Iraq: Patterns of Violence, Casualty Trends and Emerging Security Threats
February 10, 2011
Unless major changes take place in US and Iraqi policy, American combat forces will withdraw from Iraq at the end of this year. The Iraq War will not come to an end with this withdrawal, any more than it did when the US withdrew from Iraqi cities and formally ended combat operations early in the summer of 2010. Extremist attacks will probably continue for at least several years, and there are still serious risks of new outbreaks of sectarian and ethnic conflict.
The broad patterns in the US part of the Iraq War are, however, now documented in a wide range of tables and graphs that show the history of this violence over the period from 2003 to the end of 2010. In addition, enough data are emerging to show that major changes are occurring in the patterns of violence that affect the future ability of the Iraqi government to bring security, stability, and development to the Iraqi people.
The Burke Chair has prepared a briefing that uses a wide range of such indicators of the patterns of violence during 2003 to the end of 2010, and show some of the key changes occurring in these patterns. This briefing is entitled Iraq: Patterns of Violence, Casualty Trends and Emerging Security Threats, and is available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/110209_Iraq-PattofViolence.pdf.
The brief is large (7MB) and has been divided into 2 smaller sections for those with slower download speeds:
The full briefing is divided into eight main sections:
- Section One is entitled “Overall Trends in Violence: 2003-2009:” It shows the historical trend data in major attacks by cause through the end of 2010. It compares the levels of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the declining patterns of violence by province over time, and patterns in casualties by cause and category. It documents both the escalation into a major war, and a form of near victory by US, Coalition, and Iraqi forces.
It is important to note, however, that such data suffer from serious limitations. Decisions were taken early in the war not to break out patterns of violence by suspected attacker and group (including government security forces), and by ethnic and sectarian group and target. Moreover, unclassified chronological analysis was patchy to non-existent. In many cases, it showed that a key ethnic or sectarian attack have a major impact on the course of the war. These decisions may have reduced the impact such data had on sectarian and ethnic tensions, but they also disguise the underlying causes and patterns in the conflict.
Moreover, then – as now – official data were not developed on the overall patterns in wounded and low-level violence (which also had a critical impact on the war), or on perceptions of the causes and levels of violence. Polling by ABC and other groups indicates that perceptions of violence were a driving factor in the war, and differed sharply from the patterns in major incident counts. For example, polling showed that during large periods in the war most Iraqis saw the US and Coalition as posing an equal threat relative to insurgents and extremists.
- Section Two is entitled “Emerging Patterns in Violence: 2010.” It shows that “victory” is relative as long as extremists and insurgents can keep up a consistent pattern of low level attacks. According to the GOI, more than 3,600 civilians and ISF personnel were killed in violent incidents during 2010. For the third consecutive month, however, December set a 2010 record for the fewest number of persons killed in attacks, down 151 from the previous month’s 2010 record low of 171. It also shows that more than 70% of the documented security incidents in the war from 2004 to end 2010 were bombs and IEDs. At the same time, it shows a shift in the pattern of violence to targeting Iraqi officials and security personnel.
It is again important to note, however, these data still focus on major incidents. A look on media reports of the chronology of violence show a clear pattern of high profile attacks on civilians designed to discredit the Iraqi government and provoke ethnic and sectarian tensions. It is also critical to understand that these data do not include crime, kidnapping, extortion, perceived bias and failures by the Iraqi security services, and perceptions of the overall effectiveness and fairness of the police and courts. These are all critical indicators now that major fighting has halted. They measure the broad level of stability and security in Iraq, and the risk Iraqi and international investors and businesses run in the post-US forces era.
- Section Three is entitled “Mapping Key Patterns in Violence by Area.
