In the late fall of 2006, 10 or so months into my first Iraq tour, I went on a series of patrols in the neighborhoods just east of Baghdad airport. Packed with squat tan houses and narrow trash-strewn streets, the area was a haven for insurgents to hide improvised-explosive devices. For six months, my unit’s mission was to travel through this and other areas and find those bombs, so that friends from our sister units could carry out the impossible task of “securing” the neighborhoods.
In theory, patrols meant talking to locals and looking for bad guys. But in practice — in a grisly task that grew steadily worse that year — patrolling Baghdad meant finding bodies. Lots of them. In the neighborhoods on the fault lines between Sunni and Shi‘ite areas, there was usually one main road where bodies were dumped unceremoniously in the middle of the night. Sometimes you could tell someone had been tortured, their body covered in bruises and pocked with drill holes; others, perhaps in the name of expediency, had simply been shot in the head. A friend of mine led a squad that found so many, he started filing the reports by letter, deviating from the military’s usual alphanumeric code, to give each one a name in an effort at humanity. Adam, Benjamin, Caleb. In just a few short weeks he got to Philip before he abandoned that system; already more than half way, he couldn’t bring himself to reach the end of the alphabet and have to start over again at the beginning.
TIME’s former Baghdad bureau chief now our International Editor Bobby Ghosh perfectly captured Iraq in 2006 in his essay, Life in Hell. After the bombing of al-Askari Mosque in Samarra that ignited a sectarian war, the bloodletting escalated throughout the year. Statistically, things would get worse in 2007, as 30,000 U.S. surge troops pushed into contested neighborhoods, but late 2006 is often referred to as that dark period in which Iraqis, locked in internecine struggle, died violently by the thousands each month.
Iraq is once again descending into dark times. By an Associated Press tally, since April, 5,500 people have been killed in bombings and shootings this year. There have been at least two bombings a week during that time, killing people gathered at bus stations and markets and pilgrimages to Shi‘ite holy sites. This week, the architect of the 2007 American surge, retired General David Petraeus, published an opinion piece in Foreign Policy in which he argued for the success of the surge strategy. But he also came to a disheartening conclusion: “Iraq today looks tragically similar to the Iraq of 2006,” he wrote, but with the addition of the civil war in Syria, “the situation in Iraq looks even more complicated than it was in 2006 and thus even more worrisome — especially given the absence American combat forces.”
Petraeus’ piece, which comes 13 months after the scandal that unseated him as CIA director and as he re-enters public life through academic posts, concludes by arguing that if Iraqis want to move forward, “they would likely find it useful to revisit the entire array of approaches pursued in 2007 and 2008. It is heartening, thus, to know that some of the veterans of the surge, American as well as Iraqi, are engaged in the effort to help Iraq determine and then pursue the initiatives needed to address the terrible increase in violence in that country.”
Perhaps the most important of those Iraqi veterans would surely be Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has headed the government since 2006. This week Al-Maliki is in Washington, where he will meet with President Obama on Friday. In an op-ed in the New York Times, he laid the blame for Iraq’s violence on al-Qaeda and its affiliates, who he says “are conducting a terrorist campaign against our people.”
Al-Maliki made it clear the Iraqis are not asking for American boots on the ground, but military equipment, “including helicopters and other military aircraft” (likely meaning drones) to secure Iraq’s borders. “The war in Syria has become a magnet that attracts sectarian extremists and terrorists from various parts of the world and gathers them in our neighborhood, with many slipping across our all-too-porous borders,” al-Maliki wrote. “We do not want Syria or Iraq to become bases for al-Qaeda operations, and neither does the United States.”
But Iraq’s current crisis is not purely the work of al-Qaeda and extremists slipping in from Syria — and some would argue al-Maliki himself is in part at fault. While exacerbated by the Syrian civil war, the violence is largely the result of domestic sectarian and political rifts. The current crisis arguably began in December 2012, when the government raided the home of a prominent Sunni politician, leading to antigovernment protests in the heavily Sunni Anbar province. In the spring, government security forces clashed with Sunni gunmen, sparking a cycle of violence that has continued into the fall.
Al-Maliki recently acknowledged that Iraq suffers from a “crisis of its entire political system,” and few would disagree. Another op-ed this week in the International New York Times, co-written by Emma Sky, a British Middle East expert who served as a political adviser to top U.S. commanders in Iraq (who Petraeus lauded in his piece as “brilliant”), eviscerates al-Maliki and argues he triggered the current crisis, chiefly, by not integrating Sunnis into the political process.
But Sky, and her co-author Ramzy Mardini, an adjunct fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies, argued that al-Maliki is not the root of Iraq’s ills, and that if he were defeated in next year’s elections, “the primacy of survivalism in Iraqi political life” will continue. Al-Maliki was an unlikely Prime Minister who won the post, in part, because then U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad argued he would be independent of Iranian influence. In the years since, al-Maliki and his Shi‘ite State of Law coalition have been criticized for failing to bring Sunnis back into the fold and launching authoritarian crackdowns against Sunni politicians. “Mr. Obama shouldn’t mistake Iraq for a liberal democracy,” Sky and Mardini wrote. “At best, it’s a democracy without democrats.”
Sky and Mardini argue that Obama should not treat Iraq as a Cold War–style security project, but rather use soft-power trade and diplomacy to encourage political improvements in the country. Some prominent U.S. lawmakers have similar concerns about al-Maliki, but the opposite prescription. A bipartisan group of a half dozen U.S. Senators wrote a letter to Obama arguing that “Maliki’s mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence.” They recommend greater counterterrorism aid and a request is now before Congress to sell Iraq Apache helicopters and other military equipment.
Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S. said that security concerns will dominate al-Maliki’s agenda in Washington this week. Beyond statements of renewed friendship and pledges of cooperation, once al-Maliki returns to Baghdad, questions will remain about his leadership and the fractured politics of the country. Barring any significant changes, violence is likely to continue until Iraqi politicians can transcend the country’s deep sectarian and ethnic divides. Sadly, nothing in the recent past points to that possibility, and the U.S. has few options to will it into existence.