When twin suicide bombs rocked a busy market in central Baghdad on 21 January, killing at least 32 people and injuring 110 others, many Iraqis went on TV talk shows or online chats to blame the ruling Iraqi groups for the horrific attacks.
It was a show of their deep anger and frustration over the failure of the Iraqi security forces to stop the atrocities, which ended a three-year hiatus in suicide bombings in the Iraqi capital and not an exoneration of the Islamic State (IS) terror group, better known as Daesh.
The risk with taking such reactions for granted, however, is that it could mix up disgruntlement and resentment with sound judgement and distort the reality of the conflicts in Iraq. It could also justify the horrific crimes carried out by the IS terror group.
The vicious terrorist attacks displayed some of the sophistication and signatures of past IS operations, and the uncertainty soon cleared when the terror group claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings that targeted Shia shoppers in the second-hand clothes market in Baghdad following the easing of almost a year of Covid-19-related restrictions.
Many Iraqis considered the blasts, which sent a shockwave through a capital already reeling from political turmoil, as only the latest and most dangerous manifestations of the incompetence and corruption of the country’s ruling elites.
The nature of the blasts heightened concerns about the ability of the Iraqi security forces to secure the capital amid a recent dramatic escalation of attacks by IS that should have raised red flags for law-enforcers and the intelligence community.
What raised the anger to a new level was videos of the bombers walking easily to the mass casualty site that went viral and showed the inefficiency with which Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, also head of the nation’s intelligence services, had handled the situation.
Iraq declared victory over IS in December 2017, announcing the end of more than three years of battles to regain control over the nearly one-third of the country that had been under the “caliphate” declared by the terror group. The last deadly suicide attack in Baghdad was in January 2018, when 35 people were killed.
The most-recent Baghdad suicide attacks came as the country as a whole remained embroiled in multiple conflicts spanning political, security, economic and health issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic. Iraq is also mired in a prolonged power struggle involving the government and Shia militias backed by Iran.
Two days before the attacks, Iraq’s cabinet decided to postpone this year’s elections for four months after political groups failed to agree on a roadmap for the balloting, including enacting a law for the Supreme Federal Court that is required to ratify the results.
Iraq’s political parties have been wrangling over setting an election date, underlining the fierce jockeying for power among the political and sectarian factions that have monopolised power since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.
Deeply entrenched parties whose popular support has been diminishing because of their greed and inefficiency fear that Shia militias functioning under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) are contending to take over.
Last year, Al-Kadhimi called early general elections for June 2021, a year ahead of the original date. The decision came in response to demands from protesters who since 2019 had been staging months of mass demonstrations to press for change in Iraq’s dysfunctional politics.
Any early elections should be preceded by the dissolution of the Iraqi parliament at the request of a third of its members and with the support of the majority, something which remains doubtful without the consent of the main Shia political groups that control the assembly.
The parliament also remains deadlocked over the 2021 national budget, with these groups objecting to the austerity measures and fiscal restructuring proposed by Al-Kadhimi. The dispute also boiled over into a brawl involving Shia and Kurdish MPs over allocations to the Kurdish autonomous enclave in northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, the adverse impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic in Iraq, including increasing unemployment and poverty, have made a bad situation worse, pushing the country to breaking point.
The new attacks and fears of IS making a comeback have challenged the sectarian formula of governance that embeds ethnic and religious identities in politics in Iraq.
Some Shia MPs blamed the attacks on what they saw as impunity rooted in the government’s handling of IS members who have been arrested or convicted but have escaped punishment by giving bribes.
They have accused Kurdish President Barham Saleh of not approving death sentences for militants convicted of terrorist crimes. In response, Saleh’s office said more than 340 execution orders “for terrorism or criminal acts” were ready to be carried out.
Saleh’s response was met with condemnation by Sunni politicians, who accused the Shia-led government in Baghdad of trying to use the suicide bombings to unleash a spree of executions of convicted terrorists for political and sectarian reasons.
Underscoring their sectarian interests, some Shia politicians voiced concerns that IS militants were returning to Sunni-populated areas in Iraq to seek shelter and to use them as launching pads for their attacks.
In response, Sunni MPs have been urging the Shia-led government to compensate Sunnis whose towns and villages were destroyed or damaged in the war against IS and to make retribution to those who are returning from displacement camps.
The Baghdad attacks also came as the US-led Coalition in Iraq forges ahead with plans to withdraw troops from the country. US troops have gradually been withdrawn from bases across Iraq in order to consolidate in a few bases in Iraqi Kurdistan and Anbar Province.
Iraq has been filled with uncertainty, especially at times like these when there is lack of clarity on the direction the country is taking amid lingering political, economic, security and social crises.
Though the mess Iraq faces is bigger than he is and much remains outside of his control, Al-Kadhimi is trying to present himself as a strong leader who can stand up to the challenges.
A day after the attacks, he promised that the intelligence failure “would not be repeated” and reshuffled the Baghdad security command.
On 28 January, a week after the twin suicide bombings, Al-Kadhimi announced that the Iraqi security forces had killed a senior IS commander responsible for the Baghdad sector within the terror group.
“I gave my word to pursue the Daesh terrorists. We gave them a thunderous response,” Al-Kadhimi tweeted in a show of strength and self-confidence.
But a spokesman for the US-led International Coalition fighting IS, Wayne Marotto, said Iraqi counter-terrorism forces had led the operation to kill Jabbar Al-Issawi with coalition air, intelligence and surveillance support.
Three years after its territorial “caliphate” in Iraq was declared defeated, it is clear that IS is beginning to resurge in the country. The group has dramatically escalated the scale of its insurgency in Iraq over recent months after sustaining a low level of operations throughout 2017-2020.
With Iraq facing the danger of an escalation in IS operations, the presence of confusion and distorted information in the mainstream media could become a tool in the hands of the terror group and its supporters.
Iraq’s sectarian experience over the last 18 years tells us that it is difficult to see logical patterns in the midst of fog- “separating the signal from the noise.”
It is tempting to heap scorn and blame on the Iraqi government for its dysfunctions and security failures, but failing to pinpoint the enemy in the war also allows for incremental damage, similar to that carried out by IS.