Reading the tea leaves of violence in Iraq

By Dr Mike Knights

Is Iraq getting more secure or is it stuck in a violent rut or even slipping backwards?   Getting a straight answer to this question is one of the biggest frustrations for those who are considering visiting Iraq or investing in the country. US and Iraqi leaders cite ongoing improvements in security yet security incident metrics seem to be stuck month after month at around 600 events of various kinds per month. Of course, the strongest impressions are always left by the mass casualty bombings, which may be relegated to the tail end of the news or plastered across the front page depending on whether they contain a new sensational aspect or just coincide with a quiet news day in the West. So how can you tell what is really going on and whether you need to adjust your business plans as a result?

I don’t intend to tackle the issue comprehensively in this inaugural blog entry, but this quest for clarity will be a thread running through all the entries on this page. Put simply, is Iraq becoming riskier, less risky or staying the same? An important first step is to put the large bombings into perspective. Taking Baghdad as an example, throughout the last six months there have been an average of six to seven mass casualty attacks undertaken each month. About a third of attacks typically take place at high-visibility locations like ministries and hotels, and are intended to command international attention and discredit claims that Iraq is stabilizing. Every new headline, every image of a bombing, shakes investor confidence in Iraq and makes businesses second-guess their decision to enter the Iraqi market.

This is a natural reaction but not a particularly useful one. I’ll put my cards on the table by stating that I have only seen one major bombing cause strategic effects in over seven years of consecutive monitoring of daily security trends in Iraq (that occasion being in February 2006, see next paragraph).  The sad truth is that there will continue to be a sprinkling of bombings in Iraq’s main cities for years to come, in part because such attacks are the easiest way for collapsing militant groups to maintain their profile and appear relevant. Yet the vast majority of bombings have no tangible effect on the international investor or the business traveler visiting Iraq.  The chances of being present at a targeted location during such an attack are infinitesimally small and the presence of a professional security company can greatly reduce the impact of an event if you are near the affected area. Iraqis continue to go about their business in spite of a handful of bombings spread across a city of seven million people each month; so can you.

Setting aside the high-visibility bombings, most mass casualty attacks take place at markets, public gatherings and security checkpoints in residential areas where no foreign enterprise or business traveler will ever visit. Yet the fear is that such bombings could re-spark sectarian tensions that might result in a general breakdown of security, including sectarian cleansing, disruption of government, and unworkable security restrictions on travel and business operations. The 22 February 2006 bombings of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra sparked just such a civil war at a moment when government formation was stalled after the January 2005 elections. Couldn’t it happen again?

Whenever Western analysts believe that Iraq is on a “glide path” to stability, the conservative observers amongst us are quick to point out how such assessments have been wrong before (notably at the start of 2006). They usefully point out that even an improving situation will be strewn with potholes that will give Iraq and its international partners a bumpy ride. Even so, most of those who have watched Iraq every day since 2003 are skeptical that mass casualty bombings can take the country back to the abyss of 2006-2008. Many analysts believe that the 2006-2008 sectarian clashes released pent-up energy and saw all sides emerge exhausted and sickened. Others believe that the power of the Iraqi state and particularly the Iraqi security forces are now a far more effective brake on destabilization than the United States military, which is fast ebbing out of Iraq.

To avoid being complacent we need to ask: how would we know if something were going badly wrong in Iraq’s security?  At Olive’s Analysis and Assessments (A2) unit, we try to focus not only on the inputs (the bombings) but also, principally, on the outputs (reaction to the bombings). What matters most in Iraq at this juncture is the effectiveness of the security forces; their ability to mostly maintain a monopoly of force; and their commitment to the broad federal government rather than to any single faction. From our perspective, one of the key indicators of a switch back to 2006 would be the presence of armed Iraqi civilians, openly carrying weapons on the street, with the tacit approval of nearby Iraqi security forces. If we routinely see this kind of militia activity, we will know that Iraq has taken a major step backwards. Until we see such a step, we need to tread carefully in our analyses, pay attention to underlying trends as well as today’s headlines, and greet each new act of violence with a critical eye.

Until next time,



Dr Michael Knights is Vice President and lead Iraq analyst at Olive Group, the  first security company to operate in Iraq.  He has  worked on Iraqi political and security risks since the mid-1990s, first as an oil and gas journalist and later as an academic, receiving his PhD on Iraq at the Department of War Studies, King's College London.  Since 2003, Dr Knights has run the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Iraq programme, advising US government agencies on Iraq policy and publishing a series of books on local politics and security in Basrah, Maysan, Dhi Qar and the northern provinces including Kirkuk.  Since joining Olive Group in 2006, he has produced in-depth social and political analysis of 26 of Iraq's major oil and gas fields and keeps a close eye on national security and politics.

He can be contacted at [email protected]

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