After weeks of relative calm, the Islamic State of Iraq, a collection of terrorist groups that includes the notorious al Qaeda of Mesopotamia, launched a coordinated suicide attack in the heart of Baghdad that left at least 155 dead and hundreds more wounded. The last major attack occurred in August, when 102 civilians died in a series of bombings that targeted key government ministries. In a show of strength, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had dismantled much of the dense warren of blast walls designed to blunt the damage caused by terrorist attacks, one reason why the August attack proved so deadly. Yet this week's attack occurred in a well-fortified part of the city, and the culprits had to pass through a series of checkpoints. This has raised deeper questions about the negligence of Iraq's army and police, if not the complicity of some officials. Though the Sunni terrorists behind the attacks represent a discredited political force, they may have succeeded in discrediting Iraq's national unity government.
Maliki's decision to break with the sectarian Shia parties to form an ostensibly nonsectarian nationalist alliance hasn't endeared him to the Islamic State of Iraq, which is perhaps best understood as a group of Sunni supremacists. Though it's hard to get too excited about Maliki, his efforts to include prominent Sunni politicians in his coalition represented a breakthrough in Iraqi politics, which prompted his erstwhile Shia allies to make a show of reaching out to the Sunni community as well. But having built his reputation as a strongman capable of both defeating the terrorists and standing up to the Americans, Maliki is extremely vulnerable to the not-inaccurate perception that he's losing his grip on the country.
One can argue that the U.S. has already invested enough, and that the surge strategy was designed to buy Iraqis just enough time to settle their differences—if Iraq fails to seize that opportunity, my guess is that a large majority of Americans, Democrats and Republicans, will be content to call it a day.
Sensing the anger and frustration of Iraqis, the Maliki government responded to the August attacks with a series of arrests and the extraction of dubious confessions. The stakes are even higher now, as Iraq's various political factions are trying and failing to reach a compromise on national elections scheduled for the 16th of January. Apart from determining the future shape of Iraq's government, these national elections will help determine the pace of the American withdrawal from Iraq.
If all goes according to plan, the roughly 120,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq will fall to 50,000 by August of next year, a decline that would greatly facilitate a stepped up pace of operations in Afghanistan and that would give a battered and overextended American military badly-needed breathing room. But the undeniable fact is that the Iraqis will have an extremely difficult time containing their insurgency without substantial American assistance. Incredibly, the August attacks involved two-ton truck bombs assembled in the middle of the Iraqi capital. If the Iraqi security forces don't have the intelligence capability to foil such a crude plot, it's easy to see why American military planners are full of despair. The hope is that Iraq will become something like Colombia during the most violent phase of its civil war: a country that controls its borders and that can contain lawlessness and violence just enough to prevent it from overwhelming the central government, even without large numbers of foreign troops to keep the peace. For a while, that goal seemed to be within reach. Now, well, it's hard to tell.
Meanwhile, the political process is going in exactly the wrong direction. The contentious negotiations over the January election are the least of it. Just as the Islamic State of Iraq intended, the attacks have led to a series of accusations and counteraccusations. Shia politicians are inclined to blame Syria and Saudi Arabia and, of course, members of the Sunni-dominated Baathist Party for the violence. And Sunni politicians, in turn, will often accuse leading Shia Iraqis of serving as Iranians pawns. Reconciliation between Sunni and Shia Iraqis is as far away as ever.
• Chris Lehmann on the dark side of U.S. foreign policy Leaving the terrorist attacks aside, Iraqis are also struggling with the question of what to do with Kirkuk, a disputed region that Iraqi Kurds claim as part of their homeland. Various compromise proposals have been floated, yet the basic fact remains that the Kurds consider the Saddam-era settlement of Arabs in Kirkuk, many of them poor Shia Iraqis from the slums of Baghdad, to be a grave historical injustice. The situation bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to the struggles that tore apart the former Yugoslavia. Even if Iraq does go down in flames, it's not obvious that Americans will be terribly interested, particularly since U.S. troops have already left the cities, thus reducing their exposure to danger. One can argue that the U.S. has already invested enough, and that the surge strategy was designed to buy Iraqis just enough time to settle their differences—if Iraq fails to seize that opportunity, my guess is that a large majority of Americans, Democrats and Republicans, will be content to call it a day. I don't think that this is the right impulse: Iraq remains vitally important to American strategic interests. But the fact that the American public has long since run out of patience with the U.S. mission in Iraq should focus the minds of Iraqi politicians.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.