From homemade bombs to gunmen, a series of coordinated attacks murdered nearly 100 people and wounded hundreds more in Iraq this week. Less than five months before U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq, the attacks serve as a reminder that despite relative success of the Iraqis in stabilizing the country, terrorists still pose a serious threat to its future security.
With at least 89 dead, according to the New York Times, Monday marked the deadliest day of the year for the Iraqi people. The attacks, believed to have been orchestrated by al Qaeda, raise questions about the ability of Iraq's security forces to protect its citizens against violent threats.
"After so much effort of U.S. and Iraqi forces, this shows that [militants] still have the capacity to coordinate these kinds of attacks," says Ramzy Mardini, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based military affairs research group. "I think they'll continue regardless of whether the U.S. stays or leaves."
For now, even after the latest wave of violence, it appears that the United States is still on a glidepath out. President Obama, while traveling around the United States, has been touting the return of troops from Iraq as a beneficial addition to the workforce, while the White House continues to claim success overall in curbing violence there. "Obviously there have been attacks, and we strongly condemn them. The overall picture is one where violence has been down," said White House spokesman Jay Carney at a Monday press briefing. "It doesn't change where we are in the process of drawing down our troops."
The Obama administration says it's still in discussions with the Iraqis over their government's decision on whether to keep U.S. support troops in the country past the December 31, 2011, deadline established by a 2008 agreement between the two countries. Political tensions among Iraq's leaders have held up the decision.
According to Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, Monday's attacks could put additional pressure on Iraqi politicians to ask for continued support. "If there's a silver lining, it's that these attacks could help disabuse Iraqi politicians of the notion that they can end U.S. presence with little impact to their own security," he says.
But, as Mardini points out, while having a U.S. presence certainly strengthens the Iraqi forces by providing advice and training, there would be little Americans could do moving forward to prevent similar terrorist attacks. Whether there are more than 40,000 American troops in Iraq, as there are today, or only 10,000, the number that's been suggested if Iraqis do request a continued presence, he says such terrorist attacks will be equally difficult to prevent. "We're in a training-and-advisory mission. There's little we can do. The focus is on what the Iraqis do," he says.
It's possible that even if the Iraqis decide not to keep U.S. troops on the ground, they might still allow U.S. special operations teams to target militant groups, like al Qaeda, in counterterrorism efforts within Iraq's borders down the road. Though publicly, Phillips says, that might be an even harder pill for Iraqi politicians to swallow, especially given the unfavorable reputation of U.S. intelligence agencies in the region. "Iraqi politicians don't want to be seen as puppets to the United States," he says.
The recent violence also raises uncertainty about the plans for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, where local security forces are even less equipped and capable than those in Iraq, says Phillips. "It should be a sign that hard and fast deadlines that the United States has proposed need to be taken with a grain of salt," he says.