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The Return of the Suicide Bombers

Suicide bombings are back in Iraq, signaling that the Iraq 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 Shia enclaves and holy sites. Attacks also targeted U.S.-backed Sunni militia leaders and U.S. forces, including a massive suicide truck bomb in Mosul that killed five U.S. soldiers, the deadliest strike on American troops in a year. The nearly twenty 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, U.S. 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 direction”.

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 U.S. 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 neocolonialism.

Suicide Bombing Because the United States 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 assistance brigades.” 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 U.S. troops will continue to be garrisoned. Furthermore, U.S. withdrawal is subject to Pentagon review with options extended for many years to come.

As Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) 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 Shia-dominated state through its faulty counterinsurgency “surge” policy, with Maliki as prime minister, backed by a reconstructed military and security apparatus that is predominantly Shia 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 Shia 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 Shia 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 termed neocolonialism.

The neocolonial 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 U.S. occupation and have decided to unleash a new round of violence to prevent the new order from taking root.

Martyrdom’s Logic

This shouldn’t be surprising. In his seminal work 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 military occupiers.

Predictably, suicide bombings in Iraq only began after the U.S.-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 U.S. forces in 2003. The suicide attacks have targeted all the major elements of the post-“surge” Iraqi regime, including Iraqi security and police forces, Shia civilians, and political parties and other perceived supporters of the U.S. occupation and the new Iraqi regime, such as the U.S. backed Sunni militias. It appears insurgents are attempting to create an atmosphere of insecurity within Iraq to destroy efforts by U.S. 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 U.S. soldiers in Mosul as well as several others, claiming that the recent attacks were part of “Plan of Good Harvest,” a new campaign against U.S. forces and their supporters in Iraq. Izzat Ibrahim Al-Douri, the fugitive former deputy of Saddam Hussein and a leading figure behind Sunni and Baath 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-backed Sons of Iraq Sunni militia appear to have rejoined the insurgency and “have gone into attack mode.”

Ending Occupation Key to Ending Suicide Bombings

The return of violence and suicide bombings to Iraq illustrates the enduring reality that U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 horizon.

Therefore, any real solution to the enduring 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 antiwar stance and withdraw all U.S. 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 U.N. 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 points out, “Only a new national compact could bring a decisive end to violence, as it will marginalize spoilers.”

A continuing U.S. presence, no matter how indirect, only favors new waves of suicide bombers. In an interview with AFP on April 17, Iraq’s Defense Ministry Spokesman, Mohammed al-Askari, warned that a prolonged U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. officials, including the commanding U.S. officer in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, indicated that the violence may compel them to prolong the occupation rather than end it by leaving U.S. troops in major Iraqi cities, even after the scheduled June 30, 2009 withdrawal date for all U.S. combat troops.

But just because Iraq’s insurgents are planning for a long war against the U.S. occupation and its client state doesn’t mean the U.S. needs 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 United States fully withdraws from Iraq, it’s quite likely that we will see Iraqis engage in a major effort to avert the chaos the United States claims to be protecting them from.

STEVE NIVA teaches at Evergreen College.

Reprinted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

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