Violence is slowly rising again in Iraq. Measuring it precisely has always been difficult, and the end of intelligence-collection and -reporting by American military forces makes the task even harder. Nevertheless, two independent open-source databases show a significant increase in Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence since the departure of American forces in December 2011. Data from the Iraq Body Count website puts the number of average monthly security incidents from January through July (the last full month for which data are posted) at 369, compared with 328 for the same period in 2011 — an increase of 12.5 percent. And Olive Group, a private security firm that publishes detailed statistics of weekly violence in Iraq, reports that there were more than 120 security incidents per week for eight of 14 weeks from mid-June to the beginning of September. Incidents had exceeded 120 per week only three times in the previous 25 weeks (from December 2011 to mid-June 2012). Olive Group notes, “This elevated figure would appear to indicate that the basic security level in Iraq is not normalising following the Ramadan campaign [conducted by al-Qaeda in Iraq from mid-July to mid-August], but rather violence is being sustained at above average levels.”
These violence levels are very low compared with those of 2006–07, when monthly averages were in the thousands. But the uptick is alarming, and, as always in Iraq, the raw count does not tell the whole story. The scope, scale, and frequency of mass-casualty attacks conducted by AQI’s front organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), has increased notably in the past few months, according to a report recently released by Sam Wyer at the Institute for the Study of War. Wyer found that ISI attacks killed at least 115 people in 20 cities in Iraq on July 23. A second wave of attacks, on August 16, killed more than 100 people in 19 cities. A third wave hit 18 cities on September 9, again killing more than 100. The amount of time it takes a terrorist group to recover from one set of mass-casualty attacks and prepare and launch another is an important measure of its capability, effectiveness, and resources. The attacks in July, August, and September were roughly 24 days apart, compared with 37 days between previous attack waves in 2012. This pattern strongly suggests that ISI’s capabilities have increased since the departure of American troops and despite efforts by the Iraqi security forces to keep the peace. The September 9 attack was particularly alarming because AQI/ISI penetrated deep into the southern Shiite heartland, hitting the cities of Nasiriyah, Amarah, and Basra, far beyond the area in which it has normally been able to operate. Since the targeted region supports Shiite militia groups, the attack increases the risk that reprisal violence will renew sectarian conflict. The attack included a car bombing in the al-Qibla area of Basra, a stronghold of Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers. Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi militia has not yet remobilized, but it could well do so if AQI/ISI attacks continue.