The string of deadly bombings against government buildings and Shiite landmarks in Baghdad that began last August provides a startling reminder that the Qaeda-associated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) remains a clear danger to Iraq’s long-term stability. The three sets of multiple attacks that took place on August 19, October 25, and December 8—the three deadliest attacks since 2007—killed at least 362 people and wounded over 1,233.  In an otherwise continuously improving security situation, the ISI claimed responsibility for the spectacular, headline-grabbing attacks in an effort to embarrass the Iraqi government, intensify Sunni disgruntlement with the current political establishment and rally former nationalist insurgents behind its banner.
The ISI Claims a New Strategy
Despite the attacks’ high death tolls, the ISI proudly took ownership of the operations. The ISI argued that the attacks were designed to “crush the strongholds of infidelity and the forts of polytheism of the apostate Safavid [i.e. Iranian-influenced] government” (al-falojah,net, August 24). In each claim of responsibility, it identified its targets as government buildings and institutions:
• August 19 bombings – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Defense, Offices of the Baghdad Governorate
• October 25 bombings – Ministry of Justice and Baghdad Provincial Council
• December 8 bombings – the new Treasury building, Criminal Courts Compound, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Labor
The ISI argued that the ministries are legitimate targets for three reasons. First, Iraq’s current governmental institutions were established by the United States according to a non-Islamic political model; these institutions are therefore those of the “infidels” (those who do not accept the Prophet’s message) and should not be used to govern Muslims. Second, these institutions are currently run by Shiite political parties, which the ISI considers to be apostate, akin to Muslims who have renounced Islam because they do not practice what the ISI considers to be the only “true” Islam. Finally, these governmental institutions are run by political parties allied with Iran, a country which the ISI accuses of seeking to dominate and subjugate Iraq like the Persian Safavid dynasty did in the 16th century.
For the ISI, the symbolic value of the targets far outweighs any other consideration, in particular whether the toll was justified. In claiming responsibility for the August 19 bombing, the ISI argued that it targets “the pillars of this malignant and slaughtered state and those who help it, support it, and establish its pillars” (al-faloja.net, August 24). Hence, in the ISI’s world, all workers who need to make a living by working for governmental institutions are legitimate targets because their daily work enables the government to function. This is a position that sets the ISI apart from most other insurgent groups who hold a much more nuanced position on targeting ordinary governmental workers or security force personnel. Groups such as the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and the Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance (al-Jabha al-Islamiya lil Moqawama al-Iraqiya – JAMI) have long publicized their opposition to the targeting of either governmental workers and/or Iraqi civilians on humanitarian grounds. The only “collateral damage” the ISI regretfully acknowledged were those Sunni passers-by who might have been killed or injured due to “their presence at those locations” (al-faloja.net, August 24).
For the ISI, only Sunni Muslims are worthy of concern, because they are the only Muslims who practice religion “correctly.” While the ISI offers religious solace to those victims, it also suggests advice to Sunnis so as to minimize future unwanted tolls: “We ask them in Allah to avoid passing by and being present in these locations as much as they can.” However, the ISI warns that mass casualties are nonetheless acceptable because the ends justifies the means. “We will not halt the duty of jihad against the polytheists and defense against the infidels because of those who fall as martyrs, as our scholars determined” (al-faloja.net, August 24).
Interestingly, the ISI does not feel a pressing urge to justify its targeting. The ISI only talked about the civilian victims in its first claim of responsibility for the August 19 attacks. It did not even broach the subject when it took responsibility for the attacks of October 25 and December 8, indicating that the movement feels it has satisfactorily answered its detractors.
Nationalist Insurgents Adopt a “Neither-Nor” Approach
The ISI’s renewed focus on fighting the Iraqi government is putting nationalist insurgents in a difficult position. In 2007-2008, nationalist insurgents have massively deserted the anti-U.S., anti-government battlefield and have fought against the ISI because of its misguided strategy (provoking a Sunni vs. Shi’a civil war) and tactical excesses (anti-civilian tactics). The ISI’s focus on targeting the Iraqi government fits the nationalist insurgents’ stated objective of taking down the post-2003 political process, although its callous disregard for human life goes far beyond tactics the nationalist insurgents deem appropriate and legitimate. Consequently, as much as they have deplored the loss of lives, nationalist insurgents have nonetheless reserved much of their scorn for the Iraqi government and have avoided criticizing the ISI.
