Why suicide bombers are back in Iraq
By Steve Niva
Suicide bombings are back in Iraq, signaling that the war is far from over.
After a significant downturn, with only six suicide attacks between December
2008 and March 2009, there have been 25 suicide bombings in Iraq in the last
two months, contributing to the worst spate of violence in Iraq in nearly a
year. The bombers have revealed a new audacity and sophistication, striking in
all parts of the country and against many seemingly highly secured targets.
The new wave of suicide bombings culminated in a coordinated series of four
bomb blasts across Iraq on March 23, three of them suicide bombings. The
bombings spiked in April, with attacks on Iraqi army bases and police stations
in Shi'ite enclaves and holy sites. Attacks also targeted US-backed Sunni
militia leaders and
US forces, including a massive suicide truck bomb in Mosul that killed five US
soldiers, the deadliest strike on American troops in a year. The nearly 20
suicide bombings in April have made it the deadliest month in 2009 for Iraqi
civilians, with nearly 300 dead according to Iraqi Interior Ministry officials,
compared with only 51 killed in February and 70 in January.
With the seemingly forgotten war in Iraq now back in the media spotlight, US
officials have downplayed the bloody surge in suicide bombings as a desperate
response to the fact that the United States is successfully ending the war and
withdrawing troops, as announced by President Barack Obama in a February 27
policy speech on Iraq. In a particularly embarrassing episode, the usually
careful Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed former Vice President Dick
Cheney's infamous 2005 claim that Iraq's insurgency was "in the last throes" by
claiming that the mayhem in Iraq was simply a "last gasp" by al-Qaeda to
"reverse the progress that's been made". During her unannounced visit to Iraq
in late April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quick to interpret the
violence as a "signal that the rejectionists fear Iraq is going in the right
The reality, however, is that the latest surge in violence isn't because the
United States is leaving, but because the timeframe and terms of withdrawal are
unclear. The real story behind the new wave of suicide bombings is that Iraqi
insurgents are in conflict with the American backed Iraqi state and the US
effort to perpetuate an order favorable to continued American influence and
interests in Iraq even while American forces draw down, a policy long known in
the region as neo-colonialism.
Bombings because the US is not leaving
Despite its high-minded claims about "ending the war", Obama's announced
withdrawal plan clearly doesn't end the Iraq occupation, but rather continues
it in a new form. The plan only calls for the withdrawal of "combat troops" by
August 2010, while leaving behind 35,000-50,000 occupying troops until the end
of 2011, many of whom will be combat troops simply relabeled as "advisory and
The plan says nothing about the parallel army of over 100,000 American
mercenaries and private contractors who currently roam Iraq, nor does it
address the fate of 283 military bases and installations in Iraq, including the
58 permanent bases where US troops will continue to be garrisoned. Furthermore,
US withdrawal is subject to Pentagon review with options extended for many
years to come.
As Democrat representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio commented immediately after
Obama's withdrawal speech: "You cannot leave combat troops in a foreign country
to conduct combat operations and call it the end of the war. You can't be in
and out at the same time."
Furthermore, the United States has built up a Shi'ite-dominated state through
its faulty counterinsurgency "surge" policy, with Maliki as prime minister,
backed by a reconstructed military and security apparatus that is predominantly
Shi'ite and hostile to the Sunni population. Although the United States has
also funded and armed Sunni tribal leaders who oppose al-Qaeda, they also
oppose the Shi'ite government, leaving behind a new Balkanized Iraqi order
barely held together by force of arms.
Hence, the primary mission of American troops in Iraq both now and after the
initial drawdown in August 2010 will be to preserve and extend this regime,
both by incorporating former Sunni and Shi'ite insurgents who are willing to
work with the United States-sponsored system and by eliminating those who are
opposed, incarcerating the rest behind walled-off enclaves patrolled by
unmanned aerial drones. Establishing a client regime to protect the interests
of empire, while leaving behind a garrison of troops and bases has long been
The neo-colonial trappings of Obama's exit strategy have not been lost on the
insurgents. The timing, targets and claims of responsibility for the recent
wave of suicide bombings indicate that key members of the Iraqi insurgency have
concluded that Obama's plan only extends the US occupation and have decided to
unleash a new round of violence to prevent the new order from taking root.
This shouldn't be surprising. In his seminal work Dying to Win: The Strategic
Logic of Suicide Terrorism, University of Chicago political scientist
Robert Pape observed that the taproot of suicide bombings is foreign military
occupation, not Islamic fanaticism or a "cult of martyrdom". The majority of
suicide attacks worldwide, including many by secular and non-Muslim groups like
the Tamil Tigers, have been launched as part of organized campaigns to achieve
a political goal, the most important of which is the ejection of foreign
Predictably, suicide bombings in Iraq only began after the US-led invasion in
March 2003 and have subsequently acquired a frequency and lethality
unprecedented in other similar campaigns. But suicide attacks in Iraq have
spiked in response to two sets of circumstances: as a response to military
offensives, and as a response to major political initiatives that emphasize
Iraq as being on the path to stability.
The latest spike in suicide bombings reveals this strategic logic; the campaign
began the week following Obama's speech and peaked in April, coinciding with
the sixth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to US forces in 2003. The suicide
attacks have targeted all the major elements of the post-"surge" Iraqi regime,
including Iraqi security and police forces, Shi'ite civilians and political
parties and other perceived supporters of the US occupation and the new Iraqi
regime, such as the US backed Sunni militias.
It appears insurgents are attempting to create an atmosphere of insecurity
within Iraq to destroy efforts by US forces and the Iraqi government to impose
law and order, and to create conditions that will compel the United States,
already distracted by surging violence in Afghanistan, to withdraw sooner
rather than later.
