sunni Arabs from joining the police force and the army. It is a kind of “haunting” of the body politic in Iraq by ghosts of those defeated and perhaps a postponement of Iraq’s reemergence as a political and military power to be reckoned with in the Gulf region.

It is not clear whether the turmoil in Bahrain and Syria had any impact on the forces behind the bombings. Were the radical Sunnis galvanized by the Shiite al-Maliki government’s support for the Shiites of Bahrain and criticism of the Sunni monarchy’s crackdown on the democracy movement there? Are the Sunni-Shiite tensions latent in the Syrian struggle spilling over onto Iraq (al-Maliki has been forebearing toward fellow Shiite Bashar al-Asad’s repression of protesters, some of whom — and only some– are Sunni fundamentalists).

As usual with such bombing campaigns, this one provoked many journalists and commentators to wonder about their impact on the planned withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. But as I have said before, the US presence is largely irrelevant. If 47,000 US troops in country cannot prevent such coordinated bombings, then how could a much smaller contingent do so? And as Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi has pointed out on several occasions recently, the very presence of US troops would provoke terrorist attacks and be destabilizing.

I think the likelihood of a Status of Forces Agreement being forged that would allow, say, 5,000 to 10,000 US troops to remain in Iraq after Dec. 31 of this year is low. PM al-Maliki has declined to push it through as an executive decision, and is insisting on a vote of parliament. Even US officials seem now to realize that an act of parliament would be necessary if US troops were to be held legally harmless from military actions in Iraq that left Iraqis wounded or dead. Parliament is just highly unlikely to vote for keeping US troops in the country.

Iraq is a wounded civilization, wounded by internal divisions that produced the great massacre of spring, 1991, of Shiites by the Baath military, and a wound that was given a roaring staph infection by the Bush administration’s illegal invasion and occupation. Until its Shiite-dominated government finds a way to mollify enough Sunni Arabs to drain support for radical action, such low-grade guerrilla actions will likely continue. The Sunni-Shiite polarization in the Gulf region as a whole that has marked the Arab Spring there has only exacerbated tensions in Iraq, unfortunately.

Juan R. I. Cole, Middle East scholar,  is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. He has given many radio and press interviews. He has written widely about Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and South Asia. He has commented extensively on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Iraq War, the politics of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Iranian domestic struggles and foreign affairs. His website: and Informed Comment



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