The Sunni insurgent groups were quick to deplore the attacks and the loss of human life, but they did so in a generic manner, avoiding blaming the ISI directly for the attacks. For example, JAMI condemned the bombings and called “the death of such a number… a humanitarian and social disaster” (jami.org, December 9). The IAI denounced “these criminal incidents and affirmed its refusal of such acts” (iaisite.org, November 21). After the October 25 twin bombings, the Political Council for the Iraqi Resistance (PCIR) wrote, “the Council condemns these blind explosions that occurred today in the al-Salihiyah area of Baghdad, and which did not differentiate between the child and the adult, or between the man and the woman” (pciraq.org, October 25).
However, the Sunni insurgents painstakingly avoided blaming the ISI for the carnage. Regardless of the fact that the attack bore the hallmark of the ISI and despite the fact that the ISI claimed responsibility for the attacks, the IAI, JAMI and the PCIR all failed to mention the ISI in their statements. Moreover, they repeatedly exonerated the “resistance,” arguing that the “mujahideen” could not have carried out such bloody attacks because they act on behalf of and in the interests of the Iraqi people. As JAMI put it after the 19 August bombings, “There is no sane person who thinks that the Iraqi resistance could carry out such an act.” (jami.org, August 19). The IAI went further, chiding the Iraqi government for accusing the “Ba’athists” and “takfiris” of conducting the attacks, questioning whether the groups even existed, let alone played any kind of role in Iraq’s politics. The IAI argued that “the Ba’ath [has] no more existence” and charged that the government was using the term “takfiri” to describe Sunnis in general (iaisite.org, October 27). After the December 9 bombings, the IAI again proclaimed the mujahideen’s innocence: “They will not have an opportunity to blame their crimes on the groups of the mujahideen because no one will believe them. The resistance proves every time that it sides with the innocent and noble sons of our people” (iaisite.org, December 9).
Rather than holding the ISI accountable for its senseless and bloody attacks, nationalist insurgents concentrated their fire against the Iraqi government and the political process. Following the August 19 bombing, JAMI questioned how powerful car bombs could be smuggled past the security checkpoints and hypothesized that the Iraqi security forces were the “perpetrators of the attacks” (jami.org, August 19). JAMI then implicitly accused the United States and Iran of responsibility, arguing that the bombings only serve American and Iranian long-term interests in Iraq. After the December 8 bombings, JAMI argued that the “occupation and its Quislings are [the ones who] shed Iraqi blood” and warned that parliamentary elections, scheduled for next March, could not fix Iraq’s problems. In condemning the October 25 twin bombings, the PCIR accused the Iraqi government and the United States of orchestrating the attacks, arguing that “with the approach of the parliamentary elections, the conflict between the powers of the unjust [the Baghdad government] and aggression [the United States] increases, aiming to cling onto and to maintain their power and authority… Again, our people in Iraq are paying the price of these fights, as these parties are using the blood and the bodies of Iraqis as a way to maintain their authority, using the ugliest and most horrible ways of murder and destruction” (pciraq.org, October 25).
In an interview with al-Jazeera, a spokesman for the PCIR summarized the ambiguities behind the position held by the nationalist insurgents: "Perhaps it is too early to accuse a certain party or quarter without evidence because struggle for power among these blocs and parties exists on a large scale. The goal, however, is very clear. It is mobilizing the street on a sectarian basis, especially since the street has started to break away from them [i.e., the ISI extremists] after having tested them and [having] discovered their uselessness for the Iraqi people and even for their voters, supporters, and aides" (al-Jazeera, December 9).
As the ISI forcefully claims responsibility for its renewed anti-government strategy, nationalist-minded insurgents have chosen to give the ISI a free pass so as to not appear supportive of an Iraqi government it despises.
1. On August 19, six blasts near government ministries and other targets in Baghdad killed 95 and wounded 536. On October 25, twin car bombs targeted the Justice Ministry and the Baghdad Provincial Government office in central Baghdad, killing 155 and wounding 500. On December 8, at least four car bombs exploded near government buildings and a police checkpoint, killing 112 and wounded 197. Data compiled by Reuters AlertNet: www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/GEE5B70M6.htm.