Since the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the country has slipped off the political and media agenda in the west. But bloodshed in the country is steadily mounting. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost since the US-led invasion in 2003; partly at the hands of the invading forces, and partly because of the bloody sectarian war that followed. After the US occupation officially ended in 2011, the death toll has been growing.
Figures compiled by the Iraqi government show that October was the country's deadliest month since April 2008, when the sectarian war was just drawing to an end. Nearly 1000 people were killed in October. The majority – 855 – were civilians, with 65 policemen and 44 soldiers also losing their lives. A further 1600 were wounded (1445 of whom were civilians). The UN released very similar figures and called for an end to the bloodshed.
This rising tide of violence is despite a major tightening of security in Baghdad and other areas, and a wide-ranging operation targeting armed groups. Today, the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is in Washington to meet with US president Barack Obama and entreat him to train and equip Iraq's armed forces with the advanced weapons and techniques needed to fight terrorism.
In a speech before the US Institute of Peace on Thursday, Maliki blamed the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq on the Arab Spring revolutions across the region, saying: "A vacuum was created and al-Qaeda and other groups were able to exploit it and to gain ground. They benefited from the fall of the state structure, so now we are seeing the new reality… that allowed terrorism to be back."
Maliki's regime blames all of Iraq's frequent terrorism acts – car explosions, suicide bombs – on al-Qaeda. But this is not the only cause of violence. The regime's multiple militias – Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Iraqi Hezbollah, factions of the Mahdi army, the Badr brigades and the Mokhtar army – also carry out attacks. A letter by US lawmakers points out that Maliki's government has played a role in worsening the bloodshed in Iraq. Human Rights Watch has also drawn attention to the poor record of Maliki's government, noting that the use of the death penalty has been drastically increased, with 140 people executed so far in 2013, and 65 just in October. In a statement, the deputy Middle East director Joe Stork said: "Iraq is plagued by terrorist attacks that are killing civilians in record numbers, but relying on torture and executions after unfair trials only makes the situation worse."
In the Guardian, the Kurdish-Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana notes that it is a "common belief" in Iraq that the security forces are behind the terror campaign in the country. She explains: "[This belief is held] because the regime is the embodiment of the sectarian divide entrenched by the occupation. Its constitution and political process, nurtured by the US and UK, has spawned a kleptocracy of warlords, charlatans, and merchants of religion. Yes, al-Qaeda is a presence. But the sectarian political parties that mushroomed after the invasion are also fighting each other, killing thousands of civilians in the process."
Iraq is in a mess: that much is clear. Al-Qaeda on the one hand and government repression on the other are escalating the violence and bloodshed. But running deeper than this is the continued prevalence of sectarian hatred, and poor law and order systems. There is also an overspill from the conflict in Syria. Some analysts suggest that these sectarian divisions been facilitated and worsened by the system put in place by the US, whereby a certain number of representatives from each community must be represented in the government. The argument is that this arrangement – intended to secure equal representation – has entrenched divisions between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, because there is no space for politicians to simply be Iraqi.
It is also important to note that many of the problems Iraq is now facing are the legacy of the 2003 invasion. Saddam Hussein had maintained a despotic grip on the country, and his removal created a chaotic power vacuum. Moreover, it was only after the US-led invasion that al-Qaeda became a significant force in the country. The US think-tank the Brookings Institution concluded that "the invasion of Iraq breathed new life into al-Qaeda", while the British group, the Institute for Strategic Studies agreed that the invasion "strengthened rather than weakened al-Qaeda."
Writing in the New York Times this week, Maliki stressed the shared goals of the US and Iraq in fighting terror: "We do not want Syria or Iraq to become bases for al-Qaeda operations, and neither does the United States." The US lawmakers who wrote to Obama acknowledge this shared aim, writing that it is in their "national security interest to enhance the effectiveness of Iraq's security forces". They also warn that Maliki must pursue political reconciliation and adhere to the rule of law; this is certainly true, but there should be some acknowledgement that the US shares a large portion of the blame for this mess.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.