“They are not arbitrary attacks. They are sending messages that security is not under control,” said Wathiq al-Hashimi, an analyst in Baghdad who leads the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies.
Hashimi and others said insurgents are also trying to exploit the political crisis between Shiite and Sunni leaders that has deadlocked the government. With each attack, the insurgents are trying to persuade militias from each sect to take up arms and start attacking each other.
Before their departure, U.S. troops had ceded control of the country’s security to Iraqi forces. But the Americans’ presence remained critical, analysts said, because they shared intelligence capabilities with their Iraqi counterparts and their visibility signaled that the Americans had influence over Iraq’s leaders.
After the U.S. exit, “what changed is a mind-set,” said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has been a consultant to the Defense Department.“The U.S. was now definitely gone. Therefore, all bets are off.”
Knights worked in Iraq during the war and said commanders always assumed that Sunni extremists would launch at least some attacks after U.S. forces left. What amped everything up, he said, was the eruption of a sectarian political crisis that generated both fear and opportunity among insurgents. “It’s like a perfect storm,” Knights said.
In Washington, a senior Obama administration official said that although there had been several large attacks recently, they had not altered a pattern of cyclical violence over the past two years. Similar upticks, he said, occurred when U.S. forces exited Iraqi cities in 2009 and during other changes in the U.S. profile there.
“It’s always a mistake to look at these things in the isolation of one or two weeks,” said the official, who agreed to speak about internal Iraqi affairs on the condition of anonymity.
Referring to al-Qaeda in Iraq and other groups, the official said, “I imagine some of them saying to themselves, ‘The American troops are gone,’ and trying to create this narrative” that a security void has been created. “But it’s something they have tried on a regular basis at different points.”
He said it was “incumbent on Iraqi leaders to reel back in” the political turmoil so that insurgents “don’t have anything to use” in promoting sectarian strife.
Over 2,600 deaths in 2011
Indeed, in the past, spikes in violence in Iraq have often been followed by calmer periods.