Iraq: Security Trends

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Iraq has made significant progress in defeating the insurgency and improving its security. The level of violence in Iraq is sharply lower than the levels that peaked in 2007. It is now dropping below average levels that existed at the beginning of the insurgency in 2004, and most of the violence related to the Sunni insurgency is now concentrated in Baghdad; and in Diyala, Ninewa, Salah ad Din provinces in central and northern Iraq. Although there have been several extraordinarily bloody bombings – particularly on August 19th and 25th, Al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) and other Sunni insurgent and terrorist groups have lost much of their strength, influence, and the ability to carry out frequent operations.

The threat posed by the Sadr militia, various Shiite factions like the Special Groups, and other Shiite militias has been sharply reduced and the Sadr and the Sadrist party are now part of the Shiite political alliance. Fears that the US military withdrawal from Iraq’s cities in June 2009 would trigger new rounds of internal violence have so far proved to be sharply exaggerated.

The Iraq War, however, is anything but “won” -- if this means reducing violence to levels that allow civil society and the economy to function without bombings and other large-scale incidents of violence, and reducing all of these threats to a level that largely eliminates the risk of new outbreaks of major ethnic and sectarian violence.

This raises urgent issues for shaping US policy towards Iraq at a time the US should give as much priority to defining its strategic partnership with Iraq as to finding a new strategy for Afghanistan. The US cannot afford to let Iraq become the “forgotten war” or to risk losing two conflicts for the price of one.

The Burke chair has prepared a new survey of the trends in Iraq based on a recent trip to Iraq, and data provided in recent reporting by the Special Inspector General for Iraq (SIGIR) and the Department of Defense. It is entitled "Iraq: Security Trends" and it can be downloaded from the Burke Chair web site at

This survey traces the history of violence and casualties in Iraq since 2003, as well as the major causes of that violence. It provides a detailed history of violence by province – which covers both the historical trend lines and patterns involved since US withdrawal from Iraq’s cities. And, it summarizes the results of a recent poll of Iraqi attitudes towards security and violence.

The result are both encouraging and a warning. The insurgency is scarcely dead but threat from both Sunni and Shi’ite insurgents is greatly reduced. In many ways, the primary threats to Iraq’s security are now internal political struggles that could spill over into new forms of violence, and Iraq’s ability to make the transition to full control over its security as US forces withdraw by December 31, 2009.

This creates a strong case for continuing US efforts as part of the US-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement that will ensure that all the elements of Iraqi security forces continue to improve as US forces withdraw, and there is a strong and integrated civil-military effort in the US country team in Iraq after 2011 that will continue to help Iraqi forces improve once US forces withdraw.

The current levels of violence remain too high for the US to simply carry out a "responsible withdrawal," and go to a "normal embassy" in 2012. The US will need to create strong military and State Department advisory teams to help Iraq’s armed forces, police forces, and security forces continue to improve. It will need to continue to provide aid to develop Iraqi forces, and make significant transfers of the military equipment now in Iraq. It will need to sustain aid in improving Iraq’s rule of law, and in improving the quality and sustainability of Iraqi forces at least through 2014 – and probably for years in the future. Such efforts will be comparatively cheap relative to past US spending in Iraq, and the alternative is to lose the victory through neglect.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy