Another day brought another horrible set of headlines out of Baghdad: On Tuesday, four bombings, one after another, killed dozens of people and left streaks of blood and strewn body parts across public markets.
As familiar as the last week of violence in Baghdad — more than 200 killed since last Wednesday — might seem to those who have watched Iraq over the years, this is not business as usual in Baghdad. The American history in Iraq tells us that successful bombings in Baghdad are not to be taken lightly.
The official talking points say the new wave of bombings is a sign that the Islamic State is losing. The terrorists are lashing out in Baghdad because they are abandoning territory to pro-Iraqi ground forces and American-led airstrikes. They’re “on the defensive,” as Brett McGurk, President Obama’s special envoy here, said recently.
There is truth to that line. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is losing territory in Iraq and Syria. And the recent wave of bombings is out of the very first page in the group’s playbook, back when the Islamic State was Al Qaeda in Iraq. But this is not the group’s final death throes — not yet.
Since their beginnings, the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State have been driven by the desire to wage a sectarian holy war, and have been amply willing to barter their lives in return for terrorizing and inciting the Shiite population. And the Iraqi capital has always been its most fertile ground for sowing fear.
We have seen the results of this kind of calculated violence before.
An onslaught of such attacks by Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 was ultimately responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers and Marines, and of thousands of Iraqi Shiites. Security fears among everyday Iraqi Shiites gave rise to an era of militia dominance, and to Shiite death squads hunting on the streets of Baghdad, perhaps forever altering the city’s demographics.
The civil war that erupted hardened the country’s sectarian divisions, and it empowered Shiite political leaders like Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who as prime minister set on a path of ejecting Iraqi Sunnis from public life.
Al Qaeda in Iraq was decimated but not destroyed, and Mr. Obama declared the American war in Iraq over in 2011.
But in 2013, another intense wave of bombings by Sunni extremists hit Baghdad, and other cities, with 50 suicide attacks in one month alone. Sunni grudges against the government had deepened with every summary execution, and every mass arrest. When the Islamic State came roaring through the Sunni countryside in 2014, many Iraqi Sunnis were willing to give them a chance, seeing the jihadists as a potential answering force to years of Shiite abuse.
And it brought American forces back, too, in the form of thousands of military advisers and Special Operations forces leading the territorial fight against the Islamic State. The war had not ended in 2011, it was starting a new phase.
Now, the Islamic State’s turf is being rolled back in Anbar Province and eastern Syria. But even with those positive headlines, and with Western support of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s halting efforts to include Sunnis in government and the security services, one fear here is that the new violence in Baghdad will again change the conversation.
The Islamic State, in doing what it does best by carrying out mass killings of Shiites across Baghdad, is already lending momentum to harder-line Iraqi Shiite leaders — those who answer to Iran and seek more divisions with Sunnis.
It’s also important to remember that the situation in Baghdad and the territorial fight against the Islamic State in other provinces are related.
The reflex of the Shiite leadership is to protect Baghdad — to answer the agonized voices of victims of terrorism — and that is likely to prompt calls for military and police units to be pulled from the front lines to secure the capital. In that way, the resurgent terrorist threat in Baghdad could begin stalling the improving military pushes outside the city — including efforts to finally direct an offensive toward retaking Mosul, the main city in the north.
At bomb scenes in Baghdad over the past week, survivors lashed out at politicians and said militias should protect them if the government cannot.
Fadhil Lateef is a 45-year-old man who sells fruits and vegetables in Sadr City, a teeming Shiite district in northeastern Baghdad that was hit by a suicide bombing last week and another one on Tuesday. He said he saw four burning bodies sitting in a car, a sight that terrified his small children.
“I wonder when this bloodshed stops,” he said. “If the government is not able to protect us, then let the Peace Brigades protect the areas of east Baghdad.”
The Peace Brigades is the latest name for the militia controlled by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr that under its old name — the Mahdi Army — fought the Americans and was blamed for atrocities during the sectarian civil war.
Talking to Baghdad residents who remember the past waves of violence offers a very different set of priorities from those voiced by American officials.
For the Shiites here, the military gains celebrated by American officials — pushing the Islamic State out of territory, such as Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and Tikrit — are harbingers of familiar terrors. And some would even prefer that the Islamic State continue reigning in the Sunni-dominated territories of its so-called caliphate if it means it leaves Baghdad alone.
Some of the calmest times in Baghdad in the last decade and more came after the Islamic State swept across northern Iraq in 2014 and seized Mosul and, seemingly, focused on its brutal state-building project rather than guerrilla terrorism.
In Baghdad, blast walls came down, many traffic checkpoints disappeared, and years of nighttime curfews came to an end. Everyone, it seemed, felt a little less dread at being in public.
When there were attacks, they seemed to galvanize a sense of broad public mourning that is largely absent when violence is as widespread as it has been in the last week.
Karim Wasfi, the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony, began showing up at bombing scenes, playing his cello. People lit candles and placed flowers.
Those scenes evoked the public reaction in places like Paris or Brussels where terror attacks are extraordinary events. In a country where bombings had once become so routine that, often, shops struck in the morning were reopened by afternoon, the attacks had actually begun seeming out of place.
They are becoming familiar again: 80 dead across four neighborhoods on Tuesday, almost 100 killed last Wednesday. The old mix of grief, anger and despair permeated the streets today.
Mohammad Sami, 32, survived the Sadr City market bombing with wounds to his hands and neck. His sense of loss was deeper:
“How long do we have to keep suffering from this misery?”