Violent militant groups are seeking to fill the vacuum created by Iraq's stalled political process amid a drastic reduction of United States troops based in the country, a senior American military commander has warned.
Brigadier General Ralph Baker, deputy commander of U.S. forces in central Iraq, said this week the failure of Iraq's squabbling politicians to form a government had increased the prospects of an upsurge in violence and intercommunal strife.
His comments to journalists in Baghdad came as the U.S. military pushes ahead with plans to reduce the number of troops in the country from 65,000 to 50,000 by the end of this month ahead of full scheduled withdrawal by 2011.
They also followed a recent spate of attacks, including two bombings in the southern port city of Basra on August 8 that killed at least 43 people.
Figures released by Iraqi officials showed July was the deadliest month for civilians for more than two years, with 396 civilians, 50 Iraqi soldiers, and 89 police officers reported killed. The U.S. military has disputed the figures, putting July's death toll at 222, including six Americans.
The incidents have come against a backdrop of prolonged disagreement between the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and his principal rival, Iyad Allawi, over who should form the next government following the March parliamentary elections.
Baker said that while there had been a downward long-term trend in violent attacks, they had risen over "the last week or two" amid widespread frustration over the political uncertainty.
"As we look at the violence and we study it, one of the theories we have is that as the time between this government forming continues to extend itself, the Iraqi citizens become very frustrated with the political process," Baker said. "We believe that one of the aims of the criminals and the terrorists and the insurgents is to take advantage of the concern and the angst that the citizens have right now about the government's formation in an attempt to intimidate them. And the reason they want to intimidate the population is because the citizens in Baghdad, for the last six to eight months, have been instrumental in sharing information with the security forces which has led to some very effective targeting against Al-Qaeda and other militia groups."
Baker predicted that insurgent groups would attempt to "discredit the government and discredit the security forces" in an effort to gain a foothold.
Adding credence to that forecast has been a decision by traffic police in Baghdad to arm themselves with Kalashnikovs following the killing of at least 12 patrol officers over a single week. The policemen are thought to have been targeted as part of an effort by insurgents to undermine law and order.
In an interview with Reuters, Maliki acknowledged that he was "part of the problem," but said only a strong government with majority support could halt a drift toward further violence.
"I'm sure that if the next prime minister is weak and not supported by the majority of political blocs, entities and parliamentarians, the big danger is it will affect the unity of Iraq and the security situation," Maliki told the agency. "Militias and gangs will return. Al-Qaeda will return and there will be conflicts. There are many people lurking who are waiting to seize any gap. We need a man who knows the map of existing challenges, diplomatic, external and internal relations, national unity, national reconciliation and the unity of Iraq."
Recent events have fueled fears that Iraqi government forces will not be capable of maintaining security once U.S troops withdraw. Last week, Saddam Hussein's former deputy, Tariq Aziz, now in prison for crimes against humanity, told Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper that U.S. troops should stay and said President Barack Obama's planned withdrawal amounted to "leaving Iraq to the wolves."
U.S. commanders have admitted that insurgent groups, including Al-Qaeda, remain active though weakened but have expressed cautious optimism about Iraqi forces' preparedness to deal with them.
A senior Iraqi commander, Lieutenant General Ali Ghaidan, declared on August 9 that the country's forces were "fully prepared" to take over from the Americans.
"Our security forces are well prepared and will be responsible for keeping security in the country," Ghaidan said. "We are fully prepared to take all the responsibilities from the U.S. forces during this phase. At the end of 2011, we will be responsible for the entire security situation in Iraq."
But Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North African deputy program director at the International Crisis Group, says question marks remain about Iraqi readiness.
"I think here and there they are [ready], or in some aspects of their mission but there are absolute weaknesses as well that need to be understood," Hiltermann says. "In terms of being able to carry out operations, often with the support of American troops that are embedded with the Iraqi forces, their capability is quite good. But the Iraqi forces are weak in logistics and in intelligence, especially intelligence coordination and proper use of information that is collected. And of course, the Iraqis don't have an air force and they don't have air capability and so this would have to be provided by American forces for the foreseeable future."
U.S. military planners have voiced concern about the ability of neighboring Iran to foster instability. Baker accused Iran of training insurgents on its territory before sending them into Iraq to carry out attacks. He also cited intelligence reports that, he said, suggested Iran's Shi'a Islamic regime had been aiding Sunni groups, including Al-Qaeda.
"We are looking into intelligence reports that we've received that Iran has started to talk to Sunni insurgent groups and tried to get them to sponsor acts of violence in Iraq," General Baker said. "And we know for several years that Iran has been suspected of harboring Al-Qaeda leadership and even members of [Osama] bin Laden's family under house arrest in Iran."
According to Hiltermann, Iraqis such as Tariq Aziz harbor deeper fears of long-term Iranian domination, partly born of memories the bloody eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s.
Both concerns may be overdone. While Iran is preoccupied with making life difficult for U.S. forces while they remain in Iraq, it has no interest in seeing the country descend into chaos in the long term, Hiltermann says. And any Iranian ambitions for establishing hegemony over its neighbor are likely to be counterbalanced by the interests of Turkey and Arab states.
"That's the question: whether Iran will be able to exploit the American absence to the point of establishing dominance or something less than that. And I suspect it's something less than that because Iran is not the only contender here," Hiltermann says. "There is Turkey, which has been highly proactive on the diplomatic front and in engaging Iraq in strategic agreements. There are the other Arab states, that clearly don't see eye-to-eye with Iran on Iraq's future. And the United States may be withdrawing all of its troops by the end of 2011 but it will still have a significant diplomatic and economic and military presence, even if indirect militarily. And so I think Iran will not be able to simply take over the place. It's not going to be like that."