Behind Baghdad's '9/11'

BAGHDAD — The governor of Baghdad swiveled in his chair pointing out on the surveillance video the suicide truck bomb as it barreled towards the Foreign Ministry.

“It’s 10:54 in the morning — you can see it moving past the cameras,” says Salah Abdel-Razzaq, whose first 100 days in office included plans to remove some of the security barriers and blast walls in the capital.

On the fuzzy screen from one of the dozens of cameras the governorate has positioned on buildings around the city, the bright red fiberglass water tanks packed with explosives stood out like a beacon. Less than four minutes later the screen filled with dust as the bomber detonated.

The carefully planned attacks on the foreign and finance ministries on Wednesday, Aug. 19, that killed more than 100 people and wounded five times as many shook the illusion that security was returning to Iraq. Some Iraqi officials call it their 9/11. The fallout is shaping up to be as cataclysmic as the suicide bombs themselves. And there is a deadly postscript: an attack Monday in southern Iraq that killed at least 11 people when bombs apparently placed on two mini-buses from Baghdad exploded. 

While Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has reassured Iraqis that their security forces can keep them safe despite some breaches "here and there," they appear to indicate a systemic failure of Iraq’s security network. The recriminations after the bombing have exposed a lack of coordination that has literally provided enough space to drive four-ton trucks through.

And underpinning it all is the persistent belief on the part of Iraq’s Shiite-led government that the country’s Sunni political community is riddled with Baathists plotting to bring the country down.

Baghdad’s governor, Salah Abdel-Razzaq, says authorities are considering arresting some Sunni members of parliament he says have been implicated for having ordered the bombing. Governor Salah, who is from Maliki's Dawa party, has long believed that a Baathist-led coup is waiting to topple him.

Against a backdrop of what had been improving security over the last year, U.S. officials have pointed to reconciliation between the Shiite-led government, Sunni political parties and former insurgents as one of the main elements needed for real stability. Although the street-level sectarian violence that tore Iraq apart after the bombing of the Samarra mosque in 2006 has faded into history, many ordinary Sunni Iraqis believe the government’s fixation with the Baathist threat is wide enough to include them as well.

The attacks have ripped the lid off of what Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari calls unrealistic assessments of security since U.S. combat troops pulled out of cities on June 30 and a tragedy waiting to happen.

Neither Zebari, who negotiated the security agreement with the U.S., nor the average Iraqi would go back to having U.S. soldiers in the streets. But Maliki, who has staked his political fortunes on improving security and the U.S. pullout, has been reluctant to allow the security apparatuses his prime ministry directly controls, and to ask the U.S. for help even within the confines of the security pact.

The loss has been most apparent in those areas needed to fight a still-adapting insurgency. Together, the Iraqis with their knowledge of their own country and the Americans with their technology and logists, virtually crippled insurgent networks in and out of Baghdad.

In the post-June 30 world, the Americans don’t have a physical presence in the cities and are reluctant to share much of their intelligence with Iraqi forces prone to being infiltrated by the very insurgents they are fighting. In an ongoing war with an enemy that has shifting tactics and changing alliances, Iraqi security forces are focused on manning fixed checkpoints easily evaded by determined attackers.

Following Wednesday’s bombings, Iraqi officials are warning their citizens that more attacks could be in store.

A televised confession of the alleged mastermind of the Finance Ministry bombing has done little to reassure Iraqi citizens. The middle-aged man, oddly calm, described himself as a former Diyala policeman and said he had taken orders from Baath party leaders in Syria.

In the initial account of both bombings, interior ministry officials said last week that the truck bombs were assembled in Baghdad — loaded with sodium nitrate, fertilizer, rockets and mortars and driven to the foreign and finance ministries where the suicide bombers detonated. Trucks half the size of those used are banned on those roads in daylight hours, leading the government to arrest 11 local security members for negligence and possible complicity in the attacks.

The checkpoint closest to the Foreign Ministry which might have stopped the truck bomber had recently been taken down, against the advice of senior foreign ministry officials.

“The success of the government — any government is to protect and provide security for its people — that’s the main yardstick for seeing a successful competent government,” said an angry Zebari at a press conference in a ministry where they were intent on resuming work while still removing human remains.

The government is so fragmented that even what would seem to be political necessities fall by the wayside. Maliki neither visited the site of the bombing nor sent a senior official until he asked the governor, who had been out of the country, to go there five days after the attack.

Whether Maliki’s political fortunes will fall over the serious security breaches will be tested in the run-up to the elections with the new wider coalition he’s expected to form. His former partners, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, announced Monday they were teaming up with the Sadrists and others but holding the door open for him should he wish to come back to the fold.

As for the U.S., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen said on the weekend he was "extremely concerned" by the bombings in Baghdad. The concern of U.S. officials is that the attacks could spark another cycle of sectarian violence.

The concern on the Iraqi side is that the attacks have exposed the depths of instability beneath the thin veneer of security.