Iraq's Relentless Insurgency

The Fight for Power Ahead of U.S. Withdrawal

Last Monday, terrorist groups affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) struck seven cities with 15 separate car bombings and attacks against security forces, civilian markets, and religious pilgrims. This strike was the first such large-scale coordinated attack in Iraq since August 2010, when AQI hit 12 cities across the country. Last week's attacks are undoubtedly worrying, because they signal that disparate insurgent cells spread across central and northern Iraq can, on occasion, coordinate their actions for added impact.

AQI's own national-level command disintegrated following the deaths in April 2010 of AQI leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and AQI minister of war Abu Ayub al-Masri. Since then, groups such as Jaish Rijal Tariqah al-Naqshabandi (JRTN), an insurgent movement led by former Baathist officers and officials, have filled the void. These groups play coordinating roles, commissioning attacks by AQI and nationalist cells across the country, boosting the number of attacks across north and central Iraq.

Yet a closer look at the phenomenon of car bombings in Iraq shows that facilitating groups such as JRTN are carrying out few spectacular, headline-grabbing strikes, and instead are focusing mainly on larger numbers of smaller attacks to position themselves for the post-U.S. era in Iraq.

To be sure, attempted mass-casualty attacks have increased this year, with the number of attacks averaging 13 amonth in the first half of 2011, rising to 33 in the month of July alone, compared to 20 in July 2010. August's total such attacks will reach more than 40.

But the attacks are becoming less lethal, with the number of suicide car bombs plummeting since the heyday of AQI. Only one in seven devices was detonated by suicide bomber in 2011. The use of unattended car bombs (in other words, those detonated by remote control) reduces lethality, as the explosives may not be detonated at the optimal location or time. Far more of these devices are discovered prior to detonation and disarmed, yielding valuable forensic intelligence. Moreover, the explosive yield of car bombs is much smaller than in previous years due to the difficulty of passing large devices through Iraq's numerous vehicle checkpoints. On August 25, 2010, each of the bombs accounted for an average of 9.6 fatalities; on August 15, 2011, the bombs killed an average of 4.2 people per device.

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