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Why Are Bombings Still the Weapon of Choice in Iraq?

By Taylor Marvin

Sectarian violence is again on the rise in Iraq. July 2013 was the country’s deadliest month in five years, and sophisticated bombings targeting civilians are increasingly common occurrences. While this recent uptick in violence hasn’t approached the intensity that marked the worst years of the American occupation and civil war, the country appears to be headed towards greater instability. Iraq’s Sunni population is reportedly growing more frustrated and resentful of the Shiite-dominated central government, and sectarian violence lead by al-Qaeda in Iraq targeting Shiites has intensified in the last two years. In April Kurdish authorities deployed militia forces to Kirkuk to help prevent what Erbil reportedly believed to be an imminent sectarian civil war, while the Iraqi government in Baghdad viewed the move as a simple grab for the city’s oil resources. Many of Iraq’s persecuted Christian minority are now fleeing the country, with many fearing that all of the country’s Christians will soon be gone.

On Twitter, Danny Hirschel-Burns raised an interesting question: why do violent attacks in Iraq continue to be so characterized by bombings, as opposed to other methods?

I suspect that Iraqi militant groups’ apparent preference for bombings today has nothing to do with any conditions specific to the country’s recently-escalating sectarian conflict. Instead, it is likely the result of the continued application of the bombing-focused skill sets insurgents acquired during the American occupation of the country.

After the American invasion, anti-US insurgent groups quickly found that directly attacking American military units in Iraq’s crowded urban environments was dangerous at best, and often suicidal. These groups realized that bombings, overwhelmingly utilizing IEDs, were a safer, more effective means of successfully attacking US soldiers and killing large numbers of Iraqis, given the American military’s control of the country. While the vast majority of attempted IED attacks did not result in US casualties, they grew more dangerous over time. During 2003 and 2004 IEDs were responsible for 20 percent of US soldier deaths, but 50 percent in 2007, with the number of incidents peaking in late 2006. This rational, asymmetric response to coalition forces’ overwhelming military superiority quickly became the hallmark of the Iraqi insurgency.

Acquiring the skill set required to mount sophisticated bombing attacks is costly. During the American occupation insurgent groups continually improved IEDs and their techniques for employing them, leading to an arms race between insurgents and coalition forces; in a mutual learning process, as coalition troops grew more adept at countering IEDs, the bombs became harder to detect and deadlier. Tom Ricks profiled the early stages of this process in his 2006 book Fiasco

“Even these fairly primitive devices had their own evolution. At first, during the summer of 2003, almost all were hardwired — that is, attached by the lines used to detonate them. US forces learned to look for the wire and kill the person waiting at the other end. By the following winter, about half the bombs were remote-controlled, frequently set off using cellular telephones, car alarm transmitters, or toy car controllers.”

This evolutionary logic encouraged insurgents to become skilled at bombing warfare — those that didn’t either quit, or were killed.

After the US military’s withdrawal from Iraq, bombings are a less necessary component of militants’ arsenals. Today’s Iraqi security services are far less capable than the US military, meaning, like in other violent societies, non-bombing attacks now have a greater chance of succeeding. But it’s reasonable to suspect that Iraqi veterans of the occupation and civil war remain influenced by the skills and operational practices they acquired during that conflict, practices optimized for operating in an environment of overwhelming military inferiority. The sophisticated coordinated bombing attacks that are a hallmark of al Qaeda in Iraq require significant organizational experience to conduct. Given how steep the learning curve to acquire this experience is, militant groups not facing the evolutionary pressures of military occupation by a superior force are unlikely to acquire them at all, despite the potential payoff from doing so.

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