The strategic and broad-based nature of this latest suicide bombing campaign is
further illustrated in the claims made by various insurgent organizations
responsible for bombings. Dangerously, there are signs of renewed Ba'athist and
Islamist coordination. The "Islamic State of Iraq", an umbrella group for Sunni
Islamists including al-Qaeda in Iraq, asserted responsibility for the bombing
that killed five US soldiers in Mosul as well as several others, claiming that
the recent attacks were part of "Plan of Good Harvest", a new campaign against
US forces and their supporters in Iraq.
Izzat Ibrahim Al-Douri, the fugitive former deputy of Saddam Hussein and a
leading figure behind Sunni and Ba'ath insurgents in Iraq, highlighted the
strategic direction of the campaign in an audiotape broadcast on al-Jazeera on
April 7, calling Maliki's government and the Iraqi elections illegitimate
because they were the result of the American military occupation. He urged
insurgents to maintain their struggle against US forces and Iraq's government
because "the political process is the occupation's main project, so attack it
through all means available to you."
Perhaps the most ominous development for American and Iraqi plans for a new
order is that increasingly, members from the US-backed Sons of Iraq Sunni
militia appear to have rejoined the insurgency and "have gone into attack
Ending occupation key to ending suicide bombings The return of violence
and suicide bombings to Iraq illustrates the enduring reality that US
occupation forces and the illegitimacy of the new Iraqi regime are the cause,
not the solution. Obama's plan, which amounts to the continuation of the US
occupation in a new form, has virtually assured the return of suicide bombings.
While it's doubtful Iraq will witness another descent into violence like in
2006 or 2007, this new violence clearly represents a new phase in the
insurgency. As the always insightful Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post
observes, "In some ways, the attacks are reminiscent of an earlier stage of the
insurgency, before the sectarian war was ignited in 2006, when assailants
carried out bombings as spectacles intended to magnify the sense of US failure.
Then, as now, the carnage sent a message that no efforts, American or Iraqi,
could result in a sense of the ordinary."
Suicide bombings can't win wars, nor can the bombers drive out US forces from
Iraq. But what they can achieve is a pervasive sense of panic, uncertainty and
fear among the populace such that the battle by Iraqi state authorities and
Western forces to win them over will be eternally futile. Suicide bombings
create a political anarchy, and this kind of war can last as long as the
insurgents don't run out of suicide bombers, which isn't anywhere near the
Therefore, any real solution to the enduring the Iraq War must address the
taproot of suicide bombings, as Pape points out - foreign occupation in any of
its forms. The history of Iraq shows that even a more discreet foreign
presence, such as that employed by the British after 1930, will only further
compromise local authority. As long as the United States attempts to salvage
strategic interests in the region from its imbroglio in Iraq, the effort to
develop a truly independent Iraqi security force will prove disingenuous, and
many Iraqis will reject the legitimacy of their government as a pawn of
indirect imperial rule and continue their insurgency.
In order to remove the provocation for the insurgency the Obama administration
must make manifestly clear that its plan to end the Iraq War will also end the
occupation. To do so, it will need to plan for complete withdrawal of all US
troops according to an accelerated timetable, and do so in a way that prepares
Iraq for a future that is fully and without reservation Iraqi, not shaped by US
designs and interests.
Hence, popular pressure must be mobilized in the United States and elsewhere to
push Obama to return to the spirit of his earlier anti-war stance and withdraw
all US troops, mercenaries and military base personnel by August 2010. In
addition, the Obama administration must take steps to initiate a new political
process, preferably under United Nations or international auspices, which will
allow Iraq to formulate a new state on Iraqi terms, no longer governed by
American sponsored laws, procedures and client parties. As International Crisis
Group analyst Joost Hilterman pointed out, "Only a new national compact could
bring a decisive end to violence, as it will marginalize spoilers."
A continuing US presence, no matter how indirect, only favors new waves of
suicide bombers. In an interview on April 17, Iraq's Defense Ministry
Spokesman, Mohammed al-Askari, warned that a prolonged US military presence in
the country would paradoxically favor al-Qaeda by giving the militants enough
excuse to justify their terrorist acts.
"It would be good for al-Qaeda if US forces stayed in Iraq, because they could
justify their kidnappings, bombings and killings," he noted. Many Iraqis concur
with this logic. "The situation in Iraq will improve only if the Americans and
the Iraqi politicians withdraw from Iraq," said one citizen in Baghdad.
Unfortunately, many US officials, including the commanding US officer in Iraq,
General Ray Odierno, indicated that the violence may compel them to prolong the
occupation rather than end it by leaving US troops in major Iraqi cities, even
after the scheduled June 30, 2009, withdrawal date for all US combat troops.
But just because Iraq's insurgents are planning for a long war against the US
occupation and its client state doesn't mean the US needs to stay in Iraq. The
history of suicide bombings in the recent period has shown that when the
taproot of suicide bombings is turned off and the occupation ends, the bombings
will end. Other examples in the region abound: Hezbollah ceased suicide
bombings when Israel finally withdrew from Lebanese territory, and Hamas
largely ended its use of suicide bombings when Israel withdrew its settlers and
soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, though it continued to use other violent
tactics when Israel failed to end its military siege over Gaza.
If the US fully withdraws from Iraq, it's quite likely that we will see Iraqis
engage in a major effort to avert the chaos Washington claims to be protecting
Steve Niva, a professor of International Politics and Middle East Studies
at The Evergreen State College, is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He
is currently writing a book on the relationship between Israel's military
violence and Palestinian suicide bombings.