Fast-moving events in the Middle East -- including Syria's descent into a bloody civil war, the continued talk of conflict with Iran, and Egypt's ongoing transition -- have pushed Iraq to the sidelines of U.S. attention over the past year. But yesterday, Iraq reemerged as a series of attacks across the county made yesterday the deadliest day in Iraq in 2012. The key thing to watch in the coming weeks is how the Iraqi government responds, because its reaction will be the most important factor to shape the trajectory of what happens next.
The attacks raised further questions about the Iraqi government's ability to keep its people safe in the face of ongoing threats from terrorist groups, most prominently, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The day before these attacks, AQI leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi gave advance warning that a new offensive would begin soon in a 33-minute video posted on the web. And the terrorists hit a wide range of targets spread across the country -- police stations, military bases, and civilian targets.
AQI and other terrorist groups have remained active in the years since U.S. troops stopped actively patrolling urban areas and then completely withdrew at the end of last year. But yesterday's attacks were different in their wide reach and level of coordination -- they were clearly designed to provoke overreactions of the sort that Iraq saw at the height of its civil war when the U.S. troop presence was at its greatest number last decade -- the sectarian cleansing of neighborhoods in Baghdad by militias and the battles in other parts of the country that resulted in millions of Iraqis becoming either displaced inside of Iraq or refugees in neighboring countries like Jordan and Syria. During most days of the most violent period of Iraq's civil war from 2005-2007 it was the reaction to terrorist attacks and not the initial attacks themselves that spiraled the country into civil war.
In the immediate aftermath of these attacks, some overwrought, simplified analyses suggested that bigger factors were at play here, with some even suggesting that Syria's civil war was spreading eastward. Yet like the dominos theory of the Cold War that saw communism as a wave spreading geographically, we should remain skeptical of these ideas and stay focused on the key factor -- whether Iraq's government and the country's security forces can regain control without exhibiting the sort of excesses that was witnessed in reaction to similar terrorist attacks in 2005-2007. That's the crucial point. Because the AQI movement -- like the broader global Al Qaeda movement -- sees their greatest impact when they provoke responses that go far beyond what is necessary to keep citizens safe.
Some might use these latest attacks to argue that U.S. troops should never have left Iraq -- but this ignores the fact that the vast majority of Iraqis are glad the U.S. troops are no longer there and that U.S. national security is stronger and more balanced globally as a result of the strategic redeployment of troops from Iraq.
The Iraqi government will need to face these continued threats from terrorist groups -- and how it reacts in the next few weeks will determine whether or not Iraq slips into another civil war.