As American forces withdraw from Iraqi cities and towns, sharp cutbacks in the money paid to Sunni tribal leaders, combined with increasing Sunni hostility toward the Shi’ite-dominated government, have contributed to a dramatic deterioration in Iraqi security, Iraq specialists say.
In the most destructive terrorist attack so far this year, two huge blasts Oct. 25 destroyed the Justice Ministry and a provincial government office, killing more than 140 people and wounding hundreds in a zone supposedly protected by 50 roadblocks and 10,000 soldiers and police.
Two other ministries in central Baghdad were hit by a similar bombing in August, killing more than 100 people and wounding at least 500.
Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Judith Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at the National Defense University, said al Qaeda’s resurgent ability to carry out such devastating attacks stems in part from the fact that Sunni militias that accepted payment from U.S. forces to fight al Qaeda have fallen on hard times.
Earlier this year, the U.S. shifted responsibility for payment to the Iraqi government, and militia members say the payments have all but ceased.
“There was a real money-flow problem,” Ms. Yaphe said.
A congressional staffer who spoke on condition that he not be named because he was discussing sensitive intelligence said that after the U.S. stopped paying Sunni forces directly in June, it wasn’t long before payments to the tribes “simply stopped. You got paid if you were a power in the government, and the tribal leaders were last on [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki’s list,” the staffer said.
The Iraqi Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
Najim Abed al-Jabouri, the former mayor of Tal Afar, Iraq, and now a fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, said he fears the pace of terrorist attacks will increase as January elections approach.
An unanswered question is how the bombers driving vehicles laden with explosives could reach targets in Baghdad’s most secure neighborhoods.
“What people should ask is how al Qaeda was able to do this,” Mr. Jabouri said, referring to last month’s bombing, which he said killed more people than the Maliki government acknowledged, including 60 children.
Mr. Maliki, the prime minister, blamed the attacks on al Qaeda and loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party.
“The cowardly acts of terrorism which occurred today must not weaken the resolution of Iraqis to continue their journey and to fight the followers of the fallen regime, the Ba’athists and al Qaeda,” Mr. Maliki said in a statement released by his office after last month’s blasts.
Within days of the latest bombing, the Iraqi government arrested 11 officers and 50 members of the military and police, including a commander and police chief, on suspicion of involvement in the bombing, according to news accounts.
In Mr. Jabouri’s view, both the Iraqi military and the police are heavily politicized. Police and border officials answer to the Interior Ministry, which often has been “the pawn of Shi’ite political movements, and many members of the security services are more loyal to their employers than the state,” he said.
The congressional staffer said Mr. Maliki, despite efforts to reach out to some Sunni politicians, has continued to bar Sunni tribal leaders from the government, leaving them marginalized and embittered.
In the aftermath of the August bombing, Mr. Maliki fired nearly 12,000 Sunnis in the Defense and Interior ministries, including many in the police who were purported to have ties with people still loyal to the Ba’ath party, according to U.S. news accounts.
Mr. Jabouri said Mr. Maliki appears determined to exclude Sunnis and Kurds from the security forces and to rely on members of his Dawa party. This trend has accelerated, Mr. Jabouri said, since Gen. Mohammed Shawani, a longtime CIA asset, resigned in August as head of the U.S.-trained Iraqi National Intelligence Service.
These developments threaten to destroy the progress made since the U.S. surge in 2007-08.
Al Qaeda had alienated the Sunni tribes because of its strict, humorless Islamic regimentation and because it interfered with the tribes’ smuggling networks, which transited the Syria-Iraq borders using unmarked trails and trucks to move cigarettes and other contraband.
According to a recent report by the West Point Combating Terrorism Center, “Bombers, Bank Accounts, and Bleedout,” by Brian Fishman, al Qaeda’s attempt to monopolize smuggling undercut the traditional livelihood of Sunni tribal leaders and was a key element in prompting their cooperation with U.S. forces.
As competition increased, the fury of the tribal leaders boiled over, and soon the tribes were engaged in almost daily gun battles with al Qaeda operatives.
By December 2007, the U.S. had signed up nearly 73,000 Sunni tribals, 65,000 of whom got $300 a month in salaries, according to U.S. officials in Iraq.
The tribals joined with small teams of U.S. Special Forces called “fusion cells” consisting of computer specialists, intelligence analysts and assassins who used drone surveillance, space-based assets, U-2 spy planes and communications intercept equipment to track and attack their targets.
But after achieving spectacular results — including a 60 percent reduction of deaths in some areas — the program began to fracture this summer, according to a U.S. government consultant who asked not to be named because he works for the Pentagon.
“The rent-a-sheik program was destined to fail on many counts,” the consultant said. “One is the obvious: When the money dried up, so did the ‘loyalty.’ ” He added that many of the “rented sheiks are now seen as pariahs in their own communities now that they are no longer sources of patronage and jobs.”
According to Mr. Jabouri, the tribal leaders may seek to settle differences with the Maliki government by aiding its enemies.
In the meantime, the bombings continue, and attacks on police and officials by gunmen and suicide bombers occur daily.