The Car Bombings in Iraq

To many critics of the war, the situation in Iraq has gotten a lot more confusing since the election. The election itself was confusing: though originally forced upon the occupation by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, they were nevertheless conducted in the enthusiastic embrace of the U.S. government and media. And, while the winning ticket was elected after a campaign centered around promises of a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, its leadership abandoned this demand while the occupation celebrated the huge turnout in Shia and Kurdish areas as an endorsement of the occupation. But the seemingly endless wrangling over Sunni representation in the new government provided a clarity of sorts on the meaning of the election — that the government is simply not a critical factor in the dynamics of Iraqi society. By April, the whole issue of the election and the new government had faded into the background as an onslaught of car bombings exchanged headlines with two new military offensives by the American military near the Syrian border and a much ballyhooed Iraqi military offensive in Baghdad.


These recent developments have demonstrated that the occupation and the resistance continue to be the two primary forces in the country, but they also underscore how difficult it is to discern the underlying logic of the confrontation between them.


The car bombings are the centerpiece of these new events, and they represent, I believe, a new and qualitatively different offensive strategy of the resistance. One symptom that they are a departure can be found in sheer numbers: according to U.S. military officials there were 25 car bombings last year in Baghdad; since March 1 there have been 126. But what really distinguishes this campaign from earlier ones — even those that utilized car bombs — is their indiscriminate targeting. Far larger numbers of civilians are killed or wounded in these attacks than in other resistance attacks, many of which are carefully targeted to avoid civilian casualties.


Don’t be fooled by the press coverage — the car bombs are not detonated at random, nor are they primarily directed at Shia mosques. In fact, only a handful have been targeted primarily at civilians — the vast majority are aimed at recruits or active duty members of the Iraqi police and army; the civilian injuries are — to use the ghoulish American military jargon — “collateral damage.”


But it is important to begin by understanding the small proportion that actually target civilians, notably mosques and other places where Shia congregate. These appear to be exclusively the work of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his cohorts in “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.” (Though they regularly claim credit for these attacks, we can never be certain of his authorship, given the unreliability of his claims.) Zarqawi’s faction has consistently characterized the Shia as apostates. In a recent statement they denounced virtually the whole Shia community, saying that occupation leaders are “being aided by their allies from Shia,” and then adding “The Shia sect has always spearheaded any war against Islam and Muslims throughout history.” Applying classic terrorist logic, Zarqawi is attempting to use attacks on civilians to intimidate the Shia community from supporting the new government and the U.S.-led occupation that stands behind it.


“Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” accounts for a tiny proportion of the military actions undertaken by the Iraqi resistance. My best estimate is that Zarqawi and his allies account for perhaps five actions each week, including perhaps one car bombing. This represents a small proportion of even the car bombings, which have been running at least ten per week since the election; and it is a tiny proportion of the 400 or so violent actions each week — virtually all of which are directed at military targets, with about 70% directed at U.S. armed forces.


These terrorist attacks are nevertheless a significant element in the Iraqi cauldron. The massive mayhem they cause reflects the fact that the targets are vulnerable civilians, and the immense publicity given them by the American media (encouraged by occupation authorities) insure their actual and figurative importance. Beyond this, their role in creating and sustaining friction and conflict between the Sunni and Shia communities, again augmented by the media spotlight on this growing problem (a spotlight that is also encouraged by occupation authorities) insures that these attacks have become the most visible elements in the car bombing offensive.


But the visibility of the “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” has also created a growing effort for the remainder of the resistance to dissociate itself from Zarqawi and his allies. Since last Fall, the latter have been regularly denounced by the Association of Muslim Scholars, the key clerical leadership of the Sunni resistance. They have been repeatedly labeled as criminals (rather than resistance fighters) by the Sadrists — the key anti-occupation group among the Shia. Even the new Iraqi government has acknowledged the growing estrangement. Laith Kubba, an adviser to Premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari told New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise that many elements of the resistance were no longer “welcoming” Zarqawi and other foreign fighters. He commented, “There was a moment when they said, ‘O.K., we’re going to use you in our fight against the government and Americans. But now they’re saying, ‘You’re a burden’”


It is this growing isolation of Zarqawi that makes the car bombing offensive all-the-more significant. It is being carried out by elements of the resistance who do not traditionally target civilians. And while they are not targeting them in this campaign, neither are they attempting to avoid civilian casualties. This odd equation is nicely expressed in this Washington Post description of a May 23 attack: At lunchtime, a car bomb exploded outside a cafe frequented by workers in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of north Baghdad, killing at least five people, hospital officials said. The bomb was detonated by remote control, police said. While the intended targets appeared to have been police who also gather at the cafe, witnesses said the victims were civilians.”


