Fourteen shot at a trading company. At least 90 kidnapped at other businesses. Bodies dumped nightly, bound hand and foot, some tortured. A new brand of violence — a deadly mix of organized crime and sectarian murder — is tearing at Iraq.
Its origins are murky. But the savagery has turned March into a pivotal month in the three-year war — a month of gruesome news, mixed with some good. A sharp decline in American deaths appears to be the payoff for handing more duties to the Iraqi army, leaving U.S. forces less exposed to attack.
At the same time, there has been the rise in the slayings of civilian Iraqis, the reasons for which are hard to find.
Not so many weeks ago, this was a conflict with straightforward, if brutal, terms. Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida terrorists used car bombs, roadside bombs, suicide bomb belts and sniper rifles to target U.S. troops, Iraqi soldiers, police and civilians — mainly Shiites, the newly ascendent majority after years of Saddam Hussein’s oppression.
Terrorism with different focus
Those groups still operate and still kill. But their war has been dwarfed by the shadowy and incipient terrorism stalking the capital of Baghdad and its adjoining provinces.
Or perhaps — as some Iraq officials believe — the insurgents simply switched their targets, moving from American and Iraqi troops to targeting businesses and Iraqi civilians as a way to cause chaos or to fund their work.
Either way, the staggering shift makes it difficult to predict how the U.S. military will or can react to the new climate of violence, and what it might mean for hopes to begin a troop pullout this summer.
Bombs still rattle the capital and elsewhere, but far less regularly. U.S. helicopters still thunder through the sky, darting here and there and raising a racket that disturbs sleep and sends packs of wild dogs into a howling nighttime frenzy.
The tanks in the streets these days aren’t American, by and large, but old Russian T-72s driven by Iraqi soldiers. Faces at military checkpoints are increasingly Iraqi.
Casualties: Fewer Americans, more Iraqis
As of Wednesday, 27 U.S. military personnel had died in March — the lowest monthly American death count since February 2004 and the second-lowest of the war, according to an Associated Press count.
Coincidental with the sharp drop in American deaths was the huge rise in the number of execution-style killings among Iraqis. Since the beginning of the month, at least 385 people — an average of more than 13 a day — have been found slain, the apparent victims of sectarian hatred and settling of old scores after a Shiite shrine was bombed Feb. 22.
The count climbs to at least 486 when the last six days of February are added, according to figures compiled from daily AP reports based on police accounts.
Also since the start of March, gunmen — mostly masked, many wearing police uniforms — have stormed at least six Baghdad businesses. On Wednesday, eight people were killed at the al-Ibtikar trading company when they were lined up against a wall and shot, and six others were wounded. At least 90 workers have been kidnapped and tens of thousands of dollars stolen in the five other assaults.
More killings execution-style
Execution-style killings and kidnappings of civilians happened before late February, of course — but not nearly in such big numbers.
In one rough accounting of the rise, for example, the AP reported 36 bodies found in Iraq in December, 150 in January and 195 in February. To date in March, the AP has reported 374 bodies found.
It is not always easy in war zones to separate criminal thugs from political thugs, and Iraq’s insurgency has always been made up of several disparate groups.
“These are concentrated efforts to paralyze the country. They are either from al-Qaida or from the remnants of Saddam’s regime. They want to tell the people that there is no government,” Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said after Wednesday’s attack.
“All these operations have one aim: to freeze life in Iraq and sabotage the democratic process. They want to take us back to the dictatorship,” said Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Khafaji, a deputy interior minister. He, too, blamed al-Qaida and said “we will work day and night to arrest them.”
The violence that has hit Iraqi businesses may be aimed at old-line Sunni business moguls. It could be the work of either common criminal gangs, or of death squads operating in or tolerated by the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry, which controls the police.
Organized crime may now account for a majority of the violence in the country, said Matthew Sherman, who just finished a two-year stint advising the Interior Ministry.
That, he notes, in a recent interview with an online publication of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, “really falls outside of what traditional military counterinsurgency operations cover.”
Across this critical month, meanwhile, Iraqi politicians struggled but failed to form a government that might — U.S. officials hope — help put a lid on skyrocketing sectarian violence. The successful creation of a unified central authority remains key to the hoped-for start of an American troop withdrawal this summer.
Yet compromise has proved impossible so far.