W.G. Dunlop
Last updated: 28 October, 2013

Experts: Iraq needs new strategy to curb violence

Iraq's disjointed array of security measures are failing to control rampant violence, and it needs to make longer-term efforts that build trust among citizens, especially Sunnis, experts say.

And while current security efforts have yet to curb the worst violence to hit Iraq since 2008, some measures are making life more difficult for Iraqis.

Iraq has been hit by deadly attacks every day for over five months, and an average of almost 18 people per day have been killed since the beginning of the year, according to AFP figures based on security and medical sources.

Bombs rip through markets, mosques, weddings and funerals, citizens are gunned down by militants at home and in the street, and security forces are frequently attacked.

Widespread discontent among Iraq’s minority Sunni community, which complains of being politically isolated and unfairly targeted by security forces, has been a major factor in the unrest, along with the civil war in neighbouring Syria, which has bolstered militants.

The Iraqi government has responded with an array of measures, including wide-ranging operations targeting militants, increasing the number of anti-Al-Qaeda militiamen, restricting vehicle use in Baghdad, and curfews.

But such efforts have yet to bring the violence under control.

“Iraqi security strategy currently consists of a lot of flailing around in an effort to create the facsimile of progress,” said Michael Knights, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“There is no real effort to separate the diehard insurgents from less committed neighbourhood militiamen,” Knights said. “Instead, government policy pushes uncommitted Sunni men back into violence.”

Samuel Brannen, a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also pointed to problems with Iraq’s security efforts.

While violence is worsening, “Iraq lacks a plan to deal with this at a strategic, operational, and tactical level,” he said.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki “should focus on finding a way to reach out to the average Iraqi Sunni and make him feel a part of the state and reject the growing sectarian violence,” Brannen said.

“I would say that the government is currently imposing short-term measures,” said John Drake, a security specialist with risk management firm AKE Group. “If it wants to tackle this situation, it needs to take a long-term view at the same time.”

“This conflict has its roots in community grievances, and these can be solved through consultation, mediation, job creation, trust-building, investment and sustained, visible improvements in standards of living,” Drake said.

“The government needs to earn the trust of the local population in the areas where some of the fighting is worst,” he said, and embark on longterm efforts to bolster the Sahwa, anti-Al-Qaeda militiamen who played a key role in reducing attacks in past years.

He also noted that the large number of arrests in recent months could backfire, particularly if people, especially Sunnis, are held for extended periods on little evidence.

Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Iraq should “surgically” target militants in their safe havens instead of implementing wide-ranging measures that affect large numbers of citizens.

She said it should also work to improve its intelligence-gathering by cultivating better relations with Sunni communities and improving cooperation with locally recruited security forces.

The situation worsens by the day

Iraq’s security measures have not managed to bring the violence under control, but some have made life more difficult for citizens.

Checkpoints in Baghdad, for instance, cause major traffic jams that, combined with periodic street closures, can make crossing the city an hours-long affair.

And because checkpoints are often manned by inattentive police or soldiers who use bomb “detectors” that have long since been proven to be fake, they stand little chance of uncovering weapons or explosives.

Since last month, many Baghdad residents have been restricted to using their vehicles every other day — a measure that has failed to prevent dozens of car bombings but has angered those who must pay for taxis out of already-meagre salaries.

Some Iraqis, especially those living in more volatile areas, must endure raids and searches of their homes by security forces.

And as the government has failed to curb the violence, trust in it has fallen, including among its Shiite Muslim base.

The situation has “slipped from (the government’s) hand,” said a 41-year-old man named Mehdi, standing near the place where a car bomb killed his 17-year-old cousin in Baghdad this month. “The situation now deteriorates day by day.”

When “you go out, you don’t know when an explosion will happen (and) you will die.”