August 20, 2009 / 12:06 PM / in 8 years

Q&A-Iraq stunned by huge bombs - what is going wrong?

6 Min Read

By Suadad al-Salhy and Michael Christie

BAGHDAD, Aug 20 (Reuters) - Massive truck bombs that killed almost 100 people after shattering the facades of the Iraqi foreign and finance ministries have cast doubt on the ability of Iraqi security forces to protect the country from attacks.

Many Iraqis wonder whether U.S. troops who pulled out of cities at the end of June under a bilateral security pact will be deployed again to fill security gaps.

The bomb attacks aimed at undermining the Shi'ite-led government were sophisticated and well-organised, bearing the hallmarks of al Qaeda or of former military officers loyal to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party.

But analysts say Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki may have backed himself into a corner by hailing the U.S. pullback as a victory for Iraqi sovereignty six years after the U.S. invasion. It would be politically unpalatable ahead of national elections in January to have to back-track, and summon U.S. help.



WHAT'S GONE WRONG?

Analysts say Iraq's security forces have been lulled into a false sense of confidence by the decline in the past 18 months in the sectarian violence that killed tens of thousands.

Inspections of vehicles at checkpoints in Baghdad have become lazy - Iraqi police and soldiers do not search cars fully for explosives or subject identity documents to a proper review.

The security forces are also relying on permanent, fixed checkpoints, rather than roving and impromptu checkpoints that would make it more risky for insurgents or militants to move around. The fixed checkpoints are easy to avoid.

"They have changed their tactics but our security policy remains the same. This policy was a success when our enemy was in the streets fighting us face to face. But now they take the initiative and have the ability to attack anywhere at any time," said an Iraqi security expert, asking not to be identified.

Wednesday's attacks were political, aimed it seems more at undermining the Shi'ite-Kurdish government in Baghdad than in reigniting sectarian bloodshed. The security forces need to be more flexible to cope with shifting, less predictable targets.



ARE POLITICAL RIVALRIES CREATING VULNERABLE TARGETS?

Iraq's simmering feud between majority Arabs and semi-autonomous Kurds, lingering sectarian strains between Shi'ites and once dominant Sunnis, and pre-election rivalry between Shi'ite factions, may have ensured that the foreign and finance ministries were easy targets.

The foreign ministry run by Kurdish minister Hoshiyar Zebari is protected by Kurdish Peshmerga while the streets outside are guarded by forces of the government. Neither side talks to each other or coordinates defensive tactics, experts say.

The finance ministry, meanwhile, is controlled by one of the main Shi'ite factions, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), but is located in a part of Baghdad inhabited mainly by Sunnis.

The U.S.-backed Sunni neighbourhood militias that play a role in ensuring security in the area likely pay little attention to the security needs of the ministry and some members could conceivably be persuaded to turn a blind eye to threats. The vulnerabilities created by the unresolved ethno sectarian disputes in Iraq make it all the more important that Maliki's government make peace with Kurds and ensures that Sunnis feel they have a fair share of power, analysts say.

WHAT DO IRAQI FORCES NEED TO DO TO PROTECT THE COUNTRY?

The fight against terrorism is rarely won by deploying large numbers of troops at checkpoints or in the streets, security analysts and military officers say.

Domestic intelligence gathering is hampered by rivalries, government insiders say. "We create intelligence agencies but instead of collecting information about our enemies they write reports on each other," complained one Iraqi security expert.

The United States is supporting Iraq's efforts to defend itself by sharing the information it collects through both human and technological intelligence networks. But some Iraqi military leaders say it is not doing enough.

"They only give us intelligence information when it affects the security of their own troops," an Iraqi general said on condition he not be identified.



DO THE IRAQIS NEED U.S. HELP?

Maybe. But the question is also possibly moot.

Even if Iraqi officials decide they need U.S. military help in order to defeat the remaining cells of al Qaeda or Baath party loyalists, they may not ask for it.

Maliki has staked his political career on the celebration of Iraq's restored sovereignty, and is seeking credit for the sharp drop in overall violence over the past 18 months ahead of January's election.

Wednesday's bomb blasts struck severe blows to Maliki's reputation and image and he has ordered a review of security. Yet the prime minister is likely to insist that Iraqi troops and police alone ensure the country is safe from future attacks.

Even if U.S. forces are pulled back into the fray in cities, they are unlikely to be able to prevent every bomb attack -- there were far more bombings and civilian casualties when the U.S. army was leading the fight than there are now. (Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)



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