The scene is Iraq is all too familiar: terrorists operating across the country execute a series of planned and coordinated attacks, killing close to thirty and wounding dozens more, some critically. The legs of innocent bystanders are severed by the shrapnel from bombs attached to vehicles in crowded streets, with the most unfortunate succumbing to their wounds. Others die instantly from the blast while the survivors and rescue workers who rush to the scene wonder whether the security environment in their country will improve.
The story played out again on Sunday. Terrorists, presumably associated with or inspired by Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, unleash a wave of violence across nine cities, from Kirkuk in the north to the town of Kut, one hundred miles southeast of Baghdad. The attacks were crude yet effective. Some of the incidents were small but every single successful strike on an Iraqi security patrol or a marketplace has the same psychological effect: it increases the frustration of the public and lessens their trust in the central government.
A short two years ago, Al Qaeda in Iraq was a spent force. Its two top leaders were killed in a single operation, its support from the Sunni community was at its lowest point and the organization was struggling to keep up its finances. Iraqi civilian casualties reached their lowest point in 2010, in part due to the increased professionalism of the Iraqi Security Forces, American military support and a Sunni community willing to buy into the political process.
The terrorist group appears to have staged a comeback. With foreign soldiers no longer operating in the country, Al Qaeda has the opportunity to extend its freedom of movement in areas that would previously be contested. The gridlock of the Iraqi political system along sectarian lines has given extremists on all sides hope. 2012, the first year without an international military presence, has proven to be an especially troubling one for the Iraqi government, with paralysis in the legislature, a detention system that is unable to keep prisoners locked up and a security force that is reactive to terrorist attacks.
Iraqis will never forget their darkest days, when in 2006, more than 28,000 people were killed in acts of terrorism and war. 2012, by contrast, is more stable, even if September was the most violent month in two years in terms of civilian casualties. But terrorism is still rampant and Al Qaeda anything but a spent force.