2003-2010.” It corrects some of the problems citied earlier by showing the geographic patterns in violence, and focusing on several key areas. Violence in the areas north and west of Baghdad Province largely involved and affected Sunnis, with some directed against Kurds and Christians. Patterns south of Baghdad largely affected Shi’ites. Baghdad Province was the main scene of violence throughout the US-led phase of the fighting, and was largely Sunni vs. Shi’ite. The patterns of AQI Sunni and Sadrist Shi’ite violence are also clear. It is important to note Syria was the main source of support to Sunni insurgents, and Iran was a major source of support to Shi’ite extremists.
The more recent maps in this section show a steady concentration of violence in the north in Diyala and Ninewa provinces, ongoing violence in Baghdad, and mixed violence in the south – much of it consisting of bombings and suicide attacks designed to create sectarian tension between Sunni and Shi’ite. The final maps in this section highlight the bombings and attacks on civilians mentioned above, new patterns in violence against the Sunni Sons of Iraq, and violence in Basrah Province – a critical area in terms of petroleum development and investment. They highlight the new patterns of violence that are coming to dominate Iraq.
- Section Four is entitled “Spotlight on Baghdad.” These data highlight the critical importance of Baghdad as a center of the fighting. Baghdad remains a key center of bombings, suicide attacks, and crime.
- Section Five is entitled “Iraqi Attitudes Towards Violence.” These maps highlight the limited range of data provided in official reporting on Iraqi perceptions towards the end of the war. To be blunt, such data – and their equivalent in Afghanistan – are extremely suspect. The more detailed data published in various US reports often seemed to be designed to prove positive results, and the results rarely tracked with the far more comprehensive polling done by broadcast media and NGOs. They lack explanation as to method, and were often briefed as being “statistically valid” based on sampling methods that may have given this description some mathematical justification – but only if divorced from the problems in real world sampling. In general, the unofficial polling conducted by ABC/BBC/and ARD seems far more credible and useful.
- Section Six is entitled “Different Estimates of Casualty Trends:
2003-2010.” These data show a range of Iraqi, NGO, and US estimates of casualties, and do provide some insights into the cumulative level of ethnic and sectarian violence.
As noted earlier, these data only count killed – not injured and wounded – with the exception of the data on US forces. As a rough estimate, injured and wounded would have totaled 5-7 times the number killed. The data differ significantly according to source and definition – usually with no clear explanation of all the reasons for the differences. They also do not include those who died or injured in ways that never became part of the official record – including significant numbers of disappearances.
What all sources do have in common, however, is that casualties have dropped sharply and continued to drop during 2010 – in spite of the ongoing attacks of Sunni and Shi’ite factions. This trend has applied to total civilian casualties, ethnic and sectarian casualties, and Iraqi and US military casualties.
- Section Seven is entitled “More is Involved than Casualties: Displaced Persons.” These data show another key impact of the war. They do, however, present the problem that such counts are very difficult to make, and internally displaced persons often do not count Iraqis making local moves into move secure sectarian and ethnic neighborhoods in the same town or city, and those who lost a business or access to jobs because of the inability to operate in a high risk or hostile sectarian and ethnic area.
- Section Eight is entitled “IEDs and Weapons Caches: 2003-2010.” This section measures the trends in the most critical source of violence in war as it affected US, Coalition, and Iraqi forces. The downward trend in such attacks has reached the point, however, where it has lost much of its impact on the overall pattern of the fighting. New reporting is needed on bombings and suicide attacks on civilians and should include both killed and wounded, and ethnic and sectarian breakouts.
Taken together, these data amount to a tactical victory during the US-led phase of the war, but do not yet define anything approaching a strategic victory on the war. Such a victory will have to be won by Iraqis, both in terms of security and stability, and by transition to a civil rule of law and ongoing economic development. This phase of the war has been delayed by both a major budget crisis in 2009 and most of 2010, and the long crisis over forming a new Iraqi government.
Success will also depend heavily on US ability and willingness to create a strong military, police, and civil aid program after the US military withdrawal at the end of 2011. These programs have been proposed by the Obama Administration, but have not yet been accepted by the new Iraqi government or accepted and funded by the US Congress.