A small crying girl, her body covered in cuts from the blast. Faces melting in screams are frozen in time, captured in grief for hours. Reading news, surfing the internet, I’m under no illusion: I am, by all relative measures, safe. These people, the victims of suicide bombings in Iraq, are not. I am left wondering: what is going on?
While I can’t understand the entirety of this messy and complex conflict in Iraq, I feel I have a better comprehension after attending an event on Iraq suicide bombings at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). Professor Mohammed Hafez, who recently wrote, Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom, was joined by the Iraqi Ambassador to the United States, and Washington Post correspondent Tom Ricks. They helped expand my understanding of “what is going on,” but left plenty of room for more questions and uncertainties.
Professor Hafez uses the catchphrase “Martyrs without Borders” for the growing trend of suicide terrorism. It seems most of those carrying out attacks are not Iraqis, but typically young men in their early- to mid-twenties from nearby countries. These young men, many from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, or Morocco, are often provided food, shelter and information by resistance fighters in Iraq.
Their motivations are hard to pinpoint. According to Hafez, the images of Abu Ghraib and “shock and awe” campaigns push them towards Iraq. Also, the “martyr” status associated with suicide attacks against occupiers makes the choice more attractive to young men.
However, most of the victims of these attacks aren’t occupiers; they’re usually innocent Iraqis, including women and children. In fact, Hafez argued, most suicide attacks in Iraq do not target the U.S., but rather Iraqi police and Shi’ite communities. While he acknowledges the ongoing conflict between Sunni and Shi’ites, he thinks it is overplayed in terms of suicide bombings. These attacks, instead, are strategically calculated to create disorder, enflame the sectarian conflict, and make people blame the U.S.
The Iraqi ambassador pointed out that suicide bombings, while not as frequent as other types of attacks, disproportionately affect security in relation to the small amount of money, manpower, and technology needed to create an attack. But beyond the physical damage, with each failed U.S. program and each suicide bomb comes damage to the campaign for “hearts and minds.” Extravagant, top-heavy programs currently funded by the U.S. lack impact on everyday life for Iraqis. Suicide bombings, on the other hand, are a painful and too frequent reality.
Baghdad is the epicenter of a global confrontation of ideas, and the majority of the people there are allies of the United States. The Ambassador insisted that the U.S. must engage them, and find ways to collaborate at a grassroots level. Iran ensures control and efficiency in its spending in Iraq by operating locally, within small communities. While the US may outspend many other parties in Iraq, it also must ensure that spending is effective.
As difficult as the problem is, the potential exists for the U.S. to improve how it understands and is handling such conflicts in Iraq. In the long term, no society will harbor a group that continually harms its own most vulnerable. And whether an average Iraqi sees U.S. forces and NGOs as allies or not, the groups perpetrating suicide attacks don’t offer ways for Iraqis to help themselves. The U.S., I think, can.
Hafez, the Ambassador, and Ricks all agreed that the justifications for suicide terrorism, especially targeting fellow Iraqis and Muslims, are truly empty. The U.S. can help Iraqis become their own best allies through education and training programs aimed at sustainable development, and helping expose the truth of martyrdom – and the Ground Truth it creates for Iraqi families, children, and society.