A Blast Hits Close to Home
On Sunday, a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest attacked a group of mostly Iraqi civilians outside the provincial Governance Center complex in downtown Baqubah, the volatile capital of Iraq's Diyala province. I know the site well -- I lived there, or 500 meters down the street at the police headquarters, for the duration of my tour in Iraq from 2005 to 2006.
Plus ca change. . . such attacks were much more common back then; they are increasingly rare now.
It is dangerous to generalize too much from one attack and impossible to discern any trends. At most, singular incidents can demonstrate a particular capability, like the use of a truck bomb to take down a bridge or the use of a female suicide bomber. In this instance, the Baquabah attack demonstrated that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia retains a few key capabilities: a pool of recruits ready to die as suicide bombers, the ability to swim like fish among the people, and the ability to build these kinds of explosive devices. But that's not saying very much, because they've always had those capabilities.
What's more significant to me is that this suicide bomber did not detonate inside the Governance Center compound, home to key Iraqi command nodes such as the Governor's office and Provincial Joint Coordination Center. (I'm not giving away any secrets -- Iraqi leaders regularly hold press and public events there.) Had the suicide bomber broken through the outside security cordon and hit one of those things, that would have struck a major blow. But she did not. Rather, it appears she blew herself up in front of the Governance Center, on Baqubah's main street, home to many shops and small businesses. The Iraqi security cordon did its job, although, in doing so, it diverted the blast into the crowd of civilians waiting outside of the Governance Center complex, making this a mixed outcome at best.
Despite this deadly day, we can still say with certainty that security has improved in Iraq, even in its worst areas like Diyala. But towards what end? And how long must we stay? How will we know when we can hand the mission over to the Iraqi government and its security forces? And how does our perseverance connect with America's interests? Is there a tipping point at which it makes more sense to go than to stay -- and is it possible that we've already passed that point? These are some of the questions I'm struggling with today.
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