REUTERS - Major bomb attacks against government buildings in the past 10 weeks introduced new tactics in the insurgency as Iraq emerges from wholesale sectarian slaughter and attempts to establish stability.
Likely carried out by al Qaeda or supporters of Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party, the Aug. 19 and Oct. 25 attacks on protected targets were aimed at undermining the Shi’ite-led government ahead of national polls in January, analysts say.
Here are some questions and answers on insurgent tactics:
The tactics of insurgents in Iraq have evolved.
While previously suicide bomb attacks attributed to Sunni Islamists were largely carried out against soft targets like mosques and markets, where the public gathered in numbers, the last two major attacks were against government buildings.
Counter-terrorism experts say insurgent tactics in Iraq follow a typical pattern of targeting that cycles between the security forces, the wider public and economic institutions and government facilities or personnel.
When one set of targets becomes too protected, or the public and government become inured and no longer shocked, a new set is selected. The aim is to keep the authorities guessing.
The political aims of insurgents may also be shifting — having failed to reignite sectarian war through attacks mainly on Shi’ites, insurgents may be focusing more specifically on destabilizing the political system and upsetting the elections.
Suicide bombers are by their nature a finite resource — they can only be used once. As the wider conflict in Iraq has eased and democracy, no matter how chaotic, begins to take hold, insurgents may be finding it more difficult to find recruits.
Al Qaeda has also been driven out of much of Iraq by the decision of many Sunni tribal leaders over the past two years to turn on the extremist group and ally themselves with U.S. forces instead. That has sharply reduced the areas in which insurgents can operate freely and in which they can build public support.
That means al Qaeda in Iraq and allied groups have a very diminished capability, even if they remain lethal.
Iraqi security forces have also grown in number and spread across the land. The proliferation of checkpoints has made it riskier for insurgents to move around and transport explosives.
That may have forced them to change the tempo of attacks — less frequent, but seeking a greater impact with each one.
It is possible to lock down an area or a city centre against vehicle-borne bomb attacks, by closing down all but a few arteries and instituting comprehensive checks for explosives or suspicious people at the few roads left open.
But there is a price to be paid in terms of economic activity and public anger.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is campaigning for the January vote by seeking credit for better security and for restoring a sense of normality to Iraqi streets. He has pushed to reopen major thoroughfares to ease congestion and for the removal of some blast walls.
The Aug. 19 bombings persuaded the government to slow down, but to completely backtrack now would cost Maliki support.
Suicide bombers on foot rather than in cars are harder to defend against. Even if police officers or soldiers identify a possible bomber in a crowd, how do they isolate the individual without causing them to blow themselves and everyone else up?
Stationary checkpoints are not enough, military experts say. They are too easy to avoid. Iraq’s security forces need to start establishing random checkpoints that increase the risks to insurgents of being caught whilst en route.
Iraq also needs to beef up its intelligence-gathering and infiltration abilities, both of which are currently negligible. Insurgencies cannot be beaten by armies, but must be tackled by police work, counter-terrorism experts said.
It must also root out corruption in the security forces.
U.S. counter-insurgency strategy places an emphasis on pressuring insurgent groups with frequent raids and operations. That way, insurgent cells will not have the time or opportunity they need to carefully plan and carry out attacks.
Also, the insurgency in Iraq is borne of sectarian tensions and struggles between once-dominant Sunnis and majority Shi’ites since Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003. That means a long-term solution can only come through reconciliation.
(Reporting by Michael Christie and Jack Kimball)