Most of these attacks are a little less indiscriminate, since reports in early May indicated that 250 of the 400 people killed to that point were recruits or active duty police and national guard.


This technical distinction between targeting civilians and targeting armed forces is worth emphasizing because it allows us to see the underlying logic of the attacks. The targeting of police is a direct response to the American policy of “Iraqification” of the war — an attempt by the U.S. military to train an Iraqi force that can relieve the overstressed American armed forces. The intention is to deprive the Iraqification campaign of the manpower it needs, and thereby weaken the occupation.


It remains to be seen whether this sort of intimidation campaign can work. The U.S. press has been quoting American military leaders as reporting that the bombings are not scaring Iraqis away from one of the only jobs that promises enough pay to support a family; but we can’t rely on such reports. (But we do know Iraqification thus far is a miserable failure. For example, the recent Operation Matador — the search and destroy operation by American troops over by the Syrian border — involved no Iraqi troops at all, because none could be trusted to withstand actual fire fights. And the police in key Sunni cities like Ramadi and Mosul have not been able or willing to police the towns, leaving large sections of cities and whole towns in the hands of the resistance, who become the de facto police there.)


While the car bombing campaign cannot be called “indiscriminate” carnage, it is carnage nonetheless, and it represents a dramatic departure from earlier resistance strategies on two very important dimensions. The most obvious departure is the lack of concern for civilian casualties. Classic guerrilla war, regularly practiced by the Iraqi resistance, tries to insure that guerrilla attacks avoid civilian casualties. In Iraq this has been regularly practiced by warning local residents of impending attacks and having them clear the neighborhood before they occur. This, for example, was done in the famous incident in Falluja where the four security men were ambushed (and then later butchered by a mob), the triggering incident for the first siege of Falluja. But it is also the bread and butter of myriad small guerrilla incidents, such as the one described by Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner:


“Farhan Ali, 52, a shepherd from the village, said insurgents told him to clear out of an area on a busy dirt road from Abu Ghraib to Smailat because they had planted a bomb in a cardboard carton that was set to blow up next to the foot patrol. ‘All the people in the area knew about it,’ he said. ‘The insurgents asked us to stay out of the road.’…’All of us were just watching,’ Ali said. ‘There were a bunch of kids standing away from the road expecting and watching to see an explosion.’”


While there have been innumerable instances where such caution is not applied and many battles in which civilians were caught in the cross fire, the recent car bombings represent the first instance in which a guerrilla campaign has generated this level of civilian casualties. Of course, Iraqi police and national guard (both recruits and active duty personnel) are required to congregate in crowded city locations, so the guerrillas have a good excuse for attacking where they do. But in other circumstances, they would warn people nevertheless, even at the risk of losing the element of surprise or aborting the attack altogether. So this represents a drift far away from the ethics that have so far dominated the resistance (though at least some elements of the resistance, including Zarqawi and his crowd, have never honored them).


This change in strategy has enormous potential to change the way in which the resistance is viewed inside Iraq. Ordinary citizens, even those who detest the occupation, will generally be alienated from such strategies, and therefore from the resistance. Many people react like two eyewitnesses to the restaurant attack described above. One, acknowledging the purpose of the attack, commented: “I swear to God, I will not enter any restaurant if I see any policemen sitting there,” and then complained, “There is no safe place in Baghdad, not even your bedroom.” The other declared bluntly that the insurgents were cowards: “They cannot face these men [the police] man-to-man, so they show us how brave they are by killing these poor men who run all day to feed their families.”


But there is another aspect to these attacks that is even more symptomatic of a shift in resistance strategy: the targeting of police and police recruits. While these attacks have occurred in the past, they have now become the key weapon in the resistance struggle against Iraqi armed forces, replacing one that was almost its direct opposite.


Before the current campaign, most of the resistance attempted to co-opt, rather than defeat, the Iraqi police and national guard. The patterns were simple: when police and the national guard were stationed in cities, the resistance would cooperate with them in enforcing criminal law, delivering criminals to them and avoiding armed conflict, except when they participated in campaigns against the resistance itself. When the U.S. called upon local Iraqi forces to fight the resistance, the resistance would issue an appeal for the Iraqi armed forces to defect or abandon their posts and melt into the population. In virtually every important confrontation police stations were abandoned to the resistance, Iraqi units deserted and went home rather than fight other Iraqis, and some even joined the resistance and fought the Americans. The most highly visible cases of this occurred in the two battles in Falluja and the confrontations in Sadr City, where the U.S. could not mobilize any Iraqi units except those from the Kurdish areas.


