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Iraq Attacks Cloud Debate over Syria Intervention

  • Henry Ridgwell

Residents stand amid debris near shops damaged by a car bomb attack that occurred late on Monday in east of Baghdad, Iraq, July 24, 2012.
Bomb attacks across Iraq killed more than 100 people Monday, prompting fears that extremist groups could be making a comeback just months after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country. Analysts say the long shadow of the Iraq war and its aftermath are coloring the debate over intervening in Syria.

Workers clear rubble and twisted metal after a bomb attack in the town of Taji, north of Baghdad on Monday. The town's Sunni community was one of the worst hit with more than 40 people killed, as bomb blasts struck 19 towns and cities across the country.

The scenes of death and destruction are reminiscent of the darkest days of the Iraqi insurgency.

Last week the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq declared a new offensive was underway.

Recent intelligence backs this up, says Shiraz Maher of the International Center For The Study Of Radicalization at Kings College London.

“Certainly from the Internet forums and what we can see of al-Qaida discussing amongst themselves, they really never considered themselves to have gone away as a force," Maher said. "With the departure of American troops at the end of last year, now seems to be a moment when they are regrouping and re-emerging as a force."

Violence in Iraq has been increasing steadily in recent weeks. In June at least 237 people were killed making it one of the bloodiest months since the U.S. withdrawal.

Shiraz Maher explains some of the motive.

“Even now al-Qaida in Iraq continues to target civil institutions in Iraq because it regards them principally as continuing to further a Western agenda," he said. "And, of course, we’re just at the start of Ramadan which is traditionally a peak time for al-Qaida attacks, particularly in Iraq.”

The ongoing violence in Iraq has its roots in the rule of Saddam Hussein, says Nadim Shehadi of independent policy institute Chatham House.

“We allowed Saddam Hussein to massacre the Kurds, the Shias in the south, the Marsh Arabs... a lot of the sectarianism and the extremism that we see in Iraq is the product of that period before,” he explained.

Shehadi says the West’s experience in Iraq is influencing the debate on intervention in Syria.

“The lesson they’ve learned is that if you take out the dictator then the country falls apart," he said. "And I think this is the wrong lesson to take because what made the transition in Iraq difficult is what happened before the invasion.”

Shehadi argues that the government crackdown on the Syrian uprising is stoking sectarianism and extremism.

“When we take the lid off, this is what we will find. Even though intervention has its costs, non-intervention, especially now in Syria, will also incur a lot of costs and these are costs we will have to face when the regime ultimately falls,” he said.

That cost, says analysts, could be a prolonged sectarian conflict in Syria and even neighboring Lebanon, fanned by extremist groups like al-Qaida.