The latest alarming news from Iraq is that hundreds of hardened al-Qaeda terrorists have broken out of the Abu Ghraib prison–once used by Saddam Hussein, then by the U.S., now by the Iraqi government.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq–recently rebranded, after a merger with its Syrian affiliate, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–has already been displaying formidable capabilities, given that it now seems to set off a major explosion at least once a week. The raid to free imprisoned al-Qaeda members–which featured complex, military-style maneuvers–is a further sign of its strength. And of course with the aid of the newly released terrorists, al-Qaeda in Iraq will only get stronger still.
While the prison breakout was the headline event, Reuters notes, almost in passing, “In the city of Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated a vehicle packed with explosives behind a military convoy in the eastern Kokchali district, killing at least 22 soldiers and three passers-by.” That is another significant attack–what it signifies is that a full-blown Sunni insurgency is growing in northern Iraq.
Not surprisingly, Shiite extremist groups are beginning to fight back, just as they did in the dark days of 2006-2007 when Iraq was on the verge of all-out civil war. As Kim Kagan notes in the Weekly Standard, “Shia militias have mobilized in Iraq and have resumed extrajudicial killings in Baghdad, Diyala, and Hillah…. The militias are evidently reasserting their control of East Baghdad while projecting checkpoints into West Baghdad.” “Some of the militia activity,” she notes, “is occurring within sight of Iraqi Security Forces checkpoints,” which suggests that the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, “is either tolerating it or has lost control over the escalation.”
Maliki is responsible for this spiraling violence in other ways, as well, principally with his heavyhanded attempts to marginalize and prosecute Sunni politicians which is increasingly driving Sunnis to oppose the government via force of arms. A turning point, as Kagan notes, was “the January killing of several protesters in Fallujah and a deliberate military maneuver on the protest camp in Hawijah in April that left 200 casualties.”
The U.S., which has expended so much blood and treasure in Iraq, has been little more than a hand-wringing bystander to this worsening situation, our leverage severely limited by President Obama’s failure to reach an agreement that could have kept U.S. forces there past 2011. The U.S. can, as Kagan suggests, condition our arms deliveries on Maliki taking constructive steps to reach out to political adversaries, but Iraq is now rich enough–it is the second-largest oil producer in OPEC, behind only Saudi Arabia–that it can always replace U.S. weapons with others bought on the open market.
The fate of Iraq is not yet sealed, but its future does not look good. That is a precedent the administration should keep in mind as it openly flirts with the “zero-option” in Afghanistan–i.e., the removal of all U.S. forces after 2014. As the Iraq precedent should show, such a step would not “end” the war but worsen it.