Coalition Positioned to Break Iraq’s Cycle of Violence
By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 25, 2007 Interruption of the “vicious circle of sectarian violence” taking place in Baghdad is the main challenge facing security forces there, a senior counter-insurgency advisor to Multinational Force Iraq said today.
A cyclical pattern of attacks and retaliation between sects is what has done most of the damage in Iraq over the last 12 months, said David Kilcullen on a call with military “bloggers” and online journalists. “The very fabric of Iraqi society was torn as a result of that,” he explained.
Sectarian attacks spiked following the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, Iraq, Kilcullen said. As a virtual civil war has unfolded in the 15 months since, he said, four clear elements of the pattern driving that violence have emerged.
The first step, Kilcullen explained, involves infiltration of Sunni areas by religious extremists belonging to al Qaeda in Iraq or other organizations. These groups intimidate the local population and cast a “pall of fear” to provide themselves a safe workspace, he said.
“They don’t generally have, actually, a high degree of support from the population,” Kilcullen noted.
Having established a base of operations, he said, the terrorists mount attacks on neighboring Shiia communities, targeting public spaces such as markets.
These attacks lead to retaliation by Shiite militias and vigilante groups, Kilcullen explained.
The problem, he noted, is “they’re not really retaliating against the guilty party; the extremists just go to ground.” Instead, he said, “extrajudicial killings” and “sectarian cleansing” are practiced against an innocent population.
“Those sectarian attacks polarize the community,” Kilcullen said. “They create tensions that make it very difficult to make progress on political reconciliation, and they further intimidate the Sunni communities, which tend to sort of close ranks in the face of the external threat.”
As the Sunnis turn inward, he explained, the extremists consolidate their gains in the area and perpetuate the cycle of violence and sectarian division.
At the same time, he said, increases in the general level of violence are enabled by outside “accelerants.” He described these as “people or conditions that intensify the cycle.” They include al Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorist groups, foreign fighters, foreign interference, crime and unemployment, among others.
Coalition efforts are under way around the country to stop the flow of such accelerants, Kilcullen said. In particular, he described operations to clear the suburban “belts” around Baghdad that play host to the “commuter insurgency.”
Other programs target financial accelerants, he said, seeking to halt the flow of illicit funds to violent actors from smuggling and black market operations.
The main strategy is unfolding within Baghdad, however, Kilcullen said. He described a phased process to weaken the cycle of violence at every junction.
The first step, he said, is to mitigate extremists’ intimidation efforts by establishing a full-time U.S.-Iraqi presence within neighborhoods. The Joint security stations created within neighborhoods enable such a presence, he said.
The second step anticipates continued terrorist operations, Kilcullen said. “Even if the extremists do manage to infiltrate, we’re trying to make it harder for them to attack the neighboring Shiia communities,” he explained.
The creation of gated communities inside Baghdad is a key element of that effort, he said. Through hardened perimeter security and limited numbers of controlled-access points, it becomes possible for security forces to reduce the flow of hostile actors from one neighborhood to another, Kilcullen said.
When an attack occurs, he explained, opportunity for retaliation by the rival faction is diminished through the continuous presence of U.S. and Iraqi forces.
As the atmosphere of fear dissipates within a community, Kilcullen stated, residents become more willing to provide security tips and avail themselves of economic opportunities being put in place.
“As the cycle of violence is reduced, that also creates more space for political compromise and reconciliation,” he added.
Any type of political dialogue or progress on promoting the rule of law has the effect of acting as a “decelerant,” Kilcullen noted.
Addressing criticism of the Baghdad security plan and the gated communities it’s created, Kilcullen admitted the risk of reinforcing sectarian division in the mid-term, but called that “the lesser of two evils.”
“The negative effect of imposing this barrier, I think, is outweighed by the negative effect of lots of people getting killed,” he explained. Last year in Baghdad, 130 bodies were turning up every day as the result of sectarian violence, he said. Now, the count is down to about 20 per day.
Barrier walls are like a tourniquet, he explained. “It’s something that you do when the patient’s in danger of bleeding to death … and you apply that tourniquet for the minimum time possible.”
What’s more, Kilcullen said, gated communities are created in close consultation with local Iraqi leaders. They provide input for where to place walls and access points, he said.
Such Iraqi input also is necessary for communicating security concerns to the Iraqi population, Kilcullen observed. The United States has struggled in developing messages on its own that are capable of resonating with an Iraqi audience, he said.
Rather, he explained, Iraqi commanders are able to interact with local residents and get a sense of what the concerns are on the ground. Effective communication is based on that dialogue, Kilcullen said.
“You might end up where U.S. forces’ primary contribution to that message is not actually delivering the message; it’s creating a safe space in which the Iraqis can be credible when they deliver that message,” he noted.
Such a setup would reflect the overall purpose of the new U.S. strategy in Baghdad, Kilcullen said, namely, providing an opportunity for the Iraqis to reconcile and build.
This is why it is critical to interrupt the cycle of violence in the city, Kilcullen reiterated. If the United States is able to facilitate reconciliation and growth at the local level, he explained, pockets of “sustainable stability” can emerge.
(Tim Kilbride is assigned to New Media, American Forces Information Service.)