On 2 August President Obama affirmed that the U.S. combat troops would leave Iraq at the end of the month, though he noted that a reduced U.S. presence of 50,000 troops will remain in Iraq under a less military guise. These troops will make up a transitional force until the final U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011.
In many parts of Iraq, the local security forces are already operating in a post-U.S. mode and some have done so for years already. In Basrah, the style of security is well-organized, visible and heavy-handed, reflecting the importance of the area to key federal decision-makers. In Baghdad, security forces are lowering their levels of activity, reflecting the fact that it is unrealistic to expect Surge-era levels of security operations to be maintained year after year, particularly in light of a reduced U.S. role.
The U.S. military and the Iraqi government have both stated that national levels of violence have not increased. The Ministry of Health stated on 2 August that 335 Iraqis had been killed in violent attacks in July, a number that is consistent with figures from the beginning of the year. Initially the Iraqi government released findings that saw a sharp increase in the number of deaths in July to 535. The American forces disputed this figure, instead providing a modest figure of 216 Iraqi deaths, in addition to the death of one U.S. soldier. The integrity of both sets of figures is questionable. The U.S. rarely announces civilian casualty statistics and their findings are consistently lower than those of the Iraqi administration, it is possible that this reflects U.S. desire to project stability in order to ease their withdrawal. On the other hand, the Iraqi government’s figures could be inaccurate due to administrative inefficiency.
Perhaps the main dark cloud on the horizon is the rising number of attacks against the Sunni Arab Sons of Iraq, who are facing pressure from both a government disarmament drive and a fierce insurgent campaign targeting the U.S. recruited police auxiliaries. The summer and autumn will probably see a slow-burning struggle between the Sons of Iraq and their adversaries, both Al-Qaeda in Iraq and aggrieved nationalist militants with scores to settle with their erstwhile allies. If the latter groups can defeat the Sons of Iraq in their own neighbourhoods, there will likely be a minor upswing in insurgent activity as such groups regain their safe havens inside Sunni areas and the Shia-led security forces are forced to enter such areas to heavy-handedly root out the militants.
Iraq has now been five weeks without a government. Last week’s announcement on the indefinite postponement of the next parliamentary session, which would designate the top roles of government, marks another deviation from the legal protocol.
Prime Minister Maliki’s bloc and the pan-Shiite Iraqi National Alliance continue to clash over the position of premier. Maliki is hanging on to power, hoping (with apparent growing desperation) to outlast opposition to his rule. Though the U.S. government has expressed its strong support of a nexus between Maliki and his arch-rival, Iyad Allawi of the Iraqiyyah movement, this pan-nationalist alliance remains a distant prospect. Allawi, the Iraqi National Alliance and the Kurds have each sent letters to Maliki asking him to step aside for the sake of the nation. President Talabani has begun to canvass the opinion of the federal Supreme Court on the constitutional crisis, probably as a means of increasing pressure on Maliki. With Maliki’s position looking increasingly untenable, there are three main options:
- Simple replacement. If Maliki can be convinced to “go quietly”, the main Shia coalition partners could agree on another Shiite politician to take the role. Adel Abd’al-Mahdi, current vice president and Iraqi National Alliance member, is the most commonly cited option. The Sadrist candidate, former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is still considered an unlikely prospect.
- The “Putin” option. Maliki could agree to step aside on the condition that a fellow Da’awa Party politician becomes prime minister, effectively putting a Maliki supporter in the position. Options include Tariq al-Najem, Maliki’s chief-of-staff, or Jaafar Baqr al-Sadr, a rising Da’awah personality.
- Special arrangement. It is possible that one of the “strongmen” candidates – Maliki or Allawi – could lead the government again, but only at the head of a greatly weakened prime ministerial office. Mechanisms could include the splitting off of the prime ministerial office from a new position as the head of a national security committee. The aim would be to neuter the premier’s ability to control the security organs of the state. As Maliki caustically noted, this option would reduce the post of prime minister “to just a traffic cop” (reflecting the general disdain in Iraqi society for the ineffectual highway police).
Whichever option develops, it is clear that the first step – to elect a new president – will not occur until at least the last week of July, making government formation before Ramadan highly unlikely.
On 26 July Al Qaeda in Iraq Associated Movements generated headlines by detonating a Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device in the al Kindi area close to the al Arabiya TV station offices. It has been assessed that the target of the attack was, in fact, nearby Government of Iraq offices. The bombing killed five and wounded twenty. Al Qaeda in Iraq Associated Movement elements were also believed to be responsible for a series of bombings in Shia dominated areas in Adhamiyah district that wounded sixteen people including nine Iraqi Security Force members. The bombings demonstrate Al Qaeda’s intent to provoke a reaction from the Shia community to reignite sectarian violence in Baghdad.
An inter-factional dispute amongst Shia insurgents loyal to Muqtada Al Sadr and a break away faction was believed to be the cause of several Improvised Explosive Device attacks in Sadr City on 28 July that killed fifteen people and wounded another 22. Inter- factional clashes such as these could increase as the destabilising political vacuum is prolonged.
The number of Indirect Fire attacks on the International Zone has increased dramatically during July. Six Indirect Fire attacks have been recorded targeting the Zone, for example, the attack aimed against the U.S. Embassy on 22 July that resulted in the deaths of three U.S. security personnel. In comparison to the attacks in July, May and June 2010 saw no Indirect Fire attacks against the Green Zone. There were three ineffective Indirect Fire attacks in this reporting period, all of which originated from Shia areas in the south and east of the city. Indirect Fire attacks on the International Zone are expected to continue at their current elevated rate as insurgents seek to target U.S. forces as they drawdown.
On 30 July, Basra COB was attacked with nine rockets impacting outside the northern perimeter, with the closest Point of Impact situated three kilometers from the base. This brings the total number of Indirect Fire attacks for the month of July to five, making it the busiest month on record (records begin post Operation Charge of the Knights, March 2008). This is also the highest number of rockets fired in one go, surpassing the 26 May 2009 attack where seven 107mm rockets were launched and three were found on the rails in the Qarmat Ali area. Iraqi Security Forces quickly arrested five men in connection with the attack. It is assessed that the number of rockets available to insurgents has increased to coincide with the withdrawal of U.S. Forces to give the appearance of U.S. troops retreating under fire.
This activity is not unique to Basra, U.S. bases in neighbouring provinces have also been targeted after periods of inactivity. Forward Operating Base Gary Owen in al Amarah was targeted with Indirect Fire on 26 July, the first time since April that it has been targeted.