An Ominous Milestone in Iraq

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Spencer Platt / Getty

A U.S. soldiers wait in an alley while on patrol in Baghdad, Iraq.

Death had been taking something of a holiday in Iraq, but it seemed to come back from vacation with a vengeance on Easter, with ominous implications for American strategy. Sunday dawned in Baghdad's Green Zone with a barrage of mortars courtesy of Shi'ite militiamen. Several more mortars poured in throughout the day. Meanwhile, attacks across Iraq on Sunday killed dozens of people, including four American soldiers in a deadly roadside bombing in southern Baghdad. That last incident raised the number of U.S. military fatalities in Iraq to 4,000. While an American military spokesman pointed out that "no casualty is more or less significant than another," the timing of the ramped-up violence is telling. The trend comes as American troop strength — increased to implement the vaunted "surge" — continues to decline from heights reached in November.

For journalists who have covered this country through its darkest months, the barrage of mortars and the smoke plumes rising out of the Green Zone brought to mind Baghdad of a year ago, when the Iraqi capital was wracked by sectarian violence and terrorist attacks. For many Baghdadis, the violence served as a unnerving reminder that the improvements that have come with the "surge" are fragile, easily shattered. Said Mithal Alusi, a Green Zone resident and member of Iraq's parliament: "In a minute, in a second, just like that... we can fall into hell again."

After a sharp decline at the end of 2007, violence in Iraq seems to be on the upswing. The weekend's violence indicates that both the Sunni insurgency and the Shi'ite militias retain their ability and their desire to strike their enemies. The largest Shi'ite militia, the Mahdi Army, is observing a cease-fire and militia violence has fallen dramatically. But rogue elements of the organization continue to launch attacks against Americans. Sunday's mortars were launched from a Shi'ite enclave.

As often happens when Shi'ite militiamen launch mortars and rockets at the Green Zone, some of the missiles don't hit their intended target. Early risers in Karrada, just south of the Green Zone across the Tigris River, heard the distant rumble of a launch and then, seconds later, a crash that rattled windows and sent residents looking for cover. Karrada, home to a number of Shi'ite politicians, is often targeted by Sunni insurgents; Sunday morning it was the accidental victim of other Shi'ites. In an interview with the BBC, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, said that he believed that Iran was behind the assault on the Green Zone. Petraeus and the U.S. military have been blaming Iran's Quds special forces for masterminding Shi'ite militia violence against the U.S.

Across Baghdad, especially on the city's east side, the Mahdi Army continues to operate from de facto safe havens. The Americans cooperate with local leaders and cannot be too aggressive, lest they upset the fragile truce that has mostly held since the end of August. But as U.S. troops leave the Iraqi capital the balance of power may once again shift to the militia. The mortars were a reminder that the Mahdi Army is waiting the Americans out, not giving way to them.

Meanwhile, bombings killed dozens of Iraqis. In Mosul a suicide bomber drove into a military base and killed at least 13 police officers, according to the Associated Press. Mosul is the latest hotbed of insurgent violence. Seven Iraqis were also killed when a suicide bomber targeted a Shi'ite neighborhood in Baghdad. The tactics and the targets are both hallmarks of the Sunni insurgency. The American troop surge and the defection of some insurgent groups to the American side has put tremendous pressure on radical religious insurgent groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). American commanders still call AQI the biggest threat to Iraqi security. Just as their nemeses in the Shi'ite militias seem to have weathered the storm of the American troop surge, the Sunni insurgency has proven resilient as well. With reporting by Bobby Ghosh/Baghdad