By Dr Michael Knights, Vice President and lead Iraq analyst at Olive Group.
The holy month of Ramadan – which ended on 11 September – is meant to be a time of peace, but in Iraq it has more often been a testing time for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the United States. Insurgents have always tried to overshadow the feast with “spectacular” attacks designed to dominate the headlines. The start of the first post-Saddam Ramadan in October 2003 saw the Rashid hotel rocketed and the violence that erupted during the holy month hinted at the beginnings of an insurgency that was still germinating within the Sunni Arab community in Iraq. For the next four Ramadan celebrations, the feast was an annual nightmare, a time when Iraqis and the Coalition forces braced for terrorist outrages and frequently were on the receiving end of them. Then in October 2008 everything changed: the relative quietness of the month was a breath of fresh air and gave those of us who closely watch the country an early indication that the Surge was really working.
For every action there is a counter-action, however, so it is hardly surprising that insurgents in Iraq upped their efforts during this year’s Ramadan. There were twenty attempted mass casualty attacks in Iraq from 11 August to 11 September. Half of these occurred on a single day, 25 August, when there were attempted mass casualty bombings in Mosul, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Dujail (near Saddam’s birthplace), Baqubah, Muqdadiyah, Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baghdad, as well as in the southern cities of Karbala, Kut and Basrah. At least 62 people were killed and over 250 were injured. So what does this feat of coordination and brutality tell us about future security in Iraq? Have we taken a step back, or is there something more nuanced to learn from the violence we witnessed?
From my perspective as an analyst, violent acts always tell me a great deal about the movements that undertake them. I can pore over the communiqués issued by groups all day long, but I can learn more in ten minutes from the details of the group’s latest attack. This is because all violent groups communicate most effectively through their actions not their words, and they often tell us things that they did not intend to, particularly about the group’s limitations. So what do the twenty or so major bombings undertaken during Ramadan tell us?