ISIS Has Been Bombing Baghdad for Years

The U.S. threatens airstrikes in Baghdad if the militant group endangers personnel, but ISIS attacks in and around the capital aren’t anything new.

Iraqi policemen man a checkpoint in the capital Baghdad on June 12, 2014, as jihadists and anti-government fighters have spearheaded a major offensive that overrun all of Nineveh province. Jihadists are pushing toward Baghdad after capturing a town only 90 kilometres (56 miles) to its north, in a lightning three-day offensive the Iraqi government has failed to stop. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
Aug. 11, 2014, 12:04 p.m.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have said re­peatedly that the United States will launch air­strikes if IS­IS ad­vances on Bagh­dad, but the Sunni mil­it­ant group has car­ried out at­tacks in and around the cap­it­al for years.

The Is­lam­ic State in Ir­aq and Syr­ia es­tim­ates that it car­ried out 641 total op­er­a­tions in Bagh­dad in 2013, up from 371 op­er­a­tions in 2012 — ran­ging from car bombs to armed as­sault to as­sas­sin­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to the In­sti­tute for the Study of War, a Wash­ing­ton-based think tank.

And IS­IS shows no signs of stop­ping. At least five car bombs rocked Bagh­dad last week, largely in Shiite neigh­bor­hoods, leav­ing dozens of people dead.

The United States began mov­ing some of its em­bassy staff from Bagh­dad in mid-June, but there are still more than 700 sol­diers in Ir­aq — more than half of whom are ded­ic­ated to em­bassy se­cur­ity in the cap­it­al city.

Mean­while, the United States launched a series of air­strikes in the past week against IS­IS near Er­bil in north­ern Ir­aq, as well as dropped hu­man­it­ari­an aid to the Yazid­is, a stran­ded re­li­gious minor­ity group. Al-Mon­it­or‘s Laura Rozen asked State De­part­ment spokes­wo­man Mar­ie Harf last week why strikes were be­ing taken to pro­tect U.S. per­son­nel in Er­bil when there have been IS­IS bomb­ings for years in Bagh­dad, in­clud­ing those “that are with­in hear­ing and feel­ing range of the U.S. Em­bassy.” Harf ac­know­ledged that there have been bomb­ings in Bagh­dad, “but ob­vi­ously we look at the threat and we look at the pic­ture.”

What an es­cal­a­tion of IS­IS at­tacks in and around Bagh­dad would look like is un­clear.

“The thing that we’re look­ing for in Bagh­dad now really has to be scaled in the fact that IS­IS brought its [vehicle borne ex­plos­ive device] wave cam­paign to Bagh­dad in a de­cidedly con­cen­trated way in Feb­ru­ary 2013,” said Jes­sica Lewis, re­search dir­ect­or for the In­sti­tute for the Study of War. Lewis spent nearly three years with the Army in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan provid­ing in­tel­li­gence sup­port.

The widely ac­cep­ted line of think­ing is that IS­IS would have a hard time tak­ing Bagh­dad. Un­like the areas where the ter­ror­ist group has con­trol, the cap­it­al is dom­in­ated by Shiites and Shiite mi­li­tias, and it has a high num­ber of Ir­aq’s se­cur­ity forces.

“There’s not a lot that they can use as a foothold,” said Steven Si­mon, a seni­or fel­low at the Middle East In­sti­tute, a non­par­tis­an think tank in Wash­ing­ton. But Si­mon, who served as the seni­or dir­ect­or for Middle Middle East­ern and North Afric­an af­fairs in the Obama White House dur­ing 2011 and 2012, ad­ded that “doesn’t mean that they can’t wreck and wreak hav­oc.”

And Amer­ic­an air­strikes, while use­ful for hit­ting pre­cise tar­gets like IS­IS ar­til­lery, are vir­tu­ally use­less against a sui­cide or car bomb — the mil­it­ant group’s main mode of at­tack so far in the cap­it­al.

But even if the mil­it­ant group doesn’t cap­ture Bagh­dad, it could still threaten the cap­it­al — and by ex­ten­sion U.S. mil­it­ary per­son­nel — through the Mo­sul dam. Loc­ated in north­ern Ir­aq, IS­IS and Kur­d­ish forces have been bat­tling over Ir­aq’s largest dam, with the mil­it­ant group re­portedly tak­ing con­trol of the dam last week.

If IS­IS de­cided to break the dam, it would “res­ult in flood­ing along the Tigris River all the way to Bagh­dad,” ac­cord­ing to a 2007 let­ter from Dav­id Pet­raeus and Ry­an Crock­er, at the time the U.S. am­bas­sad­or to Ir­aq.

Des­pite the many ques­tions on what IS­IS will do next, one thing is very cer­tain: It could make life for the res­id­ents of Bagh­dad much, much worse than it already has.

Lewis said, “My con­cern for Bagh­dad is largely framed out of an ex­pect­a­tion that we have not seen [IS­IS] max­im­ally en­gaged yet.”

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