June 25 Bombings in Karbala
On Wednesday, June 25, two bombs exploded in central Karbala, killing at least 2 and wounding 14.1 The explosive devices were located minibuses and were targeting major Shi’ite shrines. Unlike previous attacks, however, these bombings do not appear to have been carried out by al-Qaeda in Iraq in an attempt to stoke sectarian violence. Rather, the attacks appear to have been carried out by Moqtada al-Sadr’s newly-renamed “resistance cells,” which appear to be long-existing Iranian-backed cells known as "Special Groups." Sadr recently indicated that these groups exist to “resist the occupation.”2 Iraqi intelligence officials quoting an Iraqi intelligence report, have stated that Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) is “turning itself into a secret armed organization” in the wake of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s recent offensives against the militia throughout Baghdad and southern Iraq that left over 2,000 JAM fighters dead and caused 1,300 more to flee to Iran.3 The intelligence report went on to say that Jaysh al-Mahdi would be finished in its traditional form of a large militia numbering in the tens of thousands; instead, the Sadrist militia will rely on a very small organization of between 150-200 members to undertake attacks in the style of al-Qaeda in Iraq; these attacks would focus on targeting specific individuals for assassination as well as undertaking attacks on US forces.4
This most recent attack fits that pattern, as Jaysh al-Mahdi has chosen to undertake a high-profile attack against civilians instead of attempting to contest control of the local population. Sadr’s militant wing appears to have conceded the population to the Iraqi Government and is no longer attempting to show that it can defeat the Iraqi Security Forces in a head-to-head engagement after its defeats in previous months. Thus, while the attack is a high-profile move, it comes as a result of Sadr’s options being limited.
These attacks have come after several weeks of increased activity that indicate a desire to carry out violent attacks in Karbala, which is home to several major Shi'ite shrines. For example, on June 17, Iraqi police arrested 15 individuals who were attempting to infiltrate the city in order to incite riots and demonstrations against the local Iraqi security forces.5Later, on June 22, Karbala police arrested three terrorists who were seeking to infiltrate the city and were caught with documents that indicated plans to target religious institutions within the city.6 It seems that these most recent bombings represent the fruition of those planned attacks.
Though it remains to be seen the effect that these bombings will have, on their face attacks serve to intimidate the population and to deliver a message to the attackers' rivals; in that sense, they serve a similar purpose to many of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s high-profile attacks. If the attacks are successful in intimidating the Iraqi public and Iraqi Security Force personnel, they may provide Sadrists with some breathing room to reconstitute themselves in the wake of their recent losses. Similarly, if the Sadrist military offensive kills the right opposition leaders, it may leave Sadr’s opponents in a degree of disarray, allowing that same opportunity for reconstitution.
At the same time, these attacks share some of the same risks as the AQI attacks. First, the attacks against Shi’ite shrines may serve to alienate the local populations and give them a greater incentive to provide intelligence on would-be terrorists in the future and further unravel JAM’s infrastructure. This effect was certainly evident as Sunni civilians turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and its potential against the Sadrist Trend seems legitimate given the extreme religious importance of the shrines targeted in the attack. Furthermore, much of the public’s toleration for JAM came because it provided protection against attacks by Sunni insurgent groups. In this case, however, the Sadrists are attacking their fellow Shi’a citizens, which is not likely to increase tolerance for Sadrists’ nefarious activities. The potential for a backlash seems to have been borne out one day after the bombings, as there were demonstrations in Karbala supporting the Maliki government's security crackdown in Maysan, which many believe are targeting Sadrists.7
Moreover, the Sadrist Trend’s desire to continue to participate in Iraq’s legitimate political process increases its vulnerability to a popular backlash if these attacks are associated with Sadr, as the Sadrists are attempting to contest the October Provincial elections in southern Iraq. If the continued militant activity undercuts support for Sadrist politicians, there appears a potential for continued fractures within the Sadrist movement and a poor showing in the October elections, both of which would empower Sadr’s political opponents.
Smith, Doug. “Iraqi Authorities Say U.S. soldiers killed 9 civilians.” The Los Angeles Times. 6/26/2008. Available at http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/asection/la-fg-iraq26-2008jun26,0,573885.story; Gamel, Kim. “US forces face spike in deadly violence in Iraq.” The Associated Press. 6/26/2008. Available at http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5gkx-3oYeFwuWKCusr2jrojs98w8wD91HHVD00; AM. Huge blast rocks Karbala-eyewitnesses.” Voices of Iraq. 6/26/2008. Available at http://www.aswataliraq.info/look/english/article.tpl?IdLanguage=1&IdPublication=4&NrArticle=83648&NrIssue=2&NrSection=1; AM. “Karbala roadside bombing kills 1 child, wounds 4.” Voices of Iraq. 6/26/2008. Available at http://www.aswataliraq.info/look/english/article.tpl?IdLanguage=1&IdPublication=4&NrArticle=83652&NrIssue=2&NrSection=1
SK. “Shiite cleric Sadr authorizes setting up "resistance cells"-Sadrist.” Voices of Iraq. 6/13/2008. Available at http://www.aswataliraq.info/look/english/article.tpl?IdLanguage=1&IdPublication=4&NrArticle=82338&NrIssue=2&NrSection=1
Adas, Basil. “Mahdi Army militia ‘going underground.’” Gulf News. 6/26/2008. Available at http://www.gulfnews.com/region/Iraq/10223864.html
[v] “Iraqi FM, Dick Cheney discuss proposed security pact; other Iraqi developments.” Al-Sharqiyah TV. 6/18/2008. Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring
[vi] AE and SR. “3 gunmen planning attacks on Karbala shrines arrested.” Voices of Iraq. 6/23/2008. Available at http://www.aswataliraq.info/look/english/article.tpl?IdLanguage=1&IdPubl...http://www.aswataliraq.info/look/english/article.tpl?IdLanguage=1&IdPubl...