This strategy was more successful than preventing the recruitment of police and national guard, since it created a “Trojan Horse,” supplied and trained by the U.S., that was frequently an ally and almost never the enemy. In Mosul, for example, U.S. reliance on the local police allowed the resistance to take over the city (during the battle of Falluja, when the U.S. forces were otherwise occupied) with almost no fighting. A force of 3000 policemen simply melted into the population (except those that joined the rebels) and left their weapons and supplies behind.


This new car bomb strategy will therefore hurt the resistance whether it succeeds or fails. Any reduction in the size of the army will be more than offset by the antagonism to the resistance among the surviving forces, definitively undermining the “Trojan Horse” strategy.


So why have at least some elements of the rebellion abandoned the cooptation strategy? The most important answer lies in changes in U.S. policy for deploying Iraqi military forces. Until last fall, the U.S. recruited local residents for the local police force and assigned army units with matching ethno-religious backgrounds to local patrols. That is, they recruited Fallujans to police and patrol in Falluja, Ramadans in Ramadi and Sadr City residents in Sadr City. When this was not possible, Sunnis were assigned to Sunni areas; Shia were assigned to Shia areas.


This policy, of course, was a key element in enabling the Trojan Horse strategy, since the soldiers’ ties into the local communities gave families and tribal leaders personal, moral, and clerical leverage over the local armed forces. Last Fall, faced with the stark evidence of the power of these ties, the U.S. military reacted by assigning outsiders to police the most troubled areas. That is, they began to use Sunni and Kurdish forces in Shia areas; Shia and Kurdish forces in Sunni areas. So, for example, while the Sunni military forces refused to fight in both battles of Falluja, in the second battle a Kurdish force joined the Americans and fought alongside of them.


This strategy could work — the U.S. might be able to recruit police forces and national guard units that would not be co-optable by the resistance, simply exploiting the ethno-religious divisions in the country. They are trying this in Ramadi and other centers of Sunni resistance. In Falluja, the Shia occupying troops have been accused of frequent and systematic brutality. This brutality is a sign that the Shia armed forces may not be co-optable by the Sunni resistance, and it has been a major source of the growing antagonism between the Shia and Sunni communities. (The use of this ethnic “fix” to their enforcement problems, as well as failure of the Americans to respond to the charges of brutality in Falluja and elsewhere provides further evidence of American complicity in — and perhaps authorship of — the growing ethno-religious conflict in Iraq.)


Certainly, the current car bomb campaign suggests that at least some elements in the Sunni resistance think that the American strategy will work. One key sign of this can be seen in the abortive negotiations around the battle of Falluja. It was not well publicized, but the U.S. did negotiate with representatives of the Falluja leadership before attacking, and one of the sticking points in the negotiations was the demand by the rebels that the police force in Falluja be recruited from Falluja. The U.S. would not agree to this demand. Another, more immediate, indication lies in the fact that virtually all of the car bombs are directed against primarily Shia armed forces. In fact, the bombings tend to be in Shia areas of town (where Shia recruits or police congregate) so that the civilian victims are also Shia. While such targeting is “logical” in some abstract sense, the attacks are inevitably seen as anti-Shia.


Hence it is no surprise that communities in which these attacks take place see them as atrocities — not only because they kill civilians, but also because the recruits are usually local men who are applying for one of the only available jobs in town. The comment that the restaurant bombers “show us how brave they are by killing these poor men who run all day to feed their families” probably represents the predominant attitude among Shia toward both the car bombers and the police they target. The fact that these police jobs are all that the American-led pseudo-reconstruction can offer in the way of employment is a sign of the failure of the occupation. But even if this sharpens the anger of the residents against the U.S., it does not soften the anger at the car bombers, who are not only killing people, but removing one of the few job possibilities available in communities where unemployment is as high as 60%.


So the car bomb campaign is designed to substitute for co-opting the police, but it has far-reaching consequences. Beyond the murder and alienation of civilians and its likelihood to strengthen police antagonism to the resistance, it adds to the growing divisions between Shia and Sunnis, feeding the very ethno-religious friction that has become Washington‘s principal excuse for its continuing presence. The fact that the U.S. is in some sense the driving force behind this growing division is an important part of the story, but it is only one important part. The other is the strategy of the Sunni resistance. Instead of searching for another way of defeating Iraqification, it has adopted this strategy, which has already contributed to the growing friction between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq.



Michael Schwartz, Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook has written extensively on popular protest and insurgency, and on American business and government dynamics. His work on Iraq has appeared  on the internet at numerous sites, including TomDispatch, Asia Times, MotherJones.com, and ZNet; and in print at Contexts, Against the Current, and Z Magazine. His books include Radical Politics and Social Structure, The Power Structure of American Business (with Beth Mintz), and Social Policy and the Conservative Agenda (edited, with Clarence Lo). His email address is [email protected